The Government of India’s decision to disband the Army Base Workshops and Ordinance Depots ostensibly as suggested by the Lt. Gen. Shekatkar Committee has virtually stirred a hornet’s nest. There are many who think that the MoD has taken the decision in haste, without taking all the points-of-view especially that of the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers. Former DGEME Lt. Gen. N. B. Singh speaks his mind to Taazakhabar News. Excerpts from the interview:
Question: Why we are disbanding the army base workshops? How will it affect the army – the Corps of EME in particular? And what do you think is the logic behind it?
Answer: The logic behind it can only be told by the people who drafted the report and made the recommendations. To my mind, it is basically a lack of awareness about the operational significance of the work done by the Army Base Workshops. So why exactly this is being done is something which I will not like to answer. But this seems to be due to lack of understanding.
Question: What is the motive behind this? Is it that the MoD wants to get the ABW’s directly under their control as they have done in the case of Military Dairy Farms?
Answer: No, I don’t think so. In the United Kingdom, the Army Base Repair Organization is under the control of the Defense Ministry. Here, possibly I think that it is more driven by the people who are at the helm in the army because anything similar is not being done in the air force or navy.
Question: Do you think we have not learned our lessons from the 1971 war where air force lost about one aircraft a day because of lack of operational fleet and lack of spares?
Answer: Well I am not aware of what happened in 1971, but I’ll give you an example of the Railways which is running the largest fleets of trains. Do you think that it would be possible without the support of Engineering? Somebody has to work behind the scenes to keep them operational and enable these trains to run 24×7. The same is the case with Air India or any other airlines. How are they doing it, without very sound Engineering, Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul (MRO) organization working behind the scene? Today Air India’s MRO setup is world-class. Similarly every armed force — be it an Airforce, Navy or Army needs a fairly large MRO setup, without which it will never be able to take part or sustain in an operation. Every time there is troop mobilization like Op Parakarm people suddenly realize the need for the Base Workshop network but forget about it – once it is over.
Question: I believe Gen Shekatkar Committee made some 168 recommendations but the Government accepted only 68 recommendations and ordered the report to be kept confidential. What do you think was the need for this selective selection, and the recommendations which didn’t suit the government was quietly swept under the carpet?
Answer: I will not fault the government because a study report is at liberty to submit 100, 200 or 300 recommendations. But it is for the service headquarters to analyze and sift out the recommendations that can be accepted without compromising the operational requirements. My knowledge is that the Air force and Navy acted wisely in this regard. But I believe that the top brass in the Army was responsible for this move to privatize the Army Base Workshops. But we should not forget that the army base workshops repair and maintain tanks and other armament fitted with the latest missiles and communication system, would you want all this information to be known to all and allowed to be compromised?
Question: When the private sector comes in, they would like to determine the price which will always fluctuate with the demand?
Answer: Absolutely. We have the example of the Gulf War. The contractors jacked up their prices and maintained that they were at liberty to charge whatever they wanted.
Question: Do you think that the private sector is really in a position to take over and run the ABW’s?
Answer: No, I don’t think so. We should learn a lesson from what is happening all over the world. Some small countries that went in for this have reverted back. Also, most of our systems are imported and the knowledge and expertise to repair and maintain them is available only with the EME no one else.
Question: The question is — whether the private sector is ready for this switch? Firstly you don’t need MBA’s to fight a war – Abdul Hamid, Jadunath Singh or Milkha Singh were not even graduates. On the other hand, the MBA’s who joined the private sector did not want to blacken their hands or wear a danger before going under the hood to repair a vehicle. Even otherwise do you think TATA’s and Ashok Leyland would like to shut down their factories to repair or modify old and worn out army vehicles which may not be as profitability as other ventures?
Answer: No, in fact, if TATA’s and Ashok Leyland want to repair and maintain these vehicles I don’t think that the corps of EME or the Army should have any problems. Their problem is for the repair and maintenance of the UAV’s, helicopters, missiles, guns, and tanks. Who will repair your cutting edge weapons and equipment and keep them in a battle-ready condition? This is something that an army has to do itself. You can’t just outsource and expect someone to leave everything and step in to repair 8000 tanks, helicopters and some 3000 guns that don’t work. This is a simple fact which many people don’t realize it yet.
Question: Did you also experience the problem of shortage of spares, during your tenure as DGEME?
Answer: Yes there was a perpetual shortage. In my opinion, we have to follow what is being done in the Air force or Navy and armies all over the world which have single-point accountability, which means that the spares are being provisioned and procured by the person who needs it. This way, the money will be spent where it is needed and you have an adequate budget for your crucial requirements.
Question: Today our Airforce is purchasing old and discarded aircraft from France and other countries to use the serviceable parts to revive the Jaguars?
Answer: I am not aware of such cannibalization. This kind of repair is generally done in extreme emergencies or war. I would not recommend such a thing in peacetime
Question: During the Kargil War, our troops are understood to have discarded their own weapons and caught hold of Pakistani guns to fire back at them?
Answer: I don’t know. But yes I heard that something similar happened in 1962 during the Chinese war. I also do remember that in Kargil the failure rates of Bofors gun were really high because it was a very old weapon. As a result EME craftsman had to go to the Gun area to carry out repairs. In fact, one of our HMT (Havildar Major Technical) lost his life while repairing a Bofors gun in Kargil.
Question: Do you recall any other such instance about the role played by EME in a warzone?
Answer: In the 1962 war, EME was asked to hold a piece of ground for a short period of time till the troops moved in and occupied Chushul. But more than that, when troops move into battle –EME’s soldier craftsmen are required to ensure that the tempo of operations continues. In mechanized warfare, there may be two or more EME forward repair teams traveling in tracked vehicles with the combat team to carry out repairs and ensure that any breakdown does not hamper their movement or firepower. Same is the case of helicopters which are doing such a fine job in Siachen. In the base camp, you will have at least 7-10 EME technicians who go to work early in the morning ahead of others to ensure that the choppers are airworthy. I really don’t understand why this is not well understood.
Question: Is it because though everyone is in the same Army and wearing the olive green – in reality, they can’t forget that they belong to Infantry, Ordinance, Armoured, EME, or Signals? Whatever arms or services they may be from – they only know what they do and hardly anyone bothers to appreciate the hardship or significance of another arm or service?
Answer: Yes, I tend to agree that maybe in the last two decades or so this kind of a silo mentality has emerged wherein people may are not willing to accept the contribution of the other fraternities. They need to understand that irrespective of the line-yard or cap-badge of Infantry, Armoured, Mechanized, Artillery, Signals, or EME they all these cogs in the same wheel and need to work in sync otherwise on own they will not be able to do much.