Critical Gaps in Atmanirbhar India
Vrinda Kapoor

Atmanirbhar Bharat requires much more than just local sourcing- and that local sourcing itself is a function of availability of indigenous technology. This remains the most critical gap in the realization of Atmanirbharta which is so necessary for our defence and other national security concerns, especially in respect of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

After years of attempting to develop homegrown critical technologies, our broad analysis shows that challenges in this regard can be narrowed down to two related issues that exist.

For a critical technology ecosystem to thrive various agencies need to work together towards a common goal. There needs to be objectivity, transparency, and trust between these agencies in the entire effort as development and production partners. In India this bridge of objectivity, transparency and trust needs to be strengthened. There is a degree of mistrust that overshadows these relationships in the development continuum and much of it comes down to a turf war. As far as development of technology goes, it is fortunate that a large start up ecosystem has come up in the country. This must be encouraged, protected, and nurtured. To take the technology to reasonable maturity and place the best capability in the hands of the armed forces, it is important that the funding agencies should encourage and liberally fund the startups even if one of academia or public sector companies or DRDO labs has the mandate in the same area. There could be multiple paths to developing the same technology and all such paths should be pursued in order to hasten the development of niche technologies for the user. The ultimate goal would be strong, self-reliant military- and that goal should supersede all other considerations.

In fact, the correct way forward for a healthy “development continuum” is that critical technology development should be encouraged from a combined effort of startups and academia, which would get developed into components and sub-systems by SME’s (Small and Medium Enterprise) and then finally get integrated into a platform design by DRDO1 to be manufactured by the likes of Bharat Forge, L&T, Tata, Mahindra, DPSU’s, etc.

Having witnessed a successful technology development being integrated into a successful component or system that finally ends up in a platform- it is equally critical to avoid unnecessary competition in these very niche areas. The final market for these systems is too small to support investments from multiple players. Even in a country like the US which has a very mature defence industrial base and where Government spending in defence is orders of magnitude higher; there is only one Lockheed Martin and one Raytheon. Similar checks and balances exist at Tier 2 and Tier 3 supplier level to ensure profitability and economies of scale. The Indian automobile sector has also seen market forces push in the same direction and thus the question of why the Indian defence industrial base cannot follow a similar pattern.

The second, related issue is our financial policy- which needs to be increasingly synchronized and harmonized to the present “Innovation Era”.

The financial interpretation and appreciation of the critical importance of innovation needs to be increased as well as the requirement of it requires to be internalized. Hence be a facilitator of the velocity of the vision of defence innovation. The financial rules and policies must aim to reflect certain dynamism of the challenges faced in the innovation process and how funding for hi tech development will differ from that for manufacturing or product integration. Further, the fear of failure and notion of “loss” of money spent on research needs to be reassessed and be accommodative of the process of development but not primarily focussed on black and white financial outcomes. The financial rules and policies and its interpretations should have an understanding that R&D in its very nature could result in a wide variety of outcomes and all those outcomes need to be accepted. This must be made clear as a strategic mandate and a national goal that capable private small businesses/ MSME’s and startups are allowed to blossom. The cost benchmarking, L1, reluctance to execute single vendor tenders due to “process adherence”- are processes which need to be reviewed. If a company or a startup has invested time, effort and money into developing a niche technology or excellence in a specific field- they are rewarded with no procurement pathway. The entire financial process of the Ministry of Defence will have to be innovated to become conducive to innovation- and this financial overhaul if initiated at the top most echelons will become the cornerstone of Atmanirbhar Bharat. In the current circumstances, it would be best if our financial advisors are restricted to their domain understanding, viz. the availability of budget and correct implementation of financial procedures. On technical and subjective issues, the responsibility should lie exclusively with the CFA.

Another aspect is that the Financial Advisors need to hasten the movement of files as well. Unspent R&D budgets of Competent Financial Authorities must be questioned when a nationwide mandate for increasing R&D expenditure with private sector has been given by the political leadership. The Govt. bureaucracy and Armed Forces must be closely monitored and questioned using digital platforms like Gati Shakti to avoid delay in movement of files. And all of this needs to be done on a war footing.

  1. In our assessment, it is largely DRDO (for most major systems)/ HAL (for helicopters) which has the capability through its cluster of laboratories and programmes like ATVP, IGMBP and ADA to undertake platform design, develop specifications for various major systems/ sub-systems and there after integrate into a prototype. Technology development however, is not specific to particular systems and has dual and multiple uses. This latter effort should be delinked from specific systems and should largely be in the domain of academia and start ups working together. System and platform designers should be on the lookout for indigenous technology development and prioritize integration of the same.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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