By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)
The other day I was reading about our vaccination program. It was to save India from the extreme debilitation of the Chinese virus. When the time of reckoning came the cupboard of the ‘pharmacy of the world’ was found bare. I also saw an interesting article on cricket in which an Australian player said that India can produce two ‘equal’ national teams of international calibre. Something even Cricket Australia could not produce at its heyday. This made interesting reading. On one hand we have a model of stupendous success. On the other hand we have a stupendous failure which has made us an international laughing stock. I wondered. How is it that our tremendous vaccination potential ends up dismally and we keep rising in cricket. My mind wandered to our defence procurement. On reflection some issues fell in place. I would like to share them for what they’re worth. Draw your own conclusions.
India eradicated polio in 2011(https://www.nhp.gov.in/world-polio-day_pg). Each of our states has carried out mass immunisations when there were no apps, computers or even phones to communicate. WHO draws lessons from India’s Polio elimination efforts. (https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/3/09-072058/en/). Others study our program for their mass immunisation. (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-05-india-polio-vaccination-valuable-insights.html). When vaccination time came we had a ‘Digital India’ ‘Co-Win’ app and modern planning with rehearsal but no vaccines. Why? We did not learn from our successful history. Our vaccination against the ‘Chinese Virus’ is similar to our defence establishment which has also not learnt from its past. Our litany of victories suggests that when the time comes India struggles to confront or deter its enemies. Always underprepared. We rarely implement reforms which were identified or needed. We have always emerged victorious against our enemies after great sacrifice and cost. Whatever is happening with the virus and vaccinations is the same as what is happening with defence procurement. Only the timelines are compressed and accelerated in vaccination. Costs are even more astronomical. Right time to drive home points to ourselves.
Throughout last year it was celebrated that India had the biggest vaccination production capacity. The Prime Minister’s visited the SII and Bharat Biotech production facilities in a blaze of publicity and assured the nation that ‘All is well’. When the time came to vaccinate…it came to light…even orders were not placed or advances given! Vaccines just vanished from sight. This is action replay of a much publicised visit to an international standard, indigenous armoured production facility and a celebrated ‘Atmanirbharta’ tank ride. Orders? Poor follow up in both cases. Lots of photographs. No Vaccines. No Guns. Can’t blame the PM alone when his staff lets him down.
We can mass produce vaccines under licence – Covishield. We made our own vaccine – Covaxin. Very good one at that. India is one of the few countries in the world to have its own vaccines besides USA, China, Russia and EU! Fantastic. We needed only one good vaccine in adequate numbers to protect all. We launched our possible ace – Covaxin with such poor ‘strategic communication’ or conviction that it kick-started vaccine hesitancy and induced doubt. We did not ensure that its technology and formula is given to others to maximise production in time. We could have also helped and ensured that Bharat Biotech ramps up production. We embark on ‘Vaccine Maitri’ and export without adequate staff work. Again, when the time came, we a had a good vaccine and a good formula with one company and idle capacity all over India. Everything in total mismatch. Result. No Stock. No vaccines. We want to import! We do not control internal costs. We cannot imagine integrated production. Where have all the vaccines gone? All this is well known. Nothing new. Further we want states to import competitively. We give it to people at three different prices. Tragic. All these faults are not only political. It is the way ‘babudom’ operates.
Similarly, we have two indigenous guns, Dhanush and ATAGs (https://theprint.in/defence/covid-production-quality-concerns-delay-induction-of-desi-bofors-dhanush-by-army/670189/ and https://theprint.in/defence/israels-athos-gun-system-or-atmanirbhar-atags-defence-negative-list-to-finalise-next-week/666695/). Top of the line. Modern. Maybe with some problems. Surmountable. Our political , bureaucratic and military disarray ensures that we cannot get over the problems. All was going well when late Mr Manohar Parrikar was around. Now? We want to import 400- 1500 guns from Israel. Just imagine importing guns when we have complete technology and two guns in final stages. In fact, in the case of Dhanush, production orders have been given after extensive trials! Importing guns will end ‘Atmanirbharta’ for forthcoming decades besides sorting out our economy.We will again be the laughing stock internationally. How about getting our hands dirty and getting Dhanush and ATAGS into the right shape to suit us? How about amending plans to take advantage of indigenous technology? How about going in for cost discovery and control, sharing technology and integrating production capacities ? Just like we have a costly Covaxin in inadequate numbers, we have two guns which we cannot order! We must have the vision or sense to adopt an integrated PPP mode.
Analyse ‘vaccination hesitancy’ beyond the Covaxin faux pas. ‘End of virus’ announcements all over the world convinced us that we are safe and do not need vaccines. So people hesitated. By the time the virus stuck us, even those of us who could have been vaccinated continued to hesitate. Then ministers pose with bearded quacks who publicly trash vaccines to promote alternate therapies which promise cure from the Virus. These therapies further enhanced vaccine hesitancy. Then come exalted urine and dung therapies propounded by elected and unelected gurus of occult practices and wisdoms. Vaccine hesitancy increased. It was a massive self-goal, by the those in power – elected and unelected. Same thing happens in defence – day in and day out. Most proposals are scrutinised by all kinds of bureaucratic quacks and advisors to induce ‘procurement hesitancy’ in the system with all kinds of dire prophecies and consequences. End result. The DAC approves proposals and its constituent departments shoot it down to close the case. Na Karo, Na Karne Do.
It was not as if we did not know that the second wave was coming. The SUTRA model predicted it. No one bothered about its inputs. We had already declared victory over the virus. So we went ahead with the Kumbh Mela and elections. We might not have believed in the SUTRA model. However we could have taken some anticipatory actions as events progressed as per its forecast, which was coming true. It would have softened the impact and saved us the blushes. In hind sight the Virus is behaving as per a predicted pattern! Same thing happened with the Chinese. We entertained Xi Jinping on the banks of Sabarmati and on the sands of Mamallapuram. All the while he was giving indications of altering the LAC status quo through face-offs’ in Depsang and Chumar! We did not heed the salami slicing model. Doklam was the ‘first wave’. We felt we had achieved victory when we stopped them and were busy chest thumping. Then came the ‘second wave’ at Eastern Ladakh. Caught us with pants down. Chest thumping turned into chest beating till Galwan jolted us into action. Eerie resemblances?
States are asked to procure their own vaccines. When was it done ? When the central government gave up. States floated their own RFPs/ tenders. Every international manufacturer refused to even entertain them. So back to central tendering and procurement. One crucial month lost. However states, even now, have to procure vaccines at different prices competitively. Compare this with how Services have been running around procuring UAVs. First individual services procure UAVs from a single source – competitively and disjointedly. Then a joint development program starts which has not delivered for two decades. Then individual Services procure some UAVs through special powers. Then all Services are expected to procure jointly. However QRs are not formulated. Then they squabble with each other. Nothing happens. Then we want to import. We veer towards start-ups. Suddenly we go for leasing. This entire story is as disjointed as my narrative. Ultimate result. People are dying for lack of vaccines. Services are blind for lack of UAVs. Chinese are sitting in our laps.
Let us turn to cricket. We were the weak boys of cricket. We had brilliant individuals who rarely played together as a team in the 70’s. There were regional quotas. Politics dominated. We regularly lost to Pakistan. We were known to be a poor touring team. We went through a chastening period of match fixing. Somewhere a process was put in place and we transformed. Now, Indian Cricket is on the high table of International cricket having emerged as one of the BIG THREE along-with England and Australia. It is not on the high table due to its financial clout but due to performances also. After all in two weeks, India will be playing the final of the World Test Championship. I have analysed what we could learn from cricket in an article titled Straight Bat Defense (https://www.gunnersshot.com/2019/06/straigt-bat-defense-by-lt-gen-p-r.html ). What are the highlights?
Cricket administrators and political heavyweights, cutting across party lines gave a vision to Team India – to be world beaters. World Cups in 1983, 1985, 2007 and 2011 taught us the values of team ethos and effort. ‘Team India’ emerged, where the individuals don’t matter. The team and nation matter more. A professional system and process were put in place. BCCI invested in infrastructure systematically. Revenues were ploughed back guided by knowledgeable professionals. Cricket bureaucracy was infused by capable ex-players. A direct connect between the political office bearers of cricket and the players was established. Accountability was brought in. Poor performances meant axing. Good performance were rewarded. Fakes were discarded. Cricket took to technology like a duck to water. Ball Tracking, Snickometer, Stump cam and mikes, electric bails, Heat maps, DLS, and weather prediction are based on disruptive technologies – Thermal Imaging, AI based algorithms, Drone Surveillance, day night sensors, sonars and so on. Last but not the least. Strong and committed leadership kept the team’s preparation and performance high.
Overall , I think there is a lot to learn from cricket. The existing system of vaccination and defence procurement represent a national malaise. We need a professional approach. The current model of leadership or bureaucracy or both have let the nation down. We need to seriously think of a professional bureaucracy. When a defence secretary cannot make out the difference between MES and Combat Engineers, we are in trouble. When we promote quacks in place of science we are in trouble. The other day, I saw the replay of the 2011 world cup when India beat Australia in a pulsating quarter final at Ahmedabad. The then CM of Gujarat was up in joy and congratulating all around him. I also felt the pride in the PMs congratulatory message to Team India when it beat Australia in Brisbane against all odds. It is indeed perplexing that why would he not adopt a winning model by jettisoning a losing one? There is still time for ‘Change’ and rectification. Intent is the issue. Otherwise….No Vaccines – No Guns will continue. The salami slicer on our door step has both with deeper pockets. That is the bigger problem.
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda