By Sudhanshu Mohanty
I must confess upfront that I was somewhat amused to read Arun Prakash’s article, ‘Agenda for the Raksha Mantri’ (IE, September 13). As a retired IDAS officer, a former controller general of defence accounts (CGDA) and a former financial adviser, defence services (FADS), in the MoD who demitted office last year, let me put things in perspective.
Democracy functions through the principle of separation of powers and a system of checks and balances to uphold the rule of law. In India, the executive, legislature, judiciary and the fourth estate (media) operate within legitimate bounds to perform such roles. The role of financial officers is putatively adversarial (not my words but that of eminent commentators) but their functions are necessary to ensure due diligence of the taxpayers’ money. But despite a robust mechanism to checkmate unholy impulses, the country has witnessed several scams — most notably the AgustaWestland helicopter scam in which the former Chief of the Air Force, S.P. Tyagi, was jailed and charge-sheeted. There are middlemen galore in the MoD; doubtless they function with the connivance of insiders.
Prakash is right that most bureaucrats in the MoD lack expertise and domain knowledge; this shortcoming, no doubt, needs to be addressed. Bureaucrats with no idea of the vast defence ecosystem must have their first stint at the deputy secretary/director level — not as joint secretary, where the high work pressure leaves little time to learn. Training at the Defence Services Staff College and National Defence College too will help.
But Prakash’s vision appears blinkered when he talks about the IDAS officers functioning as “Integrated Financial Advisers (IFAs)” in the MoD. Their role, as per the finance ministry’s order of June 1, 2006, goes much beyond assisting in “budgetary planning” and in “expediting financial decision-making”. They examine issues from a financial perspective in order to ensure value for money and improve the quality of expenditure. Their role is akin to that performed by a chief financial officer in a corporate structure. They are responsible for ensuring fiscal prudence and sound financial management. The IFAs are crucial for the successful planning and implementation of various schemes/projects and are responsible for ensuring budgetary integrity. I concede many IFAs fail to comprehend their role well and tend to act as merely auditors. But it isn’t wise to deride the role of the financial advisers and throw the baby with the bathwater. The need to place the right IFAs through a transparent system can’t be over-emphasised.
The role of the MoD’s finance division does not involve “lying in ambush as auditors” and “waiting for someone to make a mistake before pouncing”. Audit — including internal audit — is a distinct responsibility that the IDAS officers and the defence accounts department discharge as an aid to defence management. This is always done ex-post. While it’s essential for bureaucrats to understand the defence ecosystem, it’s equally imperative for the services to acquaint themselves with the civilian bureaucracy’s ecosystem and appreciate government orders.
Prakash is also wrong in saying that there is “an acute lack of military expertise in the MoD and an absence of collegiate consultation between civilians and service HQ”. From my experience, I can say that at every stage, including budget-making and delegation of financial powers, there are discussions and dialogues galore. This is apart from the structured collegiate decision-making in the contract negotiating committee for procurement of capital and revenue items. The responsibility for delay, when that happens, should hence be shared by all — not the MoD alone.
But this is not just about differing perceptions between the civil and defence bureaucracies. The MoD has, in the recent past, pointed out several cases of glaring abuse of personal entitlements (leave travel concessions/official tours, disability pensions) by senior service officers. In such cases, the services headquarters has not exactly measured up to the impeccable standards it pretends to have set. Over time, these cases have become sore points in the relation between the MoD and the service headquarters.
In a mature democracy, the MoD and the service headquarters should not be pointing fingers at each other. They should work together under the direction and superintendence of the political leadership, the people’s representatives.
Indian Express, September 19, 2017