Make in India: the lion is whimpering

A lion reaches maturity at about three years of age and by four, starts displaying predatory propensities and challenging and displacing other lions. The Make in India programme is four years old and its metaphorical mascot, the lion, instead of roaring to scare away competition from other prides, is struggling to emit a decent whimper.

Self-reliance in defence production has been a desirable but tenuous objective of the Indian establishment for decades, but without apt and necessary steps being taken in that direction. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision, too, includes all-embracing self-reliance. He verbalised the Make in India vision in August 2014 and launched the programme on September 25 that year. The phrase has been a veritable sloganeering device since then, and it is rare to see any daily newspaper edition without at least one allusion to Make in India.

To promote the programme, Modi inaugurated the Aero India Show in Bengaluru in February 2015 (only the second time ever that a PM did so). More recently, Modi inaugurated DefExpo 2018, the last edition of the show during the present government’s tenure. Its theme was ‘India: The Emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub’ and Modi’s parental pride in the Make in India programme was apparent in his speech.

One of the 25 sectors Make in India incorporates is Defence Manufacturing; four other sectors (Aviation, Electronic Systems, IT and Space) also overlap with defence manufacturing in some way or the other. One of the laudable objectives of Make in India was to increase indigenous manufacturing share of the GDP from 16% to 25% by 2022, and the other was to create 10 crore jobs by that year. On both these counts, the progress has been dismal.

Indeed, the non-creation of substantial numbers of new jobs has been talked about in the media frequently while Make in India’s incremental contribution to GDP has been unremarkable. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce issued a report last year raising questions on the impact of Make in India and also on its implementation process.

DefExpo 2018 harped on the ambitious objective of turning India into a manufacturing hub for military equipment. The objective of achieving a turnover of Rs 1.7 lakh crore and exports of Rs 35,000 crore in defence goods and services by 2025 was brandished continually and this projection is also lodged in the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) 2018, released as a draft just ahead of the event. However, a policy is not a plan.

What is required is strategic planning down to brass tacks on how to achieve dazzling targets and objectives. That kind of strategic planning is visible neither in the Make in India National Manufacturing Policy nor in the various areas that the programme is flaunted, flagged and sloganeered. Noteworthy results are not yet discernible. That is not to say that there is no achievement at all in Make in India’s repertoire, but the results are slow, although they indicate some progress in the right direction.

Poor performance

The biggest single impediment to India achieving Modi’s vision is the inexcusable performance of the public sector, mired in bureaucratic wrangles. Around 6% of the national defence budget goes to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and another 1% to Ordnance Factories.

The productivity of DRDO’s 51 laboratories (manpower 31,000) and 41 Ordnance Factories (manpower 77,000) is disappointing, despite the colossal investment (past and ongoing) into their infrastructure and manpower. Leading edge military technology has remained enticingly out of reach for our manufacturing industry while DRDO has made barely credible claims.

At an elaborate ceremony during DefExpo 2018, DRDO handed over eight “key technologies” to Indian industry. Subsequent analytical write-ups in the media disclosed the fact that all eight were either already under manufacture or had been handed over at similar events in the past. One of the success stories of the Indian public sector is the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and it is mentioned here to highlight the cause of its success — that it worked directly under the PMO and was spared the clutches of the Indian bureaucracy.

In contrast, the private sector is moving up the learning curve, has much higher efficiency and productivity levels, and is raring to have a go at Make in India. The fact that India is globally the third largest procurer of military arms and equipment should have provided the driving motivation that is not yet manifest.

Modi’s personal patronage and demonstrated pride in the Make in India programme are keeping it going, albeit at an agonisingly unhurried pace. If Make in India is to reach the laudable intent of self-reliance, encouraging and nurturing private participation is the way forward. Existing policies that patronise and protect the public sector’s inherent inefficiencies have proved fruitless in the past and are a recipe for disaster in the future.

(The writer retired as a Group Captain in the IAF and is former Senior Research Fellow, IDSA)

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Make in India: the lion is whimpering

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