At ease with grease

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General Deepak Kapoor may seem like a terrible aberration. But Brijesh Pandey finds the rot runs deeper in the army

Caught in action When he was army chief, Gen Kapoor opened his office to wheeler dealers
Caught in action When he was army chief, Gen Kapoor opened his office to wheeler dealers
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

AS THE saga of General (retd) Deepak Kapoor and Company unfolds, the nation is traumatised by the crumbling of a pillar it still believes in, by and large. Can the country still bank on this institution to keep the borders safe as well as rush in to save the day when there is a natural calamity or civil strife? Does the rot go deep or is it confined to a few aberrations?

It was in 2001 that TEHELKA’s seminal exposé on corruption in defence procurement — ‘Operation Westend’ — graphically laid bare the dangerous spread of the cancer of corruption in the higher ranks of the Indian Army. But instead of launching a no-holds barred clean-up act, the establishment and the army encouraged a witch-hunt against TEHELKA. The then NDA government used the State machinery to hit back. The gunfire was clearly misdirected, for it created an enabling environment for corruption to grow, as seen in the indictment of senior officers in corruption cases in the past five years. An opportunity to put the house in order was wasted.

As the decade closes, there is now a darker cloud over the army. But there is also a silver lining made up of several strands: that whistles were blown, that other officers went by the book trying to expose embezzlements, that Courts of Inquiry (CoI) scrupulously did their job, that court martials were proposed. And now, hopefully, thanks to the unsparing glare of media exposure, the establishment will fight to regain the stature and pride of place it enjoyed until a decade ago.

There’s a compelling reason why the defence establishment — which includes politicians, bureaucrats and military bureaucrats — needs to stop the tide of corruption. By 2015, India would have spent Rs. 2.21 lakh crore on what consultancy firm KPMG terms “one of the largest procurement cycles in the world”. Leading global defence manufacturers are flocking to Delhi for a slice of our defence spending. Indian firms too stand to gain contracts worth Rs. 44,299 crore. The scope for kickbacks and grease money are obvious.

Three months ago, Patrick Choy, chief marketing officer of Singapore-based defence firm ST Kinetics, blurted out what is known as the emerging truth for foreign defence firms operating in India: “It’s come to a point where I wonder about ST Kinetics being driven out of the Indian market by frustration. We cannot simply continue with something that appears like a black hole.” His firm, reportedly blacklisted during Kapoor’s tenure, was in competition with BAE Systems for the Rs. 13,289 crore 155-mm gun contract.

Kapoor has become an object of hatred for armymen and women, serving and retired, with good reason: it is said that he didn’t just pocket a few kickbacks, he allegedly invited the entire evil axis of corruption — politician-contractor-police-bureaucrat — into the office of the army chief. He did this by letting it be known within political circles that he is pliable and ready to use his office to share the spoils. Some officers blame his predecessor General NC Vij for starting the slide.

A PART FROM the scope for making money under the table in equipment purchases, there is immense opportunity in the prime land owned by the armed forces, which is coveted by real estate sharks backed by politicians. This is where the defence establishment could stand firm, or succumb to the neta-broker combine. Other officers are outraged. “It hurts like hell,” says Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi, when asked about the Adarsh scam. In fact, when the Maharashtra government gave the building the operational certificate, Western Naval Commander Vice Admiral Sanjeev Bhasin wrote that the skyscraper poses a security threat to the nearby naval base and sought action against the promoters and officers involved since 2003.

Photo : AFP , Deepak Salvi

Kapoor and Vij feigning ignorance about the fact that this society was meant to house Kargil war widows did not cut much ice with their own fraternity. “A senior officer saying he didn’t know that the flats were meant for war widows? What nonsense. Then they are unfit to hold that rank,” says Major General (retd) SCN Jatar.

His scepticism is borne out by facts. When Kapoor applied for the Adarsh flat in 2005, the membership rules were clear: an aspirant should have lived in Mumbai for 15 years. To get this waived, he wrote to then CM Vilasrao Deshmukh, who obliged him with a domicile certificate. His salary slip submitted with the application showed an income of only Rs. 23,450 per month. When his attention was drawn to the fake slip, he expressed surprise.

Equally damningly, Trinamool Congress MP Ambika Banerjee, in a letter dated 5 August, had written to the defence minister that Kapoor had assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. “There’s a flat in Dwarka Sector 29, three flats in Gurgaon Sector 23, one flat in Gurgaon Sector 42/44, a flat in Gurgaon Phase III and a house in Lokhandwala in Mumbai,” she revealed in her letter. Kapoor had met Defence Minister AK Antony to deny this allegation.

The shock of all these skeletons tumbling out is so profound that former army chief VP Malik says, “Nothing has hurt the army as much as this latest scam as far as corruption is concerned.”

But the trail goes all the way back to the Sukhna land scam in which Kapoor was perceived as going soft on Lieutenant General Awdhesh Prakash, his military secretary. To recall the story: a private educational institution, Geetanjali Educational Trust, was allowed to purchase 70 acres near the 33 Corps in Sukhna. Investigations revealed the involvement of several top officers, including Lt Gen Rath, Lt Gen Halgali and Prakash. How serious was the damage can be gauged from the fact that Rath was all set to take over as deputy army chief and Prakash was one of the eight military advisors to the army chief with the most enviable charge — promotions and postings. General VK Singh, the current army chief, was then GOC-in-C of the Eastern Command and headed the COI constituted to probe charges against all four. The COI found them guilty and it recommended that Prakash be sacked. However, Kapoor stepped in and recommended that only administrative action should be taken against him. This caused so much commotion that Antony had to write a letter to the army chief asking for a court martial.

That’s not all. In 2006, Maj Gen Malhotra of the Ordnance Corps floated a proposal for purchase of tents worth Rs. 16 crore. It was said in the proposal that there was an extreme shortage of tents and they should be purchased using the special financial powers of the Area Commander. The file then went to Major General General Staff (MGGS) of the Northern Command, who wrote on the file, “Are we going to spend the army’s special financial power for buying tents which are supposed to be supplied by Ordnance?” What was surprising was that three months after that rejection, Malhotra again moved a proposal recalling that he had proposed the purchase three months ago and said that the troops are suffering because of tent shortage. This time, the MGGS signed the file without a murmur. Kapoor also gave his nod.

By 2015, India would have spent Rs. 2.21 lakh crore on ‘one of the largest procurement cycles in the world’

After that, Kapoor moved over to army headquarters as vice-chief. On the day Lt Gen HS Panag took over as commander, he found an anonymous note apprising him of the tent scam. On investigation, it was found that tents were not even needed. A COI under Maj Gen Sapru found that Malhotra was guilty of siphoning off Rs. 1.6 crore. Panag issued an order that would stop Malhotra’s future promotions.

Panag had no idea that he had stirred a hornet’s nest — Kapoor had by that time become army chief, and ordered Panag’s transfer to the Central Command in the middle of his two-year tenure. Panag met Kapoor but was curtly told that transfers were his prerogative. Panag also met Antony. “It was clear that Kapoor was rattled but then, between an army chief and an army commander, Antony chose the chief,” a retired officer said on the condition of anonymity.

This incident is cause for much heartburn in the army, as it is unusual that an army commander is moved in the middle of his tenure. Further blows were dealt to the defence establishment when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on defence services for the year ended March 2007 tabled in Parliament indicted the then Northern Command chief for misusing powers delegated to him for special operational requirements.

TEHELKA CONTACTED Kapoor several times to get his version. On the fifth call, he refused to rebut the charges against him. “There are a lot of things going on and I would not like to comment,” he says.

What a mighty fall this has been for a respected institution can be gauged from the fact that till 2002-03, the thought of court martialling an officer of the rank of major general was considered to be a rarity. In 2010, names of former chiefs are figuring in scams. The fall has been precipitate. Apart from these headline-grabbing scams of the past five years, there are others in almost every department of the army. Be it Supply Corps or Ordnance, top officers were busy siphoning off money. :
• In 2006, a COI found Maj Gen Gur Iqbal Singh Multani, four brigadiers and seven other officers guilty of sale of military quota liquor in the open market.
• In 2006, Lt Gen Surendra K Sahni, a major general, two brigadiers and eight other officers were found guilty of massive irregularities in procurement of ‘certain items of dry rations’ for soldiers in Jammu & Kashmir.
• In 2007, a COI indicted Lt Gen SK Dahiya Brigadier DVS Vishnoi and three other officers for alleged irregularities in the operation of the ‘frozen meat contract’ for supplies to troops posted in the highaltitude Ladakh sector.
• In 2009, 41 officers were found guilty of selling their ‘non-service pattern’ weapons for personal use in the grey market.

So, what made these senior officers shift from first gear to fourth in such a short span, when it came to corruption?

According to Maj Gen (retd) Afsar Kareem, “These kind of things happen when the top leadership is weak and corrupt. The culture is that everybody looks up. If the man on the top is clean, nobody down the ranks dare do anything. But if the chap at the top looks the other way or himself is involved, or his honesty is not fully established, he fails in every respect, be it war or peace he is not fit for the army. But by then, because they help each other, they get promotions, they get decorations and this develops a nexus if left unchecked.”

Most senior army people agree that a general doesn’t become corrupt only when he attains that rank. The question that logically arises then is: How does a guy who is corrupt rise to that level?

At fault is a promotion policy based on the whims and fancies of the top echelons of the military and politicians. “If you are clever and you are dishonest then you have a better chance of promotion than being honest and professionally competent, unless the people at the top recognise that and unless the government plays a part,” says Kareem. “The government generally likes to put an yes-man in that position. And the man who has much to hide is always a yes-man.”

Maj Gen AK Kapur had a net worth of Rs. 41,000 when he joined the army in 1971. By 2007, his net was Rs. 5.5 crore

A senior officer confirmed TEHELKA’s suspicion that the Adarsh and Sukhna land scam are merely tips of the iceberg. “The real scam happens in the procurement department,” he said. “First there is the Army Supply Corps. We have 13 lakh soldiers. Now if we spend Rs. 50 per day on one soldier’s food, the daily budget would be Rs. 6.5 crore. Imagine the kind of money involved and the potential for siphoning it off.”

Then there is Ordnance, which supplies everything, from socks to weapons. Its annual budget is Rs. 8,000-10,000 crore. Tellingly, throughout 2009 the corps had no chief as the three eligible officers were facing graft charges. Maj Gen AK Kapur (according to the chargesheet), had a net worth of Rs. 41,000 when he joined the army in 1971. By 2007, his assets had grown to Rs. 5.5 crore. He owns 13 properties in Delhi, Gurgaon, Shimla and Goa.

Maj Gen Anil Swarup, who was officiating commandant of the College of Materials Management, Jabalpur, has also been found guilty of irregularities in the purchase of items for a unit headed on a UN peacekeeping mission. He inflated prices, CWG style — 100-KVA generators available in the market for Rs. 7 lakh were bought for Rs. 15 lakh, cables sold for Rs. 300 were got for Rs. 2,000. The same firm that supplied shoes to a Delhi school for Rs. 700 supplied to the army for Rs. 1,200. This Rs. 100- crore loot continued from 2006 to 2008.

After Supply and Ordnance comes the Military Engineering Service, which also works for the navy and air force. Its annual construction budget is at least 10,000- 12,000 crore, with buildings and airstrips perpetually under construction. In this, 10 percent commission is regarded as ‘legitimate’. All of these scams require a nexus with defence and finance ministry staff.

IF THIS brazen corruption continues, soldier morale and consequently the security of the country comes under threat. “It erodes the command and control chain. After all, military leadership is inspirational,” says Maj Gen GD Bakshi. “I can’t tell a soldier: I will give you a Rs. 5,000 bonus, please go and die. But he goes and dies for a Rs. 5,000 salary because it is for the honour of his country, his unit.”

A senior officer adds: “Below the rank of colonel, there is no corruption — if you leave aside procurement department or minor incidents. As people get independent, get more power, they start alignments with their bosses and this is when they are moulded as one of the corrupt lot. They don’t sign the main contract but remain in the shadow of their bosses.”

Several officers believe that this rot can be stemmed in time if the army makes an example of those indicted, as it was in the Sukhna land scam. According to Maj Gen Jatar, “In my opinion they should have been stripped of rank. They have no business to be called generals and retired chiefs of the army or navy. Lower ranks must see that even former chiefs are not spared.”

To get rid of the plague, serving and retired army personnel agree that it’s time for extreme action. You have to sacrifice a limb in order to save the body — otherwise, watch one of the most magnificent institutions crumble before your eyes.

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