Ban on 101 defence items is a step towards achieving self-reliance

| Updated on August 12, 2020

The import ban creates a clear and addressable market for domestic and global producers to make serious bets on creating research and manufacturing capacity in India

The Centre’s announcement last week of a “negative list” of 101 weapons and military equipment and platforms whose imports will be progressively curtailed over the next five years marks the first concrete step forward in actualising India’s stated ambitions of becoming not only a major arms manufacturer but a significant exporter as well. While the ‘Make in India’ thrust in defence is not new — India had called for achieving 70 per cent self-reliance in defence requirements as far back as 1990 —we have made little headway in actually achieving that goal. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his intentions clear during his first term in office and the Defence Production Policy of 2018 not only set a goal of becoming self-reliant in major platforms by 2025 but also an ambitious target of achieving $5 billion in defence exports. But various systemic shortcomings and policy roadblocks have ensured that these goals have remained more statements of intent than reality. India continues to be strategically vulnerable because of its heavy dependence on imports — between 2014 and 2019, India was the world’s second biggest arms importer — for not just advanced armaments and technologies but even basic equipment. The recent scramble to acquire high altitude gear like cold weather uniforms, arctic tents as well as assorted arms and ordnances to counter the escalated threat from China on the Ladakh border exemplifies the gap between the advances India has made as a manufacturing hub for civilian requirements and as a defence producer. While India’s government-led research and development efforts have a few successes to boast of, like the Light Combat Aircraft or the missile programme, the mammoth Defence Research and Development Organisation, with its 52 labs and thousands of scientists, has not been able to propel India into the major league of arms producers. On the manufacturing side, the equally massive Ordnance Factory Board, with 41 units and over 100,000 strong workforce, has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines on critical projects, besides suffering quality and efficiency challenges. On top of this is a painfully slow and complex procurement process which has, in the past, been repeatedly shown to have been compromised by vested interests and corruption.

In this background, the import ban creates a clear and addressable market for domestic and global producers to make serious bets on creating research and manufacturing capacity in India. However, while the list is impressively wide-ranging, covering everything from bulletproof jackets and incendiary helmets to guided missile systems, light combat aircraft and attack helicopters and submarines, the very specific nature of the bans — towed artillery guns of X barrel length and Y calibre, for example — makes one wonder whether future requirements might be ‘tweaked’ to keep the import market going.

The key to making the latest “atmanirbhar” initiative work, however, will rest on how closely India’s defence establishment works with external suppliers and how well the Centre is able to clean up and speed its procurement process.

Published on August 12, 2020

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