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On 24 May 2018, India's most decorated and perhaps the most under-rated soldier, Lt Gen ZC 'Zoru' Bakshi passed away, largely unnoticed and unmourned. In 2015, while writing a book on the 1965 war, I had an occasion to meet someone who had seen then Brig Zoru Bakshi in action during one of his many legendary military exploits: the capture of Haji Pir pass. Here's an excerpt from that chapter. My small tribute to one of India's greatest military leaders.
Extracted from 1965: Turning the Tide
Haji Pir: Taking the battle to the Enemy
In April 2013, military aficionados gathered at London’s National Army Museum and voted the twin battles of Kohima and Imphal between the British Indian Army and the Japanese Imperial Army during April-July 1944 as Great Britain’s ‘greatest battle’ ever fought beating Waterloo and Normandy—two other decisive victories in war for Britain—to second and third place respectively. The voting was done by a select audience of military enthusiasts and not ordinary citizens. To that extent, it is subjective. But if the greatness of a battle is judged by its political, cultural and social impact, as much as its military impact then Imphal and Kohima were really significant for a number of reasons, not least that they showed that the Japanese were not invincible and that that they could be beaten, and beaten well. The battles of Imphal and Kohima saw the British and Indian forces, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General William Slim, repel the Japanese invasion of India and helped turned the tide of the war in the Far East.
India has fought four major wars (1947-48, 1962, 1965 and 1971), and a local conflict in Kargil (1999) since its independence. Many heroic acts and decisive moments in the glorious history of valour, sacrifice and team spirit displayed by Indian soldiers come to mind but if there is one battle that can truly be called a turning point in the overall context of a war, the vote should go to the conquest of the Haji Pir bulge under Operation Bakshi in August 1965. An important area for infiltration into Kashmir Valley and Rajouri/Poonch areas, Haji Pir Pass is located on the Pir Panjal Range at 2637 meters or 8600 ft on the road between Uri with Poonch.
As Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, who was Western Army Commander in the 1965 war noted: “Pak did exploit the peculiar configuration of the Cease Fire Line in the Haji Pir bulge, for launching the main influx of her infiltration campaign into the Valley. In addition to using this area for entry routes, huge stocks of arms equipment and supplies had been built up at several places in the Bulge for speedy administrative support of the various raider groups. The Haji Pir Operation was…intended to knock the logistic bottom out of the infiltration campaign as also to plug the entry routes of the raiders…”
The pass had to be captured since it worked as a lifeline for the saboteurs operating in the Poonch area. It was dominated by three adjoining hill features—Bedori (3760 m high), in the north-east, Ledwali Gali (3140m) in the north-west and Sank (2895 m) in the north. The capture of these features was considered necessary for advancing on to Haji Pir pass. Bedori is about 4 km to the south of the CFL while Haji Pir Pass is about 10 km to the South-west of Bedori.
Capturing the Pass was not going to be easy. Brig. ZC Bakshi, a veteran of the Burma campaign in World War II was Commander of 68 Brigade which was drafted in from Srinagar and placed under the command of 19 Division headquartered at Baramulla. As the infiltrators started pouring into the Valley, the Brigade was pulled into the conflict. Remembers retired Brig. Shamser Singh, who was then a young Signals Captain with barely two-and-a-half years of service in 1965: “On 4 Aug 1965, 68 brigade was asked to take part in the investiture parade planned in Srinagar for 15 August. Even as we were practicing for the event, we came to know on 7 August that infiltration had taken place across Pir Panjal. And sure enough we were put into action in Gulmarg two days later. Though the infiltrators had a tough time—no local support, no food, we were chasing them all over the place.”
As the anti-infiltration campaign picked up speed, there were fresh orders for the Brigade. Recalls Brig. Shamsher: “Somewhere around 14-15 August—I was just a company commander, OC of the signal company of the 68 Mountain brigade with less than three years of service--I felt some lull in the operation. We were pulled back from Gulmarg to a place called Pattan. Around 18-19 August my BM (Brigade Major)—the lynchpin of a brigade who coordinates between the commander and the battalions under the brigade-- told me: get ready for something bigger. The briefing (orders) took place at Rampur, the 161 Brigade HQ. We had nothing of our own paraphernalia. The original battalions under 68 Brigade were left behind where they were and we were given three brand new battalions: 1 Para commanded by Lt Col Prabhjinder, 4 Rajput, headed by Lt Col Sudarshan Singh (the same battalion which had captured Point 13620 and Black Rocks in Kargil in May that year) and 19 Punjab, commanded by Lt Col Sampooran Singh. Coincidentally, all three infantry battalion Commanding Officers (COs) were Khalsas. Even field regiment CO, Lt Col Shivdev Singh was a Khalsa and so am I,” Brig Shamsher reveals by way of an aside.
The COs met the Brigade Commander for the first time in Ops room at Rampur!
The Brigade Commander was Brig. Zorawar Chand Bakshi--PVSM, MVC, Vrc, VSM, McGregors Medal—the most decorated officer in the Indian Army ever but certainly at that time.
On 21 August his opening lines in the briefing for the operation were: “Gentleman, since 1947 we have cribbing that government does not allow us to attack, go into offensive but this time, we have been clear mandate to capture Haji Pir at any cost. Where I say at any cost a civilians may means 100 per cent casualties but I as an Infantryman, say only when you have had 40 per cent casualties, come back to me otherwise press home. In WW II, after my company lost 40 per cent strength we were prevented from pressing further. I don’t want that when I fought in WW II, it means if you have 40 per cent casualty come back to me otherwise press home.
“Ironically, our own battalion 6 Dogras were left behind in Gulmarg to mop up the infiltrators. So the plan was that D-Day would be 24August. The attack was to be two pronged: Sank-Sark-Ledwali Galli (right) on night of 24 and capture it by 25August morning. On left 19 Punjab was to capture Bedori by 9 am and Rajputs were to push through to capture Haji Pir by that evening. That was the plan. But as they say in the Staff College, ‘gentleman, this is my plan, but if everything goes according to plan, there is something wrong with this plan.’ Sure enough on 24th evening it rained so heavily that it was going to be impossible to launch the attack. I remember, I was wearing a blue turban. Its colour drained on to my face. So much so that Brig. Bakshi, jokingly said ‘have you camouflaged yourself with the blue colour!’ Anyway, the attack was postponed by 24 hours.”
“We went in on the night of 25th. 1 Para was to attack Sank-Sar, 19 Punjab to launch an attack on Bedori. On 25th night, 1 Para surprisingly could not contact the objective as they were ‘day lighted,’ meaning they were exposed in the open. In the mountains you cannot launch a daylight attack so they were pulled back. Similarly, with 19 Punjab attacked Bedori but they could not go beyond Pathri. The conditions were bad because of previous day’s rain, the slopes slippery. So the position on 26th morning was: 1 Para is stalled, 19 Punjab is stalled. And Zoru (Brig. ZC Bakshi) is sitting on Rustom picket, contemplating his next move, when he got a call from his course mate Hardev Kler, then a G-1 from 19 Division told him, Bedori has already been captured. Zoru was surprised. I was sitting with him. He told Hardev Kler, it can’t be. Then Kler said I will put you through to 161 Brigade Commander. 161 Brigade Commander was patched through and he also told Zoru ‘I have captured Bedori, what’s the problem?’ Zoru was still not convinced. Still he took the 161 brigade Commander’s word and told 4 Rajput to go an occupy Bedori to consolidate and let 19 Punjab press ahead since the ultimate objective was Haji Pir,” Brig Shamsher recalled.
Brig. Shamsher, now in his mid-seventies but still in possession of a sharp memory that recounts every moment of that momentous period continues: “In the evening of 26, that is night of 26-27th, as 4 Rajput advanced towards Bedori, they came under attack. Surprised at Pakistanis still being there, Rajputs asked for artillery fire on Bedori. Zoru did not allow that since he was told it was already captured. In the bargain, Rajputs took casualties and were stalled at the base of Bedori. When Zoru informed GOC 19 Div, Maj Gen (first name) Klan about the situation on ground, Gen Klan lost his cool. The GOC told Zoru, in that case, ask the Rajputs to press on and capture Bedori at any cost since it has already been announced on radio that India has captured the peak! Zoru refused. He told the GOC, ‘Sir if I tell CO 4 Rajput now to capture Bedori, he will mutiny. One moment we tell them it is in our control, the next we say go and capture! This is not on.’ So the situation on 27th morning was: Rajputs were stalled, 19 Punjab was sitting around doing nothing. Of course 1 Para meanwhile had done all right. They were in Ledwali gali by the morning of 27th.”
For 1 Para getting to Ledwali Gali was not easy. The attack was launched at 2230 hrs on 27th night by the B company followed the D Company which moved forward towards Point 9591 or Sank. The Pakistani troops rushed from their trenches and opened fire with MMGs, LMGs and other small arms. The Indians also opened up forcing the enemy back into the trenches. By 0430 hrs on 27th August, the B Company had reached within 450 m of the Pakistani positions and formed up to charge frontally. The daring platoon attack that followed, the Pakistani MMGs and LMGs were silenced. The Pakistanis were forced to retreat to Sar leaving 16 dead although they managed to evacuate 100-odd wounded soldiers. Despite the small tactical victory, the position was still not secure since a menacing fire from Sar continued to pin them down. So D company was tasked to clear the feature. It soon captured Sar and advanced to Ledwali Gali where Pakistanis made their last stand to allow safe withdrawal of their remaining troops. The B Company had meanwhile secured the surrounding areas.
Despite these victories against heavy odds, Haji Pir was still in Pakistani control. That’s when Brig ‘Zoru’ Bakshi took, what Brig. Shamsher thinks was the momentous decision of the 1965 war—and took it unilaterally! As he narrates What Zoru Bakshi did that morning of 27th August 1965, Brig Shamsher’s eyes are looking far back in the past, his face glowing with pride for being one of the prime witnesses to that historic decision.
He recounts: “A most historic and momentous decision was taken by Zoru in my presence. Very few can do that in any army, any era. After Gen Kler told him to take Bedori, and after 1 Para had reached Ledwali Gali, Zoru knew that the Pakis would have guessed by now that all the thrust by the Indians was for capturing Haji Pir pass. Zoru knew the Pakis would have reinforced Haji Pir by now and sure enough they had. The 18 Punjab (Pakistan) was rushed in to defend Haji Pir on the night of 27-28th. But as the man tasked to capture the vital pass, Zoru knew he had to press on with the plan despite mounting odds and in spite of the express orders of the GOC to first capture Bedori.
“So Zoru asked CO, 1 Para, Lt. Col Prabhjinder, who can lead a commando style operation on Haji Pir. Prabhjinder nominated Maj. Ranjit Singh Dayal. Ranjit Dayal was given a Company plus for the attack. Before Dayal started his operation, Zoru told him in thet Punjabi: ‘Agar te jit liya Haji Pir to tu hero ban jayega, ne to meinu wah kaid kar lenge ( If you win Haji Pir you will be a hero but if you can’t I will be arrested for taking a unilateral decision),’” Brig Shamsher remembers.
Maj RS Dayal, who rose to become a Lt General, was once again in the limelight in June 1984 when he was chosen—despite being a Sikh--to lead Operation Bluestar into the Golden Temple. But more of that later.
Maj Dayal was given a mixed column of A and D companies. It started the march to Haji Pir from Ledwali Gali around 1530 on 27th afternoon descending to the Hyderabad Nallah along the spur. It encountered MMG firing from the western shoulder of Haji Pir. Small arms fire also rained down on the column from the east of the Pass. So the FOO (give full form) registered the two areas and brought down artillery fire to silence the two positions (is this correct?). The column kept moving though down to the Hyderabad Nallah the two areas and brought down artillery fire to silence the two positions.
The column kept moving though down along the left bank of the Hyderabad Nallah alongside the hill before crossing over to the pass side and then start the ascent (see map). At about 1730, two hours after the column had started the march, heavy rains began, making movement very difficult. By 1900 hrs it was completely dark. But Maj Dayal decided to continue climbing towards the pass despite adverse conditions. As the troops were climbing, they came across what looked like an abandoned house but in reality was a shelter for infiltrators. In a swift action, 1 Para troops captured 10 members of the Azad Kashmir militia—a kind of para-military force—one LMG and 10 rifles. The captured prisoners were gainfully utilised to carry the extra load of the column, mainly ratio and fuel! As the troops reached the Uri-Poonch road, 10 km below the Pass, it was already 0430 hrs on 28th August. Maj Dayal decided to give a much-needed two-hour break to the soldiers although they had to rest in pouring rain which accentuated the cold.
At 0700 hrs, the column resumed the march. In another two hours, it was barely 700 metres short of the pass. Pakistani troops, perched atop the peak were surprised to see the column. They had perhaps thought that the Indians had abandoned the attack due to the heavy rain the previous night! As the surprised Pakistanis opened up with an MMG from the western shoulder of the pass and with LMG and other small arms from the pass itself, Maj Dayal had to think of outwitting them.
Zoru Bakshi briefing Gen Harbaksh at Haji Pir
After assessing the Pakistani defence on the pass, Maj Dayal tasked two platoons to climb the steep spurs from the Western side of the pass, silence the MMG and then roll down to the main defences. The supremely fit and confident paratroopers did the job exceedingly well, surprising the Pakistanis. As the rest of the column fetched up, the Pakistanis could not withstand the twin attacks and withdrew to a feature west of the Pass.
By 1000 hrs on 28 August Haji Pir was in India’s control, thanks to the daring day light attack by 1 Para troops under the bold leadership of Maj RS Dayal. It was to prove a major turning point in the 1965 war. The main infiltration route was now plugged from one side but more importantly the morale of the Indian army was now sky high following two major successes in Kargil and this one in Haji Pir against formidable odds. Remember these battle victories had come in less than three years after the humiliation against China.
Capturing Haji Pir was however only a partial completion of the overall plan. Pakistanis were known to counter-attack swiftly, so Haji Pir and its surroundings had to be secured. As expected, the Pakistanis did counter-attack on 29th but it was repulsed by the brave and efficient paratroopers. To further consolidate their position, 1 Para captured Ring Contour on 30 August and the adjoining Point 8786 a day later.
For his act of courage, innovativeness and leadership in capturing the Haji Pir pass despite very adverse conditions, Maj RS Dayal was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.
Brig. Shamsher recalls: “When we captured Haji Pir, there was one small incident I cannot forget. When 1 Para was going for its assault, I had sent a detachment of Signals headed by a Havaldar Pillai with a couple of radio sets which were short of batteries. So I had told the Signals men not to use the high frequency radio set unnecessarily and conserve the battery. I will call you, you don’t call was my instruction. But he called on the radio set after 1 Para had secured Haji Pir. So I scolded him, why are you wasting the battery, I said. So he replied, there is no problem sir. So I said what no problem. Havildar Pillai, pleased as punch said ‘Sir the Pakis have left behind many radio sets in full working condition besides lot of petrol and several tins of desi ghee!’
Meanwhile Bedori was still unconquered. Two attempts by 19 Punjab on 25 August and by 4 Rajput on 27August had failed. Zoru Bakshi and his battalion commanders realised they had no option but to assault the Bedori peak through the Bedori springs in the north-east.
How media reported it that time
So after reaching a place called Heman Buniyar at 0715 hrs on 28 August, the battalion moved to the Bedori springs, already secured by a neighbouring battalion, 7 Bihar and prepared for the final assault. At 0330 hrs on 29 August, 19 Punjab crossed the forming up place for the assault on Bedori. It involved a steep climb of nearly 600 m. After fierce hand to hand combat as well as a firefight, Bedori was captured in less than three hours. The B and C companies, besides a 3.7 inch Mountain gun played a major part in securing victory. The gun had apparently arrived just the previous night. Its firepower destroyed the Pakistani sangars (temporary bunkers) but also shattered the morale of the Pakistani troops. After securing Bedori, 19 Punjab moved through Kunthar di Gali and linked up with 1 Para on 1 September. The CO of 19 Punjab, Lt Col Sampuran Singh was awarded Mahavir Chakra for his un-daunting spirit, exceptional leadership and bravery.
However, had it not been for the bold leadership of Brig Bakshi (after whom the Operation was named). Haji Pir could not have been secured as quickly as the Indian Army did. For his bold, unconventional leadership Brig Bakshi was awarded Maha Vir Chakra.
I had written the piece below more than six years ago. The debt I owe to the fauj is immeasurable, not just because I report on it extensively but because many of the values I cherish and practice have been inherited from the ethos and tradition that the military preaches and practices in large measure. On Army Day 2018, reupping the article with a sense of gratitude. Many have probably read it earlier but no harm in reloading it for those who haven't.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
What the fauj and parents taught me
Last week, a friend in the Army, reacting to my latest documentary on the endless-and thankless-war that Indian soldiers fight in Kashmir, paid a heartfelt compliment by calling me a ‘soldier-journalist’. Flattered though I was for a moment, the remark also embarrassed me no end. For I have never donned the uniform. To me soldiering is the only profession in which men and women go beyond the call of duty and therefore deserve the highest respect in the society. To me soldiers are a breed apart. In my chosen profession of journalism, this attitude is regarded as partisan. Many feel I am blind to many sins of commission and omission that the armed forces personnel seem to indulge in these days.
The charge may be partially true but I am not ashamed about it mainly because our forces are still way above the rest of the society when it comes to upholding the values of honour, teamwork, professionalism, ethics and camaraderie. But let me also confess: the biggest reason for my soft corner for the forces comes from the fact that I too am a fauji kid and sub-consciously somewhere deep down I still live by a dictum one learnt as a kid: Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana (Do your duty to the best of your ability and don’t seek rewards).
When I look back, I realise that my father, who retired as a subedar major in 1982 and with him my mother, followed this practice in their daily life and passed it to us three brothers without making a song and dance about it. Throughout my 28-year career as a professional journalist, I have been fortunate that I could follow this principle without even realising that I was practicing what my father did all his professional life. Now, wiser and littlemore experienced than before, I am in a position to analyse some of the reasons behind the moderate success that each of us-three brothers-have managed to achieve in our respective professions.
Adaptability, my biggest strength, has been a second nature through our growing years thanks to the frequent transfers and constantly changing schools. In the 1960s and the 1970s, ordinary soldiers — and my father was one — had a tough life in the Indian Army. They lived far from their families, toiled hard for a pittance and yet possessed a dignity that is not found in an ordinary civilian. The soldier never complained, never whined and never expected anything in return for what he did. I changed eight schools in 10 years and studied in three different mediums- English, Marathi and Hindi before entering junior college in 1978. Sub-consciously, without ever preaching to us, our parents drilled a motto into us: “Take life as it comes.”
And we did.
We met the challenges head on. I remember travelling from Pune to Lekha Bali in Arunachal Pradesh by train in the late 1970s. It used to take us four days and five changes at Kalyan, Allahabad, Baruani,
New Bongaigaon and Rangiya before we could reach the destination.
Reservations were never confirmed.
Dad was never with us.
One lived by one’s wits and survived. Frequent transfers meant frequent dislocations and packings. And unlike today, there were no movers and packers in those pre-liberalisation days. So we learnt to adapt.
To be responsible for our actions. Discipline and punctuality was given.
Colleagues laugh at me when I start getting uncomfortable if I am late for an appointment. They laugh at the fact that I sleep by 10 pm and up by 5.30 am. But I know no other way. I mentioned adaptability earlier. My parents not only taught us how to adapt and accept but also practiced the principle. The biggest proof is my being a journalist. In the summer of ’83, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned.
I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30 and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold.
I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of combined defence services exam that December.
That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.
The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games from kabaddi to squash and from kho-kho to cricket as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held.
Five days later, they called me for an interview. With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 700 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday. At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me, “When can you join?”
My answer was, “Whenever you want.” He said, “Can you join, tonight?”
And I agreed to join that very evening. Then I became a journalist.
Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am. Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot.
My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a junior commissioned officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father
accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time was “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam.
My parents moved back to Pune soon after but again luck smiled on me. Neha married me in 1988 and continued to encourage me to take risks with life and with career. Never ever complaining that I chose to take up risky assignments touring deep into north eastern states, reported the Kargil war, the Sri Lanka conflict, when I could have played safe and remained a desk bound journo.
Today those risks have paid off.
I can say with a bit of immodesty that I can compete with the best in business without feeling inferior.
The urge to do better than yesterday comes naturally to the men in uniform. If I behave that way even now, it is thanks to my upbringing in a military environment. Despite all its faults and foibles, the military remains a vital part of my life for whatever I am today is thanks largely to the fauj and its ethos.
Just a month into office, Prime
Minister Narendra Modi had travelled to the ISRO (Indian Space Research
Organisation) facility to witness the launch of the PSLV-C23
satellite. In his speech after the successful launch, Modi praised the ISRO
scientists for their stellar work and then stunned them into momentary silence
by posing a challenge. “Today,
I ask our Space community, to take up the challenge, of developing a SAARC
Satellite - that we can dedicate to our neighbourhood, as a gift from India. A
satellite, that provides a full range of applications and services, to all our
neighbours. I also ask you, to enlarge the footprint of our satellite-based
navigation system, to cover all of South Asia.”
Initially, the assembled scientists did not know what to say. “We had
never done such a thing,” remembers an old ISRO hand. Modi reinforced this idea five months later, speaking in Kathmandu at
the SAARC Summit on November 26. He said, "India's gift of a satellite for
the SAARC region will benefit us all in areas like education, telemedicine,
disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication.”
In less than three years after the Prime Minister
challenged the ISRO scientists, they came up with the answer. On 5 May 2017,
the SAARC Satellite’ was launched from Sriharikota, opening a new chapter in
The 2,230 kgGSAT-9 is a Geostationary Communication
Satellite. Communication services from it will be shared with five neighbours
(Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives). It will help to meet the
growing telecommunications and broadcasting needs of the region. All
participating nations will have access to at least one transponder using which
they can telecast their own programming. The countries will develop their own
ground-level infrastructure. The satellite is expected to provide communication
channels between countries for better disaster management. Afghanistan is also
expected to join the group soon. As a scientist in ISRO says, “For smaller
countries, this is a dream come true. To lease a transponder, a lot of money
has to be spent. But here India has gifted them a permanent asset.” Apart from
the obvious use (telecommunication, broadcasting), leaders of these six
countries can have secure dedicated one-on-one communication through the VSAT
facility that the satellite provides, explained ISRO officials. The leaders can
also have a video conference between themselves if they so wished, thanks to
the South Asia satellite.
In a way, by dedicating a separate
satellite for the neighbourhood, Modi has taken his favourite theme of SabkaSaath, SabkaVikas, beyond India’s
own physical boundaries. An early example of helping neighbours through
satellites came in Nepal. In August 2014, a massive landslide blocked Sun Koshi river in Northern Nepal indicating the
possible formation of a lake. This created flood threat for several villages
downstream in Bihar.
swung into action, acquired the images and in consultation with India’s
National Disaster Relief Agency (NDMA) could get to exact location of
landslide, compute the extent of debris due to landslide and could come up with
a solution for controlled release of blocked water slowly, averting possible flash
floods in Bihar. This operation was made possible because ISRO now coordinates
closely with Inter-Ministerial
Group for Emergency management at the Centre. IMEG helped coordinate the relief
operation in Nepal and later in September 2014 in Srinagar too.
But that’s not all.
As ISRO Chairman K. Kiran Kumar sees it,“While
ISRO has always been a pace-setter in space application Prime Minister Modi and
NSA Ajit Doval have spurred us into taking our technology a step higher.” He
cites the example of ‘Island mapping’ programme launched in 2015.
Apparently in one of the meetings in the PMO
sometime in June 2015 Modi asked the number of islands India possesses. As
officials from MHA scrambled to get the exact figures from Survey of India,
some officials in the PMO itself tried to add up the number by getting the
figures from state governments and from the census records. But the figures
varied widely. It was clear that the records were old and not updated in years.
That’s when NSA Doval turned to ISRO. He asked
ISRO chairman Kiran Kumar if the space agency could help in determining the
exact number of islands. Kiran Kumar was quick to say yes. Remembers PG
Diwakar, currently Scientific Secretary to the ISRO Chairman: “I was then
in-charge of Remote Sensing Applications at NRSC. The Chairman asked me to
devise a quick method to map the islands around India’s vast coastline.” He got
down to work immediately with a hand-picked team. “We were asked to not just
determine the numbers but also look at their exact status, distribution and
area (of the islands). We were particularly told to recheck the status of the islands
that were on the Survey of India list from the British days. The fear was that
some of them would have gone underwater while some others would have sprung
up,” Diwakar recalls.
The unspoken apprehension behind the exercise
was the possibility of some remote, uninhibited island in Andaman-Nicobar
territory or around Lakshadweep or even in the Sundarbans being illegally occupied!!.
Security agencies were aware of how arms smugglers had used a remote island in
Andaman in 1998 to land a large consignment of arms meant for Burmese rebels
and tried to transport it across the Bay of Bengal to be delivered in Myanmar.
The agencies had foiled the consignment in well-coordinated plan under
Operation Leech in February 1998. Nearly twenty years later, the likelihood of
an uninhibited island being occupied by forces aligned to India’s adversaries
has increased manifold. The exercise thus had strategic implications too.
Once the number was determined, the ISRO team
developed an Island Information System that has 34 attributes (give details). The
Prime Minister was briefed about the system in October 2016. Since then, the NITI
Aayog, state governments and other ministries have started to draw up
development plans for 10 selected islands, five each in Andaman and Lakshadweep.
At the same time, ISRO satellites are
keeping a continuous watch on these island territories. A software that updates
any noticeable changes on these islands has since been developed too. So as
Diwakar and his team drew up the latest data base on islands, they came up with
new discoveries. “Says Diwakar: “This
work became very popular because we built this information system within a few months
and were able to demonstrate this to MHAand other Ministries that were involved
in the exercise. The Home Ministry had then called in many other ministries who
are relevant in this exercise and also needed this data. For example, the
Indian Navy and Coast Guard, the Census people, Environment & Forests and
the Survey of India officers, all came on board. What we did is we brought on a
common platform, an information system which can be used by multiple ministries.” For example, an IG of Police from Gujarat
told ISRO scientists that his force is now able to monitor vulnerable islands
close to the maritime boundary with Pakistan much more closely and take counter
The Island Information System apart, ISRO has successfully
launched CARTOSAT 2 Series of satellites that can provide sub-meter images
(spatial resolution of 65 cm) for monitoring purposes. ISRO is also building on
capabilities to acquire images from as far as 36,000 km up in the space and yet
give a resolution of about 55 m, at frequent intervals, empowering Indian
security agencies like the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) and
other intelligence arms to monitor real time activities of India’s adversaries.
Such a capability would also help in effective monitoring of major national
disasters in the country.
The Special Projects Division dealing with all
strategic requirements of the armed forces and intelligence agencies has been
reinvigorated. A senior scientist in charge of the Division works in close
coordination with the Deputy National Security Adviser to meet all requirements
in quickest time possible. So, for instance, while new and powerful ISRO
satellites are continuously monitoring India’s immediate and extended
neighbourhood as a matter of routine, a specific request like the one to hover
over areas in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the wake of the Uri attack in
September 2016 was handled by the Special Projects Division. For a week in the
run up to the surgical strikes in late September that year, ISRO kept a close
and specific watch on terrorist camps and movement of Pakistani army troops.
When Indian Special Forces crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and struck several
locations inside PoK, real time surveillance was mounted by ISRO both to
capture the assault and to monitor any threatening movement against the Indian
Special Forces teams.
In June and July 2017, at the height of a tense
standoff between India and China in Chumbi Valley just north of the Siliguri
corridor, connecting rest of India with the north eastern states, ISRO was
tasked with monitoring Chinese military activity in Tibet to determine if there
was any unusual movement of troops, tanks or aircraft. Besides, ISRO now
provides real time support to Indian Navy and Coast Guard to keep a close watch
on the long coastline as well as the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that
India has. Movement of Chinese survey ships, submarines and warships in the
Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal besides the Pakistani Navy’s forays into Arabian
Sea, in conjunction with the Navy, is now one of the important tasks of ISRO
following the new coordination mechanism established in 2015.
ISRO has in fact been continuously
launching a series of satellites, mainly for cartography purpose. Called the Cartosat
series, these satellites are mainly used for cartographic mapping the earth. So
they are useful for dual purposes—military as well as civil. Through the
Cartosat 2 series of satellites programme for instance, ISRO is helping derive1x4000
scale maps for better urban planning. As Kiran Kumar says, “the beauty of this technology
is that it is continuously available. One can take an image today, one can take
an image again, 15 days later, compare and monitor the progress of a project, a
building or whatever else. With two-time data, say between 2007 and 2017, we
can calculate the difference in height of a given building through stereo imaging
and three-dimensional mapping and calculations to establish building heights,
Mining related works or even new constructions.”
K Kasturirangan, former chairman of ISRO,
says "The space agency has a formidable suit of technologies and all are
suitably deployed with each user agency utilising the assets to their best
So while high resolution imaging satellite can help in urban planning it can
also monitor terrorist camps across the border. Kasturirangan says a satellite
image does not distinguish between friend and foe that interpretation rests
with the users. Kiran Kumar says, "The Indian space agency will not
be found lacking in helping secure India's national interests now and in
Speaking about the capabilities of this ultra-sharp satellite, Kumar said
"The Cartosat 2 series has a unique capability of capturing a 1-minute
video, which despite its enormous speed of 37 km a second, is able to focus at
a single point for a minute."
In addition, there were three other earth
imaging satellites Cartosat-1, Cartosat-2 and Resourcesat-2 that provide top
class imagery during day time. Going further, ISRO seeks to develop satellites
that have a resolution of 25 cm in the very near future.
Former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair says even China does not have such high
resolution satellites, the best China has is about 5-m resolution.
Nair says "India invested heavily in
space imaging technology and is now reaping the benefits." Nair
says right now India relies heavily on using Thuraya handsets for satellite
telephony but he hopes very soon the Defence Research and Development
Organisation (DRDO) will be able to deliver Indian handsets that are compatible
with the country's GSAT-6 satellite.
In fact Nair insists that in the upcoming GSAT 6-A, satellite telephony should
be made the bigger component.
While understandably much of the
resources are focused on land since India has hostile neighbours both on its
western and eastern fronts. ISRO has not forgotten the deep blue oceans that
surround India and they need to be protected as well. On a specific demand by
the Indian Navy, the Indian space scientists have already deployed a satellite
the Navy calls 'Rukmini'. This is a dedicated communications satellite which
helps the Indian Navy talk to its ships when they are beyond the visual range,
in a secure fashion.
a senior security manager summed it up: “Now ISRO has got strategically aligned
to India’s security requirements, thanks to the Eye-in-the-Sky. Earlier, it was
largely technologically focused.”
Another feather in ISRO’s cap is the Indian
National Regional Navigational System, meant for creating India’s own GPS
facility. Having put up a constellation of seven satellites which covers India and the
neighbourhood—up to 1500 km to the east and west of India’s shores—ISRO has
created a powerful system which is used for several important tasks including
creating India’s own GPS system. This constellation
of seven satellites was named as "NavIC" (Navigation Indian
Constellation) by Prime Minister Modi and dedicated to the Nation on the
occasion of successful launch of IRNSS-1G, the seventh and last satellite of
NavIC. Navic in Sanskrit is incidentally, a sailor.
All the satellites will be visible
at all times in the Indian region. While the first of the series of satellites
was launched in July 2013, the rest six were put into space between 2014 and
2016.ISRO spent Rs. 1,420 crores on building and setting up the seven NavIC
satellites in the orbit. Regarded as a precise system, comparable to US's GPS,
NavIC is capable of providing position accuracy of about 10 metres. India has
thus become one among a handful of countries, to have its own GPS. IRNSS
Or NavIC will provide two types of services, namely, Standard Positioning
Service (SPS) which is provided to all the users and Restricted Service (RS),
which is an encrypted service provided only to the authorised users. The indigenous system is
already up and providing services that is being tested and used a few
applications already. Says an ISRO
official: “From 2018, we need not depend on US GPS at all.”It’s a major
Based on the Indian GPS system, ISRO has tied up
with Indian companies—under Make in India projects--for manufacture of a chip
set. Once the chips are produced, they can be used for variety of purposes,
from defence to simple road navigation in the civilian sector. Several trials
have taken place of late. NavIChas started supporting the fisherman in coastal
areas. Says Kiran Kumar, “the first application (of NavIC) which we have
devised is given through a mobile App, a basic mobile. Once installed and
linked to the NavIC Device, a fisherman in say Gujarat or in Tamil Nadu will
get important services, like 1. Potential Fishing Zones (PFZ) information for
him to navigate to that point for fishing, 2. Weather alert, like thunders
storms, 3An automatic alert if his boat approaches international maritime
boundary. Otherwise, on high seas, it is difficult to make out where the Indian
area ends and other country’s begins.” Given the frequency of arrests of Indian
fishermen in Pakistani or Sri Lankan waters, NavIC must come as a big relief to
the fishermen community.
ISRO has already developed necessary Apps on
Mobile that will allow fishermen to download potential fishing zones in the
area before they launch the boat into the sea. Explains Diwakar: “Here, what we
do is we use the sea surface temperature and chlorophyll information, which
comes from the satellite data, Oceansat-2 is used here, both these are
integrated to determine an area which would have a school of fish, that around
this lat-long, the fishermen need not waste time in searching for fish as he
can follow the PFZ maps and reach the right place for assured fish-catch.” This
is in fact the first application based on NavIC, which is already in
Once tested and tried, the chipset may even
become integral part of every mobile handset in India to provide accurate GPS
to everyone, ISRO scientists now say. There will be multiple applications that
NavIC can be used for.
However, ISRO’s mandate goes much beyond
just helping India’s strategic sector. Chairman Kiran Kumar says the scope and
work of ISRO has expanded manifold since the Modi government has taken charge
in 2014. In fact, the Chairman of ISRO says under this government, the number
of ministries using ISRO data has gone up manifold. “From about 10-12
ministries in the past, we now have 58 ministries, including the tribal welfare
ministry (which one wouldn’t have thought would have any use of our data) have
a dedicated link to our data. That’s a huge difference.”
For example the Smart Cities & AMRUT projects
that the government has launched. ISRO provides 65 cm data, 1x4000 scale maps, to
urban planners for consistent and continuous planning and monitoring. ISRO’s
technology now gives a three-dimension imagery allowing urban planners to
record progress of a construction site. Project managers can now map the
progress of various construction activities by comparing earlier images with
the latest ones at a central place, on a dashboard. ISRO’s ability to map potential
ground water zones, provide acreage and production of major crops well before
harvest, monitor encroachments in forest in addition to mapping and monitoring
forest reserves, assess quality of land (whether it is fallow, a wasteland or
fertile), gives a handy tool to town planners. They can now plan to make
optimum utilisation of water, electricity, energy since the entire three
dimensional view of the proposed town or a city in progress is available. Once
a new city comes up, many of its basic civic functions can be controlled,
managed and utilised through a central system, thanks to ISRO’s technology.
Says Diwakar, “If I am a town planner, I would like
to optimally utilize resources in a cost effective manner, let us say, the
water, electricity and sewerage systems. I wouldn’t like to waste the precious
water. So you can completely control through ICT technologies on how you’re
going to distribute the water in a city. Through the computerised mechanism you
release the water to a particular area for a particular time, you auto shut-off
and close it since you know the amount of water the population is going to
consume. ISRO scientists say their technology gives an integrated perspective
and the ability to modify outcomes as and when required. For instance, they can
effectively do traffic management by using ICT because the control room has the
full picture and ability to monitor the amount of load on a given road and
identify choke points during different hours. Near real-time monitoring and
making real-time projections helps in better urban management. And at nights the
control room can even manage street lighting and control energy consumption of
a particular area based on traffic and use of public places. The control room
manager can switch on /switch off or even reduce the illumination for a certain
area if there’s no traffic, say after 12 midnight. In short, the Central
control room concept in a smart city can literally manage and monitor all the basic
amenities and facilities which are used by common citizens daily. Yet another
possibility of using “Internet of Things (IOT”, intermixed with space
technology helps in better management of smart cities. The capital of
Chattisgarh—Naya Raipur—that is moving towards smart city program is one of the
unique examples of marrying urban planning with space technology, ISRO
scientist point out.
AMRUT or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation
and Urban Transformation is another example where urban bodies (municipal
corporations, city councils) will be able to use geospatial technology for planning.
For example, urban planners can get the full picture at the click of a mouse
about the drainage situation, existing pipelines, allow them to check if space
exists for new pipelines to be laid etc. The authorities can also take a
comprehensive look at the green cover available in an urban setting thanks to
the ISRO eye in the sky and decide accordingly which areas to leave out for
construction, which to allot in case the land is found to be fallow or is a
wasteland with no hope of being used for agriculture purposes.
So wasn’t this being done earlier, I ask
the ISRO scientists. “Not at this level or with so much of coordination,” said
one of them in reply. Normally, it used to take four to five years for town
planners to finalise the city plans or even update them but now, working in
close coordination with Ministry of Urban Development the process is much
faster than before. The Ministry has modified the entire documentation with
respect to town planning, they have evolved new guidelines that uses space and
geospatial technology, so now the entire urban planning starts with a geospatial
base map, the base map given by the high resolution satellite pictures. The
satellite pictures combined with the existing maps gives full information on elevation,
type of land--waste land or a productive land—to enable faster planning. At the
moment, about 500 AMRUT towns and cities have been taken up and sought ISRO’s
help. Having tasted success, the authorities
now want to use the technology for all 4,041 cities in the future.
Explains Diwakar: “This is a procedure
we’ve put together. A client server system has been designed to be used by the
MoUD. All the services will be ‘e’ enabled services. All of them—water and waste management,
traffic system, electricity grids, housing numbers-- can be brought under one
roof and monitored in a dashboard. We are for example working with Naya Raipur
to make it one of the first modern smart cities in the country. The model should
be amenable to be emulated throughout the country.”
Planning smart cities apart, ISRO is
contributing in mounting surveillance on gas pipelines, geo-tagging all the
post offices in the country, helping tourism departments to come up with a
real-time information monitoring system and collecting data for municipal
corporations. The information of all 1.55 lakh post offices in the
country—including their location, status of road connectivity to each one of
them and even the services provided by them—is now available at one place, that
is Bhuvan Geoportal. Moreover the 3Dimensional imaging capability that ISRO now
has enables municipal authorities to monitor and compare data on building
heights. For example, simply looking at a residential building’s 3D image from
2010 and 2017—for instance—the civic authorities can calculate the number of
stories added to a building and accordingly come up with an estimate house tax
they can collect.
Similarly, for agriculture sector,
satellite imagery was used earlier too but over the past three years, the use
of ISRO satellites has gone up manifold. Says a scientist: “Our technology now
enables the agriculture department to estimate grain production much before the
harvest. Earlier we used monitor about eight crops, now the count has gone up
to 11 and also helping the ministry with Soil Health Card program in country in
addition to the Crop Insurance scheme to help the farming community. Moreover,
we have also included horticulture in this monitoring. The most important
change however is the use of ISRO technology to assess damage to crops in
drought hit areas or places that get excessive rains or flooding. This way the
government’s crop insurance programme gets implemented in double quick time. We
are actually able to provide almost real time data to enable the agriculture
department in assessing the need for crop insurance.”
Even the water resources ministry uses
space technology much more than before. Thanks to the new synergy, the Ministry
now gets the water spread information in all water bodies and reservoirs on a
bi-weekly basis through, says Diwakar. Every 15 days we get the picture of surface
water body in the entire country, he adds. This kind of data is automatically
processed and published on ISRO portal. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States
have launched a major program on water resources management using our
technology and the advantage of such bi-weekly data on water from space.
ISRO’s achievements are already formidable
but with growing use of space for defence and commercial purposes, its role is
bound to increase and it must therefore strive to remain ahead of the curve by
inviting India’s private sector to forge a beneficial partnership. As Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan,
senior fellow and head, Nuclear & Space Policy Initiative, at the Observer
Research Foundation says, “India has a
sizeable and talented private sector that must be brought in to maximize the
capacity to manufacture as well as launch satellites. Isro might need to do a
bit of handholding in the beginning but with a little help the Indian private
sector can contribute to India’s space growth story in an effective manner.”
Increasing private sector
participation part, ISRO will need to remain focused on India’s defence and
strategic requirements in coming years and contribute much more than before in
securing India through precise application of its capabilities even as it continues
to attain new heights in commercial application of space assets.
(From my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more)
As the new political leadership was briefed about the
impasse, MoD officials were told to try and break the deadlock as soon as
possible since the IAF’s fleet of fighter aircraft was depleting alarmingly.
So, during a meeting of CNC on 25 September 2014, Dassault
Aviation was told provide commitment on these two issues within 10 days. The
Company demurred. As no response was received they were again requested vide
letter dated 31 October 2014 that the requisite commitment may be provided
within a week. In their response dated 7 November 2014, Dassault Aviation did
not provide the confirmations sought by the CNC.
On 10 November 2014 meanwhile Parrikar took over as Defence
Minister. While being briefed about the major pending projects and contracts,
he realised that the MMRCA contract wasn’t going anywhere. Yet he wanted to
give the French sufficient time to comply with the terms of the tender.
In December 2014, the French Defence Minister came visiting
and as expected raised the issue of conclusion of contract negotiations in the
MMRCA case with Parrikar who told him that conclusion of the contract was held up on
account of the vendor not confirming compliance to the terms of the RFP. This
was followed up by a formal letter from Parrikar to the French Defence Minister
stating that it would be really useful for Dassault Aviation to confirm
compliance to the terms of the RFP and the terms of the bid submitted by them
at the earliest. It was further mentioned in the letter that the negotiations
can be carried forward and concluded thereafter if Dassault Aviation could be
asked to depute a fully empowered representative to discuss non-stop with CNC.
with the delegation of Dassault Aviation was held on 12 February 2015. A clarification
was sought from Dassault Aviation towards confirmation of compliance to the
terms of the RFP and terms of the bid submitted by them specifically. The two
crucial points, i.e. (i) the consolidated Man Hours (MH) based on which
Dassault Aviation had been declared L-1 would be the same man hours required
for license manufacture of 108 Rafale aircraft in India, and (ii) Dassault
Aviation as the Seller under the contract for 126 aircraft for the IAF will
undertake necessary contractual obligations as per RFP requirements.
The representatives of Dassault Aviation reiterated their
stand on both issues and stated that while Dassault Aviation will be
responsible only for delivery of 18 aircraft in a flyaway condition, they will
not take ownership for the 108 aircraft
to be manufactured by HAL as the Local Production Agency (LPA). On the issue
regarding Man Hours , the Dassault
Aviation representative stated that the
company’s stand has always been
consistent that the Man Hours indicated in their proposal correspond to the
related tasks performed in French Industrial condition. He also mentioned that
only HAL being the Lead Production Agency can talk about the factor of
multiplication to be applied to these Man Hours to convert the same to the Man
Hours required for license production of 108 aircraft in India. Clearly,
Dassault Aviation was using the loophole in the original terms of the tender to
get away with shirking its responsibility towards the quality of the 108 jets
to be manufactured in India.
Exasperated at the obduracy shown by the French company, MoD
issued an ultimatum in on 20 March 2015 asking it to fulfill the commitment and
confirmation on the two aspects mentioned above, ‘failing which MoD may be
constrained to withdraw the RFP issued.’
However, Dassault Aviation, in its response dated 24 March
2015, did not commit on the two aspects mentioned above. Instead, the French
Company stated that the estimate of consolidated Man Hours given by them is to
be used by HAL to prepare its own quotation with respect to the completion of its
(HAL’s) tasks under the MMRCA. The MoD realised that applying a factor of 2.7
on the Man Hours quoted by both Dassault Aviation and EADS (the company that
quoted the second lowest price), the Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA), as on
November 2011, would undergo a material change to the extent that Dassault
Aviation would have no longer remained L1 vendor and would have become L2
As the CNC members took the matter to Parrikar he realised the
process had been convoluted to such an extent that, it would have been
impossible to take it forward. He however knew from the briefings given by the
IAF, there was no time to lose in acquiring fighter jets. The number of
effective squadrons was going down rapidly. The IAF leadership also told him
that they were happy with Rafale’s performance and would rather have the
fighter in its fleet than scout of other options. Parrikar realised that
another round of MMRCA kind of competition would have taken enormous time and
effort. So he took the matter to the Prime Minister and briefed him about the
necessity of procuring the fighter. At the same time, Parrikar told Modi, it
would be legally untenable to go through with the MMRCA contract since the
process had got vitiated completely thanks to Antony’s indecisiveness and a
crucial oversight in the original terms of the contract.
Under the circumstances, there was no alternative but to
withdraw the original tender, Parrikar told Modi since the CVC (Central
Vigilance Commission) guidelines provide that negotiations cannot be held with
the competitor who has come second in the contract (L2 vendor in officialese).
The only way, the defence minister suggested, was to scrap the tender and buy a
minimum number of Rafale jets off the shelf to fill a critical gap in the IAF’s
inventory. The Prime Minister agreed and decided to talk to the French
President about such a possibility during his upcoming visit to Paris in April
2015. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) also gave its approval to the new
proposal before Modi left for Paris on 9 April 2015.
That evening, alerted by a source about the possibility
India scrapping the MMRCA tender and going in for off-the-shelf purchase of
Rafale jets, I scooped the story on my blog NewsWarrior (www.nitinagokhale.blogspot.in), 10
minutes to midnight on 9 April, almost 22 hours before Modi’s announcement of India deciding to buy
Rafale jets off the shelf was in Paris. I however got the numbers wrong. My
report said India would buy 63 Rafale directly from Dassault Aviation.
Eventually, Prime Minister Modi announced in Paris that
India would purchase 36 aircraft. Shishir Gupta of the Hindustan Times was closer (as far as numbers were concerned). But I had the satisfaction of having reported about such a possibility before
anyone else in the world, a fact that gives reporters an unimaginable high. Once
our stories (Gupta’s and mine) were out, other news outlets started confirming
the possibility. Most reports on 10 April 2015, waiting for the announcement to
be made by Modi and Hollande, quoted my blog post and Gupta’s report as the
source of the initial information.
India’s decision, announced at a joint Press Conference
between Modi and then French President Francoise Hollande on 10 April 2015,
took everyone by surprise but under the circumstances, the Prime Minister had chosen
the best possible solution.
Once the in-principle decision was taken, it was left to
Parrikar and his team in the MoD to negotiate the eventual price for buying the
36 jets. Their confidence bolstered by the PMO, the Parrikar-led MoD drove a
hard bargain with the French. But it wasn’t until another 15 months later—in
September 2016-- that India finally signed the contract and got the
state-of-the-art fighters at a competitive price.
Rafale Vs 126 MMRCA Package Comparison
As the contract was signed, inevitable comparisons about the
costs India was paying for the 36 jets and the 126 planes India was supposed to
have bought under the MMRCA deal, began.
The final negotiated price for 36 Rafale package, along with
initial consignment of weapons, Performance-based Logistics (PBL), simulators
along with annual maintenance and associated equipment and services was fixed
at 7890 million Euros. The average unit
cost of Rafale aircraft thus turned out to be 91.7 million Euros (going by the
Euro-to-rupee conversion rate at the time of signing the contract it meant each
aircraft would cost Rs 688.30 crore and not Rs 1500 or Rs 1700 crore quoted by
some analysts). In any case, officials involved in the nitty-gritty of the
negotiations pointed out that the package cost of 126 MMRCA and 36 Rafale cannot
be directly compared to work out per unit cost as the deliverables in the two
cases were quiet divergent. Obviously,
the CCS, briefed in detail about the absolute necessity of procuring the Rafale
jets for the IAF and the cost comparisons, did not hesitate for a moment to
clear the proposal, Parrikar remembers. “I must give full credit to the
negotiating team for having diligently worked out all details to get a good
bargain and the Prime Minister’s total trust in us” Parrikar told me.
What the former defence minister doesn’t mention however is
his own steadfast belief that the cost had to be negotiated to India’s
advantage. Recalls a senior IAF official involved in the hard bargain with the
French: “It was Mr Parrikar who backed us to the hilt and even held firm in the
face of tremendous pressure applied by the French when their President
(Francois Hollande) was in Delhi as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade
in January 2016. Mr Hollande was keen to sign the MoU, inclusive of the
finalised price, with our Prime Minister while in Delhi. We negotiated through
the night until 4 am but the price Mr Parrikar thought was still high. So he
took the matter to the PM and requested him to sign the MoU without mentioning
the final price, which Modi promptly did. So on 26 January 2016, India and
France signed a MoU for India to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets. Newspapers reports
the next day said the 9 billion dollars deal would take some time to be
finalised. It took another eight months for the contract to be signed. The team drove a
hard bargain and obtained a hefty discount. As I wrote on my website, www.bharatshakti.in: “The MoD-IAF negotiating team
extracted many concessions and discounts to arrive at a price that is almost
750 million less than what was being quoted by the French side in January 2016,
when the commercial negotiations gathered pace, almost seven months after Prime
Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s intention to buy 36 Rafales off the
shelf from France during his trip to Paris in April 2015.
“To bring down the cost, the Indian team asked
French officials to calculate the deal on actual cost (Price as on today) plus
European Inflation Indices (which varies like stock markets and is currently
around 1 per cent per annum). The MoD has also capped the European Inflation
Indices to maximum 3.5 per cent a year. In other words, if inflation Indices
goes down (chances of it going down are more, looking at the current situation
of European markets) India will have to pay less. Even if it goes up India will
not pay more than 3.5 per cent increase.
“In the now scrapped process for buying 126 Medium
Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) floated the confusion reigned supreme in
calculating the cost of the contract. After the French Dassault Aviation—makers
of the Rafale Jet—emerged winners the UPA government had agreed with French
officials to calculate the price on the fixed cost formula that allowed the
company to include additional price of 3.9 per cent Inflation Indices from day
1 of the deal. So, had the India gone ahead with the UPA deal and the European
Inflation Indices had fallen (as it indeed has), India would have ended up
paying additional cost of inflation Indices (@3.9 per cent) which was already
added at the initial negotiation itself.”
The lower price apart, the Rafales that IAF will operate
will have a weapon suite much superior to the ones proposed in the earlier
case. They will include Air to Air weapons METEOR Beyond Visual Range Missiles
with ranges more than 150 Km, MICA-RF Beyond Visual Range Missiles with ranges
more than 80 Km and MICA-IR Close Combat Missiles with ranges more than 60 Km.
The Air-Ground weapons include SCALP missiles with range in excess of 300 Km.
The induction of METEOR and SCALP missiles will provide a significant
capability edge to the IAF over India’s adversaries.
The Rafale for IAF will have 13 India Specific Enhancement
(ISE) capabilities which are not present in the Rafale aircraft being operated
by other countries. Three capabilities pertain to Radar enhancements which will
provide IAF with better long range capability. One of the specific capability
being acquired is the Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) through which the IAF pilots
will be able counter many threats simultaneously. Another very significant
capability enhancement sought is the ability to start and operate from 'High
Altitude Airfields'. The 36 Rafale aircraft are to be delivered to the IAF
within 67 months after signing of the Inter-Government Agreement. This delivery
schedule is better than the delivery schedule proposed earlier by the French
side by five months.
But buying the aircraft is only the first step. After the
initial purchase, the effectiveness of any aircraft is in the speed with which
it can be repaired and ‘turned around,’ that is readied for another mission the
moment it returns to base. In that respect, the IAF could not have negotiated a
In MMRCA case, the
initial PBL support was to be for five years for one squadron. In 36 Rafale
case, the PBL is for five years for two squadrons with an additional contractual
commitment for another two years with the base year prices kept intact. In the
earlier proposed contract, the computation of PBL performance had considered
cannibalisation of components from unserviceable aircraft. The Indian side was
able to remove this clause without any additional cost. The PBL Agreement now
stipulates that the company will ensures that a minimum 75 per cent of the
fleet will always be available for operations. Moreover, Rafale has lesser
turnaround time as compared to other fighter available. The Rafale aircraft can
do five sorties in a day as compared to other two engine fighter aircraft
available which have a sortie generation rate of three per day.
Rafale was the biggest of the
complicated cases that the MoD resolved but there were other crucial pieces of
equipment that India needed and needed as soon as possible. So all the hurdles
in purchases of artillery guns (M-777
howitzers from the US), attack and medium lift helicopters for the Army
(Chinook and Apache helicopters from the US); frigates and mine counter-measure
vessels for the Navy and Akash missiles for the Air Force, were removed in double
(Excerpted from my book Securing India: The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical strikes and more)