The three unions of the 41 ordnance factories, functioning under the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) located in Kolkata have announced a month’s strike commencing on 20th Aug to project their disapproval to orders for their corporatization.

The move by the unions, comes at a time when the nation faces increased tensions with Pakistan, post the government pushing through removal of Article 370. There are daily reports of movement of Pak artillery close to the LoC and of their aircraft being deployed as far forward at Skardu. Ceasefire violations are on the rise.

This strike is also timed with a report which was sent to the Secretary Defence Production, under whom the ordnance factories operate. The report stated that the value of production upto July 31, 2019 was 20% which is 39% less than the target. Similarly, the value of issue (supply) to the army was only 15%, which is 55% less than the estimated target.

The report also states that there was a shortfall in 24 different types of ammunition and explosives and in 21 types of major principal items, including like Dhanush guns and T-90 battle tanks. How can it afford to go on strike, when it has failed to meet its obligations? Is the strike aimed at offsetting the report which has severely criticised their output.

This strike call comes from the same unions, which when calling for the strike stated, ‘ordnance factories cannot be run on a commercial basis’, since a ‘war reserve’ must be kept. This was followed by the statement, ‘No private sector will be able to maintain idle capacity as a war reserve.’

The secretary general of the All-India Defence Employees federation still had the gumption to state, ‘Our workforce is patriotic and has proven during all previous wars.’ If they were patriotic, with such shortfalls and growing tensions, the unions should have first ensured that the supplies which they were expected to meet were complete prior to giving any call for a strike.

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Clearly, the staff are not nationalists, but self-centred and ready to let down the armed forces at a time when ammunition supplies are needed. Hence, privatisation is the only answer.

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A company seeking profit would ensure timely delivery and be more than prepared to ensure that additional demands are met. The OFB has neither been able to meet shortfalls nor willing to ensure it is made up during growing tensions. For them their own interests reign supreme.

In a meeting on 14th Aug, officials of the MoD explained to the unions that the government was not aiming at privatisation. They stated, ‘The proposal under consideration of government is to make it into Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), which is 100 per cent government-owned.’ It added, ‘Corporatisation of OFB will bring OFB at par with other DPSUs of Ministry of Defence. Besides, the interests of the workers will be adequately safeguarded in any decision taken on the subject.’ However, there has been no call, as yet, to cancel the strike.

The world over, it’s the private sector that produces for the Defence. In India too, the government is seeking to privatise defence production as the benefits are immense. The costs are low, technology applied is better, higher quality of products and timely delivery.

Ravindran Pillai, vice president of one of the unions stated, ‘Any private manufacturer always only looks at profit. His national interest will be the last. Quality assurance in the private sector will be done by third party inspection and self-certification. It is putting the lives of our jawans and armed forces on the risk. Ordnance factories only work for national interest.’ In that case, Is calling for a strike when there is a shortfall of ammunition displaying national interest?

Self-certification granted to ordnance factories is the biggest bane for the armed forces. It has reduced the already limited trust which existed on their product. The fact that they have not been held responsible, despite multiple studies on the subject, have only made them more irresponsible.

Cases of poor-quality checks and unwillingness to accept defective equipment are immense. Accidents during training due to faulty ammunition and refusal to collect leaking mines resulting in blasts in ammunition depot with resultant casualties are well established.

When questioned on faulty ammunition, ordnance factories transfer the blame to the user claiming improper storage conditions and handling. They ignore the fact that incidents have not occurred in one area or region alone but across the country and in multiple equipment. It implies that everything the armed forces are doing is wrong and the ordnance factories are not responsible.

If the claim of ordnance factories is to indicate their devotion to the nation and the armed forces is genuine, then this period of strike is application of pressure at the wrong time. Their actions will only push the government to be firmer in its desire to move towards privatisation.

As a first step, the government is considering declaring the strike illegal. In addition, it has established the AK 203 factory at Amethi under the army and employing local veteran labour as its dependence on the OFB is dropping by the day. If this test bed is successful, then major ordnance factories may be handed over to the army, and the balance privatised.

The limited defence budget is also being consumed by ordnance factories which have failed to make profit, except by book transfers from the armed forces budget.

The Controller General of Defence Accounts had stated in a report to the MoD on May 16 that ordnance factories were overcharging the army several hundred crores. As an example, he quoted the case of the T-90 tanks built under licence from Russia at the Heavy Vehicles Factory, Avadi. In this production the OFB was charging the army Rs 21 crore per tank, nearly 50 per cent more than what an import would cost.

When these factories were initially expanded post-independence, India lacked technology. With growth in technology and development of the private sector, it is time for India to follow the footsteps of the western world and privatise.

Every government realized it and promised to act but vote bank politics and coalition governments at the centre ensured that these remained just words. It is for the first time that a government, at the start of its tenure is seeking to set the wrongs of its predecessors right.

Strikes aiming to blackmail the government should be ignored. India needs to modernize and privatize.

The nation cannot be cowed down by those claiming to be nationalists but seeking to strike even without fulfilling their obligations and at a time when the nation faces the greatest of threats.

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