IT’S NOT the Pakistanis but the Indian army that has aggravated the suffering of the troops on the world’s highest, coldest and most unforgiving battlefield. Soldiers deployed on the Siachen glacier are facing extreme hardships because of the army’s ineptitude and repeated failures to provide them with special clothing and equipment to endure nature’s fury at killer heights of over 21,000 feet.
After scrutinising recent contracts worth around Rs 49 crore, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has hammered the army for gaping deficiencies in the procurement of jackets, trousers, sleeping bags, multi-purpose boots and woolen socks. In some cases, troops got special items almost three years after a demand was made.
The CAG said in a report tabled in Parliament, “Problems related to procurement of special clothing in respect of poor quality and insufficient availability persists…though army has been making procurements for over two decades. No satisfactory solution has emerged to mitigate the suffering...”
The army’s annual average expenditure on special clothing was about Rs 34 crore during 2004-07. Yet, extreme cold has caused 388 casualties during the last five years. One of the most disturbing findings of the CAG, after scrutinising 10 deals, is that the army has been accepting substandard products even after defects were pointed out.
Convincing evidence backs CAG’s conclusion. An Italian firm, M/s Scarpa, was approved in user trials for about 45,000 boots worth over Rs 33 crore till 2005. The boots were found to be unsuitable at below minus 20 degrees. But the Northen Command in January 2006, then headed by Army chief General Deepak Kapoor, requested to continue procurement to meet urgent requirements. Likewise, boots supplied by a French firm, M/s Millet, had technical defects but the Northern Command recommended wider user trials instead of rejecting them.
The army has shown arbitrariness in dealing with vendors. It ordered 5,945 jackets from M/s Carinthia after signing a contract in April 2006. It rejected 3,439 jackets but later cleared 1,358 jackets after re-inspection. But it denied re-inspection to another firm, M/s Aptec, saying there were no such provisions. CAG condemned the army for delays in the procurement process saying it impacted the timely availability of adequate clothing and equipment.”
Control of Siachen eliminates the possibility of Pakistan linking up with the Chinese to pose a threat to the Ladakh region. The glacier acts a wedge between the Shaksgam valley, under Chinese control, and Baltistan occupied by Pak. Being in control of these vertigo-inducing heights offers military advantage over Shyok and Nubra valleys.