The blue waters of the Bay of Bengal glitter invitingly to our left all through the sweltering drive from Chennai’s famous Marina Beach to Kovalam, 45 km south of the city. There is no missing that this is the road to Defexpo 2018 — every 200 metres, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s image beams out of hoardings, welcoming visitors to India’s premier land and naval systems exhibition.
This will be the 10th edition of Defexpo, first held in 1999. It continued as a biennial event in New Delhi until 2016, when Manohar Parrikar hosted it in his home state, Goa.
Now, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is putting on a show for the PM in her own home state, and no stone is being left unturned to impress him. Labourers are sweeping the helipad where Modi will land, and washing the 2-km road on which he will drive to the Defexpo. To smoothen his ride, highway crews are ripping out the rubberised rumble strips on this stretch.
Modi’s programme can accommodate a visit to Chennai only on Thursday — the second day of the four-day show. So Sitharaman will “open” the show on Wednesday, and then the PM will “inaugurate” it on Thursday.
Secretary for Defence Production, Ajay Kumar, has talked up the beauty of the seaside location. “A big attraction is that this venue is close to nationally important tourist sites. It is 10 km from Mahabalipuram and close to the Cholamandalam Artist Village.”
Kumar claims this year’s Defexpo is different from earlier editions, in which foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) attended to showcase their weaponry. This time, says Kumar, “the message we are sending out through Defexpo is that India is emerging as a major defence manufacturing hub.”
The MoD claims that almost 600 Indian companies have bought exhibition space in Defexpo 2018, the largest ever participation. The number of foreign exhibitors, however, has declined since the last Defexpo, to about 155 firms.
The expo will host 47 official foreign delegations, 18 ministerial delegations and 20 countries with large delegations. There will also be 75 business delegations.
A notable feature of the exhibition area is the large seaside space reserved for live demonstrations by various weapon systems. The defence ministry says Defexpo 2018 has nearly 290,000 square feet of exhibition space compared to 225,000 square feet in the last edition.
To encourage micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to participate, the defence ministry has given them a 50 per cent discount. Consequently, 20 per cent of the display space has been taken by MSMEs.
The defence ministry’s picture of record-breaking Indian participation appears less convincing after scrutinising the attendance. As The Print brought out on Saturday, public sector enterprises have registered in multiple names, apparently to create the impression of a successful Defexpo.
For example, Bharat Electronics (BEL) has registered as 10 entities, and the Defence R&D Organisation’s (DRDO’s) 50-plus laboratories have each registered individually. The Aeronautical Development Agency, which oversees the Tejas fighter project, has listed itself as 10 exhibitors, and the Tejas fighter is listed as five entities. Even Starbucks, which will sell coffee at the exhibition, has listed itself as an exhibitor.
Strolling through the exhibition halls, where teams of workers are rushing to ready displays for the opening, it is apparent that most of the display space has been bought up by Indian defence public sector entities. The largest displays are by the DRDO, BEL, the Ordnance Factory Board, Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and the public sector shipyards.
For the first time, HAL was given charge of organising the Defexpo, sidelining the Defence Exhibitions Organisation. In turn, HAL hired event management firm, Wizcraft, which is organizing all the functions and the crowd management.
Ultimately the success of Defexpo, unlike most international defence exhibitions, will not be measured by deals struck or high profile contracts signed. Most of that happens in the defence ministry in Delhi. Instead, the measure of success will be alliances that Indian MSMEs strike with foreign OEMs, leading to skill creation and the building of a defence industrial eco-system.