Media coverage and popular discourse on defence issues usually focus on preparedness, procurement, pay and pensions when it does not involve one or the other type of scam. Last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) released two reports on the defence services. The first, on the army and ordnance factories, revealed that our soldiers have only enough ammunition to fight for 20 days (well short of the goal of 40 days). The second, on the air force, pointed out that the goal of developing an indigenous fighter plane was 20 years behind schedule and the indigenous component was only around 35 per cent. This parlous state of affairs is hardly a secret, although the CAG's audit ought to concentrate Parliament's and the Union government's attention on the matter. An army dangerously short of ammunition and an air force that lacks enough fighter aircraft does capture our imagination. Important as the issue is, a major war is unlikely (remember nuclear weapons). Even accounting for Pakistani provocations, war is also generally avoidable. Indeed the goal of our defence policy should be to achieve our geopolitical objectives without actually having to fight a war. That said, the shortfalls identified in the CAG report must be rectified, because the ability to fight a war, paradoxically, is one of the ways of not having to fight it. However, what our public discourse misses out are more substantial issues on how defence resources are managed and mobilised. Take for instance, a previous CAG report (No 35 on 2010-11) on the audit of defence estates management, discussed by the previous Lok Sabha's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by the Bharatiya Janata Party's Murli Manohar Joshi. In its report filed in November 2013, the PAC noted that defence services held land far in excess of their requirements and managed it very poorly. One example: as of March 2010, the defence ministry raised a measly Rs 2.13 crore in revenue from leasing land worth Rs 11,033 crore. Another example: the CAG found that over 58,000 acres of land acquired between 1905 and 1990 was lying vacant.
The whole report contains details of poor asset management, almost every paragraph of which is cringeworthy. Not surprisingly, the PAC's recommendations are scathing. One paragraph, relating to the poor yield on leased land, reads: "The committee deplore the reply of the ministry expressing their inability to fix responsibility due to involvement of multiple authorities. The committee were, however, assured that all these aspects and deficiencies could be addressed in the policy being formulated in this behalf. The committee, therefore, recommend that the government bring out the concerned policy within six months of the presentation of this report and apprise them about the salient features of the policy." It is unclear if the defence ministry has instituted a policy it promised the PAC in 2013. At a time when the government is trying to expand allocations in the face of tighter fiscal conditions, the inability to maximise yield from productive assets is unconscionable. Furthermore, at a time when the issue of land acquisition for development is salient and so politically charged, the fact that a government department owns more land than necessary and, further, is not utilising parts of it is inexplicable. Shouldn't we first use the surplus land in government hands before acquiring it from private citizens? In fact, the Modi government can use defence land to solve multiple problems at one go: if it conducts a holistic review of defence land holdings, the government will find land for building smart cities, for providing high-quality military bases, facilities and living quarters, and releasing financial resources for military modernisation. Here's an idea that can make this happen: move the armed forces 20 km away from 20 cities. When our cantonments and camps were first built, they were some distance away from the cities. But our cities have grown over the last three decades and it is not uncommon today for them to surround the old cantonments and camps. There are military farms, camps and firing ranges in the middle of many of our cities today. If these were to be shifted to new locations outside city centres, everyone will benefit: it will create the space for housing, commerce and infrastructure in the cities and raise property taxes for cash-strapped municipalities. The new locations can be used to build modern facilities for our armed forces and vastly improve the living conditions of personnel and their families. These new "cantonments" can form the basis for 20 new smart cities. My colleagues Pranay Kotasthane and Varun Ramachandra estimate that value of army land in Bengaluru city is around Rs 3 lakh crore. The same area 20 km outside the city is worth just Rs 30,000 crore (north of the city) or Rs 1 lakh crore (due east). Of course, this is not an argument to shift all army facilities out of the city, but to highlight the scale of benefits from reform. True, putting land in the hands of politicians will increase the scope for corruption, and green areas could give way to grey concrete. But isn't it a shame that we unwittingly waste enormous amounts of national resources that could be used to improve both defence and development?
The writer is co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy