7 JANAURY 2016
Time for questions on Pathankot
There is much relief as quiet finally returns to Pathankot. However, the immediate questions that need to be asked are about the way the security operation was carried out from the moment a specific intelligence alert came to the Centre about the possible targeting of the Pathankot airbase. This newspaper has already reported that by Christmas, a foreign intelligence agency had passed on a tip-off about terrorists planning to attack the base. Was that not treated with seriousness because most intelligence alerts do not mean anything? Is the response a reflection of the poor quality of general intelligence alerts? On January 1, early morning, the abducted Superintendent of Police, Salwinder Singh, reported to the local police that his vehicle had been snatched. By afternoon, the government at the Centre had confirmation about the presence of terrorists in Pathankot. What the security establishment did from that moment raises several questions. A meeting chaired by the National Security Adviser and attended by, among others, the chiefs of the Army and the Air Force, decided to rush NSG commandos from Delhi. How did they take that decision, when it was clear that an airbase had to be protected and terrorists could be anywhere in the district? Does this reflect the poor thinking of senior members of the security establishment? Or does it hint at autocratic decision-making in New Delhi without professional participation?
Over the last few days, the government has been making a desperate effort to defend the course of action that was followed in fighting terrorists. From informal briefings in New Delhi to the formal briefing on Wednesday evening by Lt. Gen. K.J. Singh, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Command, the government has been putting up a spirited defence of the operations. Gen. Singh admitted that the first to react to the terrorists were the DSC (Defence Security Corps) and Garuds, but added that the second contact was the Army columns. As Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar did on Tuesday, Gen. Singh claimed that there was total operational synergy, and he justified the time taken by saying that forces had to be applied sequentially, and not simultaneously, and they were also careful to avoid a hostage situation and other eventualities. However, all this does not answer the basic criticism by military veterans and security experts: despite the Pathankot airbase being at shouting distance from thousands of Army soldiers trained to deal with terrorists, why were they not even called in to provide perimeter security to the base? What was the need to send the NSG into a military installation where the Army’s para commandos and quick reaction teams would have been more familiar with the terrain? Why was the operational command not handed over to the senior-most Army commander on the ground? The answers should not only inform decisions to hold those responsible accountable for the mis-step in operations, but also lead to an upgrade of existing protocols.
Think different on infrastructure
When the going gets tough, public investment must be stepped up to pump-prime a slow-moving economy facing uncertain headwinds of low commodity prices and faltering international trade. When the going is good, the private sector would also have a role to play, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said, vowing to ramp up infrastructure investments in 2016-17. Ten months ago, in his first Budget for a full financial year, Mr. Jaitley had scaled up such investment to Rs 1.25 lakh crore, two-thirds of which was earmarked for road and railway projects. In the coming year, he has indicated that the priority will be rural infrastructure as the stress in India’s villages after two bad monsoons has hit demand. This is deterring fresh private investment, with many firms still struggling with past investment plans that are stuck or have become unviable. While economists debate whether the government should stick to its fiscal consolidation road map or scale up public expenditure to spur the economy, nobody will mind if a slightly higher fiscal deficit leads to more jobs while creating useful public assets. Low oil and commodity prices offer the chance to build more infrastructure at a far lower cost, but as Mr. Jaitley said, “We must have the intellectual honesty to analyse our shortcomings and improve them.”
So have higher allocations to infrastructure spending this year helped? Anecdotally, a few signs are positive. Demand for bitumen, a key ingredient for building roads, has risen, as have enquiries for construction and earth-moving equipment. Paying private contractors to build highways has boosted cash flows and enabled a few to re-enter the fray for new projects. But all is not well yet. Core sector performance hit a decade’s low in November 2015. “Though public investments have started to gain traction, this is yet to reflect in the performance of investment-linked sectors,” rating agency Crisil said, as demand remains weak in end-user sectors such as real estate, with overcapacity in others. Of course, this is partly the lag effect — infrastructure projects take time to show results. Yet, an honest introspection should reveal the need to utilise public infrastructure budgets more effectively without the cost- and time-overruns associated with the government’s ‘business as usual’ approach. Take India’s largest industrial infrastructure project, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, set up as a special purpose vehicle to shed the legacy burdens of departmental decision-making. It’s crawling, though all the States along the corridor except Delhi are run by the BJP. Or the Project Monitoring Group under the Cabinet Secretariat tasked with resolving stalled projects, on which not much has been heard in months. Could the fact that these bodies were left without a head through most of 2015 have affected performance? Tapping the Consolidated Fund of India as well as innovative vehicles such as the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund is laudable. Perhaps, it is also time to find a few good men who can get the job done on the ground, grant them autonomy and fix accountability for outcomes.