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Making it Palatable – Managing Food Supply in the Armed Forces

Mr Amit Cowshish is a former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence and former Distinguished Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for Detailed Profile
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  • January 18, 2017

    Campaigning at Kairana for the forthcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi is reported to have said: “PM Narendra Modi who applauds surgical strikes, serves boiled pulses and uncooked chapattis to soldiers.”1 He was referring to the post by a Border Security Force (BSF) jawan, deployed at the border in Jammu & Kashmir, criticising the quality of food served to them which often makes them go ‘empty stomach’. What Owaisi’s assertion, however, ignored is the fact that Prime Ministers do not serve food, even figuratively, to soldiers. And if Owaisi was referring to the PM’s overall responsibility, he obviously chose to ignore the fact that the Prime Minister’s office had already sought a report on the jawan’s complaint.2

    The penchant to exploit sensitive issues, in utter disregard of its impact on the morale of the troops, is not new in politics. But the trend seems to be on an upswing, especially with a no holds barred approach to exploiting issues connected with the armed and paramilitary forces. And it is not just the politicians who are guilty of such irresponsible conduct.

    Be that as it may, the jawan’s complaint brings to the fore yet again an issue which has dogged militaries across continents over centuries.3 Though the BSF is not a part of the armed forces, the incident prompted the Defence Minister to comment that he is personally monitoring the quality of food served to the Indian Army.4 Speaking on the side-lines of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit, he told reporters that during the last two years, “for the Army we have been continuously evaluating that (sic) whether satisfaction level for the food being served has increased or not. I am myself monitoring it." He went to add: "We have supplied frozen chicken to 26 centres. Now we have issued direction that in next two years FSSAI-approved frozen chicken is supplied to every unit. So that quality automatically improved."5

    But only four days later it has been reported that the food served to soldiers at high altitudes does not suit their palate. A report compiled by the Army reportedly notes that while ‘high calorie food, improvised for Indian tastes, is required to improve the operational efficiency of soldiers at high altitudes’, tinned food and ‘meals-ready-to-eat’ have issues related to shelf life and, in any case, do not cater to the Indian taste.6

    The problem may not just be confined to the food being served at high altitudes. A 2010 performance audit report of the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) of India on Supply Chain Management of Rations in the Indian Army7 had pointed out several deficiencies. The general drift of the report indicated an average level of satisfaction among the armed forces with the food supplied to them.

    Another 2013 performance audit report on Storage Management and Movement of Food Grains in Food Corporation in India8 pointed out issues concerning procurement and storage of food grains. Referring to the situation depicted in this report, the defence minister told reporters at Gandhinagar that "we are improving it”. While proactive monitoring of the quality of rations supplied to the armed forces by no less than the minister himself should prevent needless pique among the troops, it is important to ensure that the feedback he receives from the troops does not get filtered at the unit level or at the higher echelons.

    A substantial amount of amount is spent on rations. A sum of Rs. 3,262.42 crore was spent in 2014-15 on fresh and dry rations, milk and milk products, tinned ration, other items and cash-in-lieu of free rations to service officers of the Indian Army. The Revised Estimate for 2015-16 was Rs. 3,578.62 crore and the Budget Estimate for the current fiscal for these items is Rs. 3,936.51 crore. These figures do not include allocation for the other two services.

    The purpose of quoting these figures is not to highlight the rising cost or to question the need to ensure the highest possible standard of food stuff supplied to the troops, but to point out that the sum involved is huge and it, therefore, requires to be managed efficiently, ensuring in the process that the food served to the troops is of good quality and according to their tastes. But the issue is not confined to providing food stuff that would appeal to the taste buds. There are other issues related to the system of procurement, storage and distribution that are equally important.

    The C&AG’s report of 20109 contained several observations which point to serious drawbacks in the system of procurement. For example, the report pointed out that the then ‘existing procedure for provisioning of dry rations failed to assess the requirement realistically’, which ‘was mainly due to systemic deficiencies due to which different quantities were worked out at different echelons applying different parameters’. Some other observations were as follows:

    1. “During the previous three years, except in the case of wheat and malted milk food in 2005‐06, none of the selected items were procured according to the indented quantity by the Army Purchase Organisation (APO). While in case of sugar and jam, there was over procurement, in all other items, there were significant under procurement which rendered the whole exercise of provisioning ineffective.
    2. “Many of the national Federations and PSUs which were contracted to supply Dal and Tea failed to supply. These had to be procured through local purchase and Army incurred an extra expenditure of Rs. 30.06 crore on account of local purchase to meet the shortage caused due to failure of central supplies.
    3. “Apart from being unwieldy the existing practice of procuring Atta by grinding of wheat purchased from Food Corporation of India (FCI) was uneconomical in comparison to the cost of branded Atta readily available in the market. The Army was incurring an estimated additional expenditure of Rs. 25 crore annually, besides maintaining a detachment of personnel at each mill.
    4. “Based on repeated extensions given by the CFL Jammu, troops in Northern Command were issued rations even after the expiry of original Estimated Storage Life (ESL). While the DGS&T instructions prohibit any extensions beyond three months of the ESL, yet Atta, sugar, rice, tea, dal, edible oil, etc. was consumed even six to 28 months after the expiry of the original ESL.
    5. “The procurement procedure for fresh items of rations was highly non‐competitive and fraught with the risk of cartels. Despite the valid registration of 110 to 222 vendors in the three selected Commands, procurement in 46 per cent of the cases was done on the basis of two quotations. In 36 per cent cases contracts were concluded on the basis of a single quotation only. A large number of vendors registered, contrasting with only one or two vendors purchasing tender documents, points strongly towards the serious problem of cartelization.
    6. “In Delhi only one vendor purchased the tender document and supplied meat worth Rs. 5 crore annually during the previous three years. Similarly in Chandimandir, only one contractor responded and bagged the contract for supply of meat with annual order values of Rs. 2.34 crore.
    7. “To determine the reasonable rates of various items of fresh rations, a Board of Officers constituted by the Station Commander determine the Average Local Market Rate (ALMR). Prior to opening of tenders, Reasonable Rates (RR) are worked out by a panel of officers for each item and station. In audit, it was seen that the accepted rates were way below the ALMR. Difference ranged from 25 per cent to 55 per cent.
    8. “While procurement rates of the adjoining stations forms a cogent benchmark for fixing of rates, a wide variation of up to 186 per cent was observed in such rates for procurement of fresh rations.
    9. “The distribution of fresh vegetables and fruits was not in accordance with the prescribed norms. In 74 per cent of issue the consuming units did not receive the rations as per the prescribed mix. More importantly, Audit also found that items received by the consuming units were different from what was shown to have been issued to the unit by the supply depot. In many cases quantities also varied.
    10. “The feedback reporting system of the Army showed that in 68 per cent cases the quality of rations was graded as satisfactory and below. This was notwithstanding the fact that “satisfactory” quality of rations was deemed unacceptable by one formation Commander. In 14 out of 50 selected cases in a Corps the quality of rations being supplied to troops was poor.”

    It is necessary to address all these systemic issues. Not much is known about what changes have come about following the C&AG’s report. While it will be unfair to assume that the matter has not received attention in the Ministry of Defence, the recent delegation of financial powers to the services10 does not seem conducive to the efficient management of logistics.

    Take, for example, the powers delegated for local procurement of items to meet the short-term and urgent requirements when supplies are not available through central provisioning. The delegated powers are as follows:

    Competent Financial Authority for Local Procurement – ASC items Power exercisable without consultation with the Integrated Financial Advisor Power exercisable in consultation with the

    Integrated Financial Advisor
    GoC-in-C Nil  Rs. 5 crore
    MG ASC Rs. 50 lakh Rs. 1 crore
    Brig ASC Corps/Area Rs. 25 lakh Rs. 50 lakh
    ADST/CO ASC Bn/Comdt Supply/ FOL Depots  

    Rs. 10 lakh

    Rs. 20 lakh

    This scheme of delegation of financial powers is not conducive to efficiency in meeting short-term and emergent requirements. Since it is the responsibility of the local commanders to ensure that the troops are properly fed, they are the ones who should have full powers to buy whatever is required to meet this objective without having to look over their shoulders if the cost of procurement is beyond the powers delegated to them, even if it may happen infrequently.

    There is no risk in this as the powers are exercisable as per the laid down rules and procedure, as well as subject to the availability of funds. All expenditure is also subject to post-audit by the Defence Accounts Department (DAD), which has one of the most extensive and oldest networks of local audit. This paradigm shift in the way powers are delegated is necessary to bring about efficiency in all areas of expenditure and not just in relation to procurement of food stuff.

    There are other non-conventional steps that need to be seriously considered. Among them is adopting just-in-time procurement of food stuff. On-line food and grocery stores have revolutionised the way households meet their daily requirements. With some innovative thinking, similar on-line arrangements with suppliers, including the Canteen Stores Department, could reduce the cost of storage and distribution and, more importantly, help in maintaining a high satisfaction level among troops. Ex-servicemen could play a major role in this. The Director General of Resettlement (DGR) could help them become potential on-line suppliers at the local level, not just for supplying rations but indeed for providing a wide variety of goods and services to the armed forces. Who will know the requirement better than those who have been at the receiving end of the system?

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.