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The Indian Army troop carrier ‘Shaktiman’. 80000 units built 1959-1996. 

For a while in 1990-91, I was posted as a regional rep for an automotive ancillary that sold parts to arguably the world’s most inefficient and outdated automobile manufacturing unit – the Indian Ministry of Defense’s Vehicle Factory Jabalpur (VFJ), which produced the Shaktiman heavy troop carrying vehicles, with a decades-old technical knowhow that the German heavy vehicle manufacturer, Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN SE) had palmed off to India as aid.

The Shaktiman truck boasted a rated mileage of 0.8 kms per liter, which means that what it actually achieved at the crankshaft could maybe take it to the next gas station on a full tank, just about. Weighing in at 11 tons, it managed to carry a maximum load of 3 tons. On paper it had a capability to carry troops on unpaved terrain above 15000ft, in snowbound conditions, with the ability to run on any fuel, be it diesel, petrol, kerosene, vegetable oil or just grease. In reality, even with regular diesel, it frequently broke down, on plain roads at sea-level.

What the Shaktiman excelled in was the role of a cash cow that gave an unending supply of milk, in this case over-priced contracts to vendors through a completely corrupted purchasing system. Literally millions were being bilked by vendors such as my employers through the supply of substandard products, at heavily inflated prices.

If you were a new vendor introducing yourself at the VFJ, you didn’t need to worry about getting a toehold. VFJ came to you. As soon as you walked in through the imposing gateway with the Ashoka Stambh adorning it, you were literally escorted in. The corruption that was practiced here was proactive. Just as regular companies strive to develop more economical sources of supply, VFJ was constantly attempting to develop vendors who were willing to make larger and larger payments under-the-table. Product quality and delivery reliability were not even on the charts.

Your first meeting with a purchase officer at VFJ would be a short one. You would be given a time and place and you had to see that you got ass over there, to be met by the same officer who would introduce you to his ‘nephew’ or ‘bro-in-law’ (never close family, who might be directly traceable to him).

After that crucial dinner meeting, you were in business, your point of contact from then on being that relative, whom you met periodically to deliver your packets of cash in the darkness of a corner booth inside some shady out of the way restaurant. You endured an excruciatingly painful evening watching a low-life illiterate get slowly drunk, wolf down a whole tandoori chicken and then throw it all up on the table.

Thereafter, you never had to actually visit the guy in his office. In fact, you didn’t even have to travel to Jabalpur City from then on. A trip to Jabalpur might have costed your employers Rs 5000. Instead you just gave the guy Rs2500 cash and he became your local rep. And boy, what a local rep he could turn out to be – one who could virtually guarantee you a 30% growth in business, for perpetuity. In turn you used the time you saved on other trips and other avenues of enterprise.

Doing business with the Indian public sector was always a cosy win-win situation. That dinner was maybe the only time you would be asked what exactly your employers produced, though that wasn’t important. The VFJ bought anything anyone could ever produce. If you could ensure a regular supply of manure from a horse that had chronic diarrhea, I could sell that to the VFJ for a profit. As an Indian living and doing business in India, I used to be appalled by the corruption and waste, even though I was a part of the system.

The guy in purchase that you first dealt with was just the guy who got you the orders. He was the tip of the iceberg. He showed you the way in and introduced you to the folks inside the factory with whom you would have to deal, in order to ensure there were no hassles with your supplies. You would have to arrange a monthly payroll for each one of these guys, in all three shifts, negotiating hard to ensure that you could get away with the minimum payout. At any given time, there would be around twenty of these bastards on your payroll.

The kickbacks went into every crevasse in VFJ. In spite of this being a major defense facility, vendors’ reps had the run of the campus and naturally they used the freedom, to hook up with all the key folks who mattered. Even the guy in the loading docks was critical to the approval of your product. If you didn’t keep the forklift driver happy, he would drop a crate while lifting it out of the back of the supply truck with his forklift, a crate that contained expensive, precision ground crankshafts that would then drop right through the gap between the supply truck and the ramp and spill out onto the rough concrete base twelve feet below. The parts would be badly damaged but still reparable.

The forklift driver wouldn’t leave it that way of course. He would get off his forklift and go down below to the concrete base and he and his buddies would take turns through the day, peeing over the crankshafts until the parts were lying in a stinking sea of urine that nobody would touch. By the time you got wind of it, they were just a pile of rusted metal. It was about then that your employers and you would kiss that supply goodbye. The guys at the loading docks would simply say they got the supply in that condition and knew nothing about the urine smell.

Oh yeah, forklift drivers were essential in your scheme of things. So were machinists, inspectors, lab technicians, stores officers and even the security personnel at the gates. You would have to keep even the secretaries happy so you could get copies of stuff that was going down from time to time.

Diaries, calendars, notepads, keychains, flashlights, flower vases, chocolates, tickets to cricket matches, restaurant and hotel vouchers, booze – you had to have something for everybody. You had to be a f—kin’ Santa Claus here, where it was Christmas every goddamn day of the year.

Of course all this was going on a couple of decades back and for all you know things may have turned for the better by now. The Indian military defense establishment may have found God and been born again. After all, doesn’t everybody call India a hotshot regional superpower these days? But do you know what I really think? It has gotten much worse.

The Shaktiman facility finally ceased production in 1996, after 80000 units and four decades of plunder. I am not sure what the VFJ makes right now. It has been a while, but I am sure that whatever it does, a lot of folks are continuing to enrich themselves from it. And VFJ is just one of many Indian defense manufacturing establishments dotting the countryside.

Now multiply all that you read by 4, because there are three other defense establishments in and around Jabalpur – Gun Carriage Factory (for the field gun carriages), Grey Iron Foundry (for castings for the VFJ) and the Ordinance Factory Khamaria (for ammunition).

Besides this, Jabalpur was also the Head Quarters of the Indian Armed Forces Central Command, which in itself had wide powers of purchase of all kinds of goodies, from lawn mowers to washing powder to laddoos. This vast Army base also had families of officers who were posted in forward areas like Ladakh, Siachen or the far North East. This kept them away from home for months at a stretch. Usually that meant lonely young wives being serviced by brawny corporals who lived in the outhouses adjacent to the sprawling bungalows, their official duties – to tend the roses and the chrysanthemums, though they often went above and beyond and tended the cherries as well, if you will pardon the term.

When you are doing business the public sector anywhere in the world, there is always a certain amount of skulduggery going on, even in developed nations that the ordinary public have no clue about. That is a given and that is understandable.

But the Jabalpur environment was to be seen to be believed. There was so much cash sloshing around inside that town that a whole economy had sprung up there. In spite of being essentially a two-bit, hick town, it had flashy dealerships and retail outlets ready to relieve those corrupt bastards and their families of their ill-gotten gains.

I remember coming home every evening from a visit to VFJ and having this overpowering feeling of being tainted. It was when I began getting the feeling I was Lady Macbeth, that I decided to leave. In fact that feeling does not let go of you – the stench of that urine sometimes still pervades the nostrils – like some corrupted form of PTSD.

The Jabalpur years were an experience I would not like to repeat. Even though I met one those lonely young army wives in the Narmada Club and got to know her quite well – well enough to be able to ‘tend the cherries’ for a while.