India needs a precise startup policy for defence manufacturing

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has highlighted India's growing involvement of youth in defence-related startups

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Defence manufacturing (Photo: Youtube)

Defence modernization has been the talk of the nation in India for more than a while. Amid recent events, there is a focus on indigenous production of equipment. 

The Modi government has encouraged the active participation of start-ups in this field. It has stressed the fact that removing red tape in the defence sector is the need of the hour. With multiple schemes and policies laid out to attract investments, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ushered in a defence manufacturing revolution.

President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India reinforced the camaraderie between him and Modi. This being their 20th meet, both leaders respect each other. Several MoU’s were signed. India went ahead with the $ 5.5 billion S-400 anti-missile defence system deal. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla confirmed that “supplies have begun this month”. 

Both countries also signed an MoU to ensure the production of more than half a million AK-203 assault rifles at Amethi under a joint venture called the Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt Ltd (IRRPL). These deals are a strong indicator of a government policy wherein a big defence import is complimented by encouraging a ‘Make in India’ initiative in the defence sector.  

Self-reliant India 

With the US threatening to impose the CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act) and amid a threat of Chinese aggression, India is actively looking to become autonomous in defence production. Military, as well as military-technical fields, have been targeted under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.

India's Defence Ministry has set out 64 percent of its modernization funds under the capital acquisition budget for 2021-22 for purchases from domestic players. This amounts to around Rs 70,000 crores. The idea behind this allocation is to add to the ‘negative import list’. Items under this list cannot be imported as India seeks to become self-reliant in the defence sector. It will ensure that domestic procurement will be enhanced and, in turn, it will have an effect on allied industries in this sector, thus pushing up employment rates. MSMEs and start-ups will greatly benefit as new products will be available to be made in India every year.

Addressing soldiers at Nowshera in Jammu and Kashmir, Modi emphasized that modern border infrastructure will enhance the country's military capabilities. Further, connectivity has been established in border and coastal areas, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh and from Jaisalmer to Andaman Nicobar Islands. 

He underlined the importance of the growing 'Atmanirbharta’ (self-dependence) in defence resources. Modi also highlighted India's growing involvement of youth in defence-related startups.

New Indian start-ups 

We interviewed teams of two Indian startups working towards developing products and technologies to strengthen national security. We asked them about their product, the environment and overall policy perspective that can boost the ‘Make in India’ campaign in the defence sector.

Tetrel Innovations LLP, founded by Khuboo Patel and Neel Panchal, has initiated the project ‘Hexagon’ wherein they are developing and working on jackets for soldiers staying at higher altitudes in the Himalayan region. The first product they have developed is a smart thermoregulatory winter jacket for extreme cold climatic conditions which is incorporated with graphene-based heated textiles.

The incubation centre and the organizations affiliated with the defence forces such as the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM), Army Design Bureau (ADB) and Abodh Foundation, Ahmedabad, provided the necessary support for the product development by arranging field visits, interactions with armed personnel and furnishing information. The ADB has also offered to facilitate the product testing and validation by the armed forces at the Himalayan Ranges on “No Cost No Commitment” basis. 

With the proof of concept, they participated in ARTECH-2019 and received an overwhelming response from the army and industry representatives. They showcased their product to Modi on Army Day 2020.

Jackets to beat cold 

Currently, they are at the prototyping stage and the first version of the product, suitable for adventure sports, expeditions and travelling to the Arctic Circle, should be available to consumers by winter 2022. The product is being tested in the harshest of conditions and validated by the armed forces leaving no room for compromises in performance. 

Another startup we interviewed is DRAAP Machines. They have been working towards addressing the mobility and connectivity needs of our forces which is extremely important to protect borders. They are in the process of developing an unmanned platform that is amphibious with limited defensive and offensive capabilities. Once completed, this mobile application will be put to use in border regions where we do not have a purpose-built mobility solution.

Jaydev Patwardhan, Automotive Engineer at DRAAP Machines, said the ADB is helping immensely to push forward the start-up ecosystem. They are working towards ending red-tape in defence so that not only big players but even small start-ups can showcase their ability. Even the Indian Army has revised its norms to an extent to incorporate things to work with less change. Opening the market is a big and positive change. 

Further, Startup India is also following up regularly. They are conducting periodic meetings with incubation centres and start-ups to check the progress. However, a lack of clarity in the demands of products and previous notions of the army presenting challenges to these enterprises is still a hindrance. There is a need of strategizing a precise national security policy and plan for the present and the future. It should keep in mind the needs of the army and, accordingly, raise the demands of products and services or reach out to incubation centres and to the startups. 

(Kunal Tilak is Founder, The TTC Media Pvt. Ltd. and of My Homestead Agriculture Services LLP.  Vaibhavi Pingale is Assistant Professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University, India. The views expressed are personal. They can be contacted at kunaltilak79@gmail.com)

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