India promises to clean up military corruption after scandals

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's military, one of the world's largest weapons buyers, unveiled a new arms acquisition policy on Saturday aimed at weeding out corruption in the defence sector.

The policy announcement comes just over a week after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged to crack down on defence corruption following a string of graft scandals that has put his government on the back foot.

The defence ministry said the new policy would seek the "highest standard of transparency" in arms purchases for the country's million-plus military, the world's fourth largest.

"It aims to balance the competing requirements of expediting capital procurement... and conforming to the highest standards of transparency, probity and public accountability," the defence ministry said in a statement.

In a bid to boost India's domestic defence industry, the policy gives first right of refusal to Indian vendors, according a "higher preference explicitly to the Buy Indian, Buy and Make Indian" approach.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony in a forward to the policy paper said he hoped the procedure will be a "progressive step aimed at giving impetus to indigenisation, creating (a) level playing field... and expediting the procurement process as a whole".

India is negotiating a series of huge procurement contracts, including for fighter jets, combat helicopters, as well as artillery, drones and electronic warfare systems, as it seeks to update its ageing military hardware.

Premier Singh a week ago warned he was committed to make purchases of military hardware more "transparent, smooth, efficient and less vulnerable to unethical practices".

In February, public anger over alleged bribes paid by Italian company Finmeccanica to secure a US$748 million (S$946 million) contract for 12 helicopters forced New Delhi to order an investigation and suspend the deal.

Italian prosecutors suspect kickbacks worth around 50 million euros (S$82 million) were paid to Indian officials to ensure Finmeccanica's British unit AgustaWestland won the contract, according to Italian media reports.

An Indian preliminary inquiry report has linked four firms, four Westerners and seven Indians to the bribery allegations.