BANGALORE: The number employees on the rolls of defence PSUs as of March 2018 shrunk nearly by a quarter compared to the number they employed as of 2013, with hiring at all companies failing to match the attrition rate, including superannuation, consistently.

There are nine defence PSUs in India: Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL); Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL); Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL); BEML Ltd; Mishra Dhatu Nigam Ltd (MIDHANI); Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd (MDL); Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd (GRSE); Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL) and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL).

Analysis of data from the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) shows that the PSUs together employed 60,260 personnel in 2018, which is 17,522 fewer than the 77,782 employed in 2013. This is a 23% decrease, even as the number of contract and daily wage employees remained either flat or dipped.

C Srikumar, general secretary, the All India Defence Employees’ Federation, which has more than 4 lakh employees from defence establishments, including these PSUs, alleges that the Centre has been systematically killing the public sector.

“They are deliberately not refilling positions, are revising sanctioned strength of establishments and pushing private industries into the business even in areas where they do not have the required ability. Multiple representations have been made to the Centre and we will continue fighting this,” he said.

Experts, however, attribute a variety of reasons for the reduced staff such as increased outsourcing, decreasing orders and revenue, hiring freeze and better opportunities in the private sector. Officials from multiple PSUs said that outsourcing has increased, especially in the four non-shipping related companies.

Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar had told TOI on the sidelines of Aero India 2017: “We will have the PSUs and Ordnance factories to have a fixed percentage of their business or projects outsourced... Strict targets will be set and when they involve the domestic industry, it is only going to benefit everybody, it will also reduce timelines of projects.”

The MoD, has since instructed PSUs to outsource at least 20% to 25% of their business to the domestic industry.

Col HS Shankar (Retd), a former BEL director who now runs his own firm, said: “There is now a thinking in the MoD that the outsourcing must increase to 50%, although nothing concrete has moved in that direction. There are other reasons like better opportunities in the private sector, which is opted by engineers especially those not working in the R&D teams of PSUs. Some amount of streamlining and rationalisation can be good for companies, but one has to adopt a scientific method while deciding on how many people you need.”

Officials also said that several PSUs, like the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), are not filling up vacant posts created by superannuation or retirement. While Shankar said that BEL was among the first to downsize, other PSUs have followed suit.

R Madhavan, CMD, HAL— whose staff strength was at a 15-year low as of October 2018— had told TOI earlier that the company has frozen hiring. He had said that increasing use of technology (automation) and larger percentage of working being outsourced could offset the fewer number of employees.

Toby Simon, who runs a strategic think-tank in Bangalore says: “The perception that robots are stealing our jobs can lead to some misunderstanding of the benefits that industries and business enjoy as a result of automation. The high demand for aircraft has created a backlog and manufacturers are continuously striving to find more efficient ways to meeting targets.”

Multiple trade union leaders TOI spoke with expressed concerns that this could lead to a situation that will in the long run hurt national security.