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SOURCE:  SUNDAY GUARDIAN LIVE

Indians are patriotic, and hence the armed forces have always been a preferred career for them. The economic boom in the 1990s changed that somewhat. The corporate world offered a better deal. Resultantly, the best talent was attracted by them. Despite that, there was never really any shortage of volunteers, but the Army did not dilute its standards. Consequently, there is about 25% shortage of officers in the Indian Army. The soldiers’ strength is by and large satisfactory, although increasingly several of them show inclination to leave after completing pensionable service, rather than make a career of it in the Army.

Another issue of career management in the Army is that its steep pyramidical structure results in supersession of officers of the rank of Colonel and above. It is a vacancy-based system, and capable individuals don’t make it to the next rank if there is someone higher in the merit, which sets in frustrations. Militaries around the world suffer from this problem. But Western countries have better social security; the officers who wish to, can leave to find another career.

Therefore, what we need in the Indian Army is a support cadre of officers who serve up to say 14 years, and leave before they are superseded. However, there is no system of lateral absorption and these officers who are past their prime, do not find it easy to compete for good jobs in the civil stream. Several steps to make short service entry attractive have not worked well in the past and is still work in progress.

On the other hand, while we saw the youth attracted towards more lucrative jobs in the 1990s, but after the Kargil war in 1999, there was a renewed resurgence of patriotism and josh (energy) amongst the youth. Yet, they were reluctant to make a career in the Army. Therefore, a shorter Tour of Duty (TOD) is being contemplated by the Army, where the youth serve for three years, so that they are young enough to compete with their peers for another career in their chosen fields or advanced studies. During their service of three years, they get an attractive salary of Rs 60,000-80,000 per month, handsome severance benefits, and above all, experience of a lifetime to serve the country in the frontline, gaining ultimate experience and confidence. Soldiers on a three-year Tour of Duty will earn a salary of Rs 30,000-50,000 a month.

This would also serve another longstanding need of the Army. The revenue budget of the Army is burgeoning, of which defence pensions are the largest component. TOD will also help in mitigating the pension bill, as these officers and soldiers will not be entitled for pension, albeit they will be entitled to a terminal benefit of Rs 3 lakh for soldiers and Rs 6 lakh for officers. Reduction in revenue budget will leave the Army with more in capital budget, and it is this which is required for modernisation of Indian Army. Back of envelope calculations show that even from this proposed pilot project of 100 officers and 1,000 soldiers on TOD, Army HQ could eye a potential cumulative saving of Rs 11,000 cr in the revenue expenditure.

Another under explored potential is that of National Cadets Corps (NCC). These students of schools and colleges are imparted some basic military training, and NCC, is, arguably, the largest uniformed youth volunteers in the world. During the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, NCC cadets were the second line of defence. They organised camps to assist ordnance factories, supplying arms and ammunition to the front and also for patrolling in rear areas. NCC cadets can be given due incentives to join tour of duty, and that thought process is on the cards.

In a similar manner, Territorial Army (TA) is another concept that can plug into the Tour of Duty. TA gives us flexibility to engage soldiers and officers for the army in field as diverse as ecology to high technology. Their flexible terms of service need to be exploited.

Another relevant endeavour in the past has been to find lateral absorption in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) for our soldiers and officers who retire early. Since this proposal did not find any takers, Army is contemplating inverse induction from CAPFs. It envisages that the CAPF may recruit soldier or officer as per their procedures and loan them to the Army for training and operational experience for seven years, after which they would revert to their respective services. This could be a win-win situation, where CAPF would get well-trained, experienced and seasoned soldiers, and Army gets a support cadre, and yet not have pensionary liabilities.

Ever since Independence, we have essentially had two entry schemes for officers, the permanent commission and the short service commission, while there have been some smaller experiments with other schemes. It’s time to move with times, and try other measures to suit our needs of having a support cadre for officers and reducing the pension bill. In so doing, if the youth get great leadership skills and ultimate confidence of team building, which would help them in their careers ahead, it only serves to make the Army attractive for them, which is the aim. Besides, this tour of duty will also help in nation building by giving us disciplined, patriotic youth, with secular values who will be conscientious citizens, and can be counted upon as reservists in times of national emergencies. It is these youth, a significant number of them with ten months’ training as SSC officers—which is being planned for TOD as well—are the ones who did us proud in their first or second year of service whether in Kargil or Kashmir. I think it could be win-win situation, pun intended.