Ailing Army

Unattractive rewards, work-related psychological issues and operational difficulties make the Indian Army a not-so-attractive career option.

Published : Jan 09, 2013 13:58 IST

Candidates undergoing the physical fitness test at an Army recruitment rally in Kapurthala, Punjab, on October 17, 2012.

Candidates undergoing the physical fitness test at an Army recruitment rally in Kapurthala, Punjab, on October 17, 2012.

IS all well with the 1.3-million-strong Indian Army, the venerable institution entrusted with the task of guarding the country against external aggression and also internal insurgency and strife? And if all is well, then why is the Army short of 10,100 officers and 32,431 other soldiers, called Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR)? Why have more than 25,000 jawans gone on early retirement in the past three years? Why are over 100 officers and other men in uniform committing suicide every year?

This is the reality in the Indian Army, which stands at a crossroads today. And these figures are not fictitious; they have been provided by Defence Minister A.K. Antony in his various replies to Parliament since 2010.

It is some consolation that the shortage of officers has come down now. While in 2010 the Army was short of 12,510 officers, the shortage came down to 10,100 officers as of July this year. Giving the figure in Parliament on December 10, the Defence Minister explained that the raising of two new Army divisions in the eastern sector, 3 Corps and 4 Corps, by pulling together resources from existing holdings, had led to the shortage. He added that the divisions were necessary to strengthen India’s hold in the north-eastern sector and along the border with China. He assured Members of Parliament that recruitment would be accelerated to bridge the gap.

The shortage, both of officers and PBOR, has persisted since 1971, and the gap today is the result of this long period of neglect. The PBOR, it may be mentioned, form the bulk of the Army’s fighting force.

According to figures presented in Parliament by the Defence Ministry on November 30, 2009, the intake of officer recruits, both permanent commission and short service commission (SSC), has been going down over the years and seats are falling vacant. In the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, where Army cadets go for training after their stint at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Pune, only 1,489 joined in 2006 as against the sanctioned strength of 1,633. In 2007, the figure went down to 1,351. In 2008, the sanctioned strength for the IMA was lowered to 1,540, but only 1,159 joined. In 2009, only 1,262 joined. At the Officer’s Training Academy, Chennai, where SSC officers are trained, against the authorised strength of 700 a year, only 575 joined in 2006, 497 in 2007, 407 in 2008 and 315 in 2009.

The Defence Minister detailed the following measures to improve intake:

• Making SSC attractive through measures such as grant of ex-servicemen status to all SSC officers who complete the terms of service, and provision of Canteen Stores Department (CSD) and medical facilities under the Employees Contributory Health Services (ECHS) scheme;

• Opening of professional training institutes under the Army Welfare Education Society to provide affordable professional education to the children of Army personnel;

• Image projection campaigns;

• Enhanced physical interaction with the target audience in which recruiting officers visit universities and colleges for motivational talks; and

• Setting up another training academy for officers.

But none of these measures have been implemented to date. A letter written by the vice-chairman of the Indian Ex Servicemen Movement, Major General (Retd) Satbir Singh, to the Defence Minister on August 7, 2012, to demand their implementation has remained unacknowledged and unanswered.

Maj. Gen Satbir Singh, who is a former Senior Fellow and security analyst at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), says the problem is systemic in nature. “Not enough recruitable young men are coming forward to join the Army because of the callous and indifferent treatment of the forces by politicians and the bureaucracy, and the availability of better prospects elsewhere,” he says. He said countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, West Germany, France, Yugoslavia and Pakistan pegged the salaries and pensions of armed forces personnel 15-20 per cent above that of their civilian counterparts, but in India this was not the case. “Not only is there no edge, but whatever is our due is denied to us. The rank pay denial is an example. Even in the Sixth Pay Commission recommendation, there have been anomalies in our salary structure vis-a-vis civilian salaries,” he says.

Also there is no mechanism to rehabilitate retiring personnel. Ninety per cent retire in the prime of their working life, when their family liabilities are at the peak—jawans retire at the age of 35-37, while 80 per cent of the officers retire at the age of 54-57 years. “When better options are available outside, such as an assured career until 60 years of age, why would anyone join the forces? It is unfortunate that for an overwhelming majority, joining the forces has become the last resort, just another job option, not a mission,” he says.

The shortage, when translated into logistics at the ground level, means serious compromises with the standard operating processes, at times with disastrous consequences. Frontline found that against the sanctioned 22-27 officers a unit, normally only 10-12 officers are available at a time and if one takes into account those on leave, or on temporary duty or attending courses, the effective strength comes down to four or five officers a unit (a unit normally has a manpower strength of 600-800).

“The right amount of supervision is next to impossible in this situation and the first casualty is the drill, an integral part of officers’ interaction with the men. This leads to a communication gap between officers and jawans, and all other problems such as stress, suicides, and fratricide follow,” said an officer requesting anonymity. The Defence Minister has asked the Defence Research and Development Organisation to conduct a study and submit a report on the problem of stress in the Army. The report is likely to be submitted in January.

Also, the government policy for recruitment, say experts, is to an extent responsible for the shortfall. The Army recruits men on the basis of a criterion called Recruitable Male Population (RMP), which is fixed at 10 per cent regionwise. But it so happens that in some regions—such as Gujarat and Maharashtra and the south Indian States—this slot does not get filled. The vacant slots are allotted to some other region, but since the process is ad hoc every year, some slots remain vacant, adding on to the vacancies. “What is required to be done is to change the formula and reset the percentage depending on regional specifics. The government should lower the quota for regions that have been defaulting for a long time,” says Maj. Gen. Satbir Singh.

The Army’s recruitment policy has been challenged in the Supreme Court through a public interest petition by one I.S. Yadav, a medical practitioner from Rewari in Haryana. Yadav, who filed his petition through Senior Advocate S. Balakrishnan, pleaded that the recruitment policy based on parameters such as caste, region, religion, and community, as reflected in regiments like Sikh, Maratha, Gorkha, Ahir, Jat, Rajput, and Naga is unconstitutional and should be done away with because it violates a citizen’s fundamental right. The petition has asked the court to give directions to the government to frame a national policy for recruitment in the Army that would ensure selection on the basis of merit. The court has asked the Solicitor General, Rohinton Nariman, to look into the case.

The Army, however, denies that its recruitment policy is unconstitutional. “Our recruitment is not based on caste or religion; it is based on the RMP formula, which has stood the test of time. It is totally devoid of biases,” says the Army’s public relations officer. Army veterans agree that it is not the policy that is responsible for the shortfall, which they say is as per soldiering requirements, but systemic deficiencies. “A career in the Army should be made to appear lucrative through an Act of Parliament; consistency in policy should be maintained and an assured career extended to SSC officers. Why can’t the intake be increased in the existing two academies, and why can’t new academies be opened?” Maj. Gen. Satbir Singh asks.

Many veterans, assembled at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on December 1 to demand redress of their grievances, told Frontline that instead of treating them with honour and dignity, the political and bureaucratic machinery was indifferent even towards their just demands and was more interested in breeding a culture of sycophancy so that the forces could be kept under its control.

According to many veterans, this breeds discontent at the senior level while inadequate compensation dissuades youngsters from joining the forces. What hurts the veterans most is that the government does not accord them the honour and dignity that is due to them. Is it too much to demand that the soldiers be taken care of after they sacrifice the prime of their lives for the country, they ask the Defence Minister.

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