Armed Forces

Food for thought

Print edition : February 17, 2017

BSF jawans having food at the border outpost in the Raan of Kutch in Rajasthan. A file picture. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Soldiers waiting at a railway reservation counter in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, to book tickets. A file pciture. Photo: REUTERS

A video on social media showing substandard food being served to BSF jawans draws national attention to discrimination the non-officer cadre faces in the armed forces.

THE British left India 69 years ago, but Indians continue to grapple with a colonial mindset. They set up hierarchical structures, draw a clear boundary between the ruler and the ruled, treat subordinates as personal minions, and install systems that perpetuate the colonial legacy. This mindset is best exemplified in the armed forces where the non-officer cadre continues to be treated like slaves while officers live a good life. The subhuman treatment of jawans, sailors and other non-officer cadre of the armed forces and paramilitary services is a long suppressed story of security establishments, which everyone has shied away from discussing. The controversy raging around the video uploaded by a Border Security Force (BSF) jawan, Taj Bahadur Yadav, in which he describes how jawans are served substandard food and how at times they go to sleep on empty stomach, has served to highlight not only the quality of life of the non-officer cadre of the armed forces but also the larger malaise of discrimination and deprivation afflicting the services. The video also served to highlight the colonial and feudal mindset prevailing in the forces with a clear divide existing between the officer and non-officer cadres.

Taj Bahadur’s video shows jawans as being served only paratha with tea for breakfast, without any side dish, and plain dal (lentil) with roti for lunch. The Union Home Ministry, shocked at the contents of the video, sprang into action and ordered a probe. But the larger issue that should be probed is whether there exists a serious discrimination between the officer and non-officer cadres in the services, and if yes to what extent.

Taj Bahadur was posted at the Line of Control (LoC) and his battalion was under the operational command of the Army. So, the Defence Ministry, too, should have ordered a probe into whether there indeed was some irregularity in the supply of rations to the personnel, as alleged by the jawan.

A recently retired sailor said the food shown on Taj Bahadur’s video was much better than what he had been served in the Navy. “We were out in the ocean for months. There is a limited supply of ration on the ship, but officers like to have their parties, with the result that sailors’ ration would get reduced. We would be only given bread with tea for breakfast and again bread with dal for lunch. The bread would be cold and soggy because of exposure to the moisture in the air. I dread the sight of bread even now,” he said. He retired after 15 years of service, and declined the Navy’s offer of re-employment. He is still looking for a job.

“The Navy looks glamorous from the outside, but all that glamour is only for officers. For the non-officer cadre, it is hell,” he said. He recounted instances to suggest the extent of humiliation suffered by non-officer cadre personnel. He said sailors were barred from the vicinity of the place where officers held parties. “Board with the words ‘dogs and sailors not allowed’ are put up outside their officers’ clubs/mess. There is segregation of officers and non-officers at canteens, hospitals, living quarters, playgrounds, everywhere, making non-officer cadre personnel feel humiliated at every step,” he said.

In fact, there is discrimination in every aspect of life in the forces. For example, even in mundane matters such as grocery shopping, there are restrictions on the amount of purchase the non-officer cadre can make; there is limit to the amount of liquor he can buy, the number of times he can buy a new car, and the size of the car he can opt for. The rules are pre-decided to put the soldiers below the rank of officers at all times. The discrimination has actually been so well institutionalised that it appears like part of the rules and regulations. ( Frontline has in its possession two notifications prescribing the limits for canteen purchase and vehicles for officers and non-officers.)

“The continued discrimination makes us feel like lesser human beings; it lowers our self-esteem to such an extent that even if we try, we will never be able to think ourselves on a par with officers, even after retirement. The dehumanising attitude of officers cannot be described in words. We are not saying that we should be kept on a par with officers in all aspects, but at least we should be treated with the dignity due to a human being,” a retired Indian Air Force technical employee said.

Sahayak system

The Navy and the IAF, however, are much better placed compared with the Army where jawans have a really tough life. Unlike their IAF and Navy counterparts, the Army jawans are mostly not technically qualified and hence end up doing menial jobs for their officers. The system of Army officers being allowed to keep sahayaks has drawn wide criticism, yet the practice continues even today. S ahayaks, who are supposed to be personal orderlies for the officer to assist in their routine official jobs, end up polishing their shoes, walking their dogs, minding their children, and doing sundry household works. “The sahayak system is the most humiliating for jawans, who are otherwise trained for combat operations. This is the worst feature of the colonial legacy that we are still carrying forward despite a Parliamentary Standing Committee having recommended its abolition,” said Vir Bahadur Singh, a retired jawan, who is spearheading a movement to end discrimination against jawans under the aegis of the Voice of Ex-Servicemen Society.

The society organised a padayatra from the Wagah border near Amritsar to Delhi from August 9-22, 2016, and submitted a memorandum to the Defence Minister demanding equality, respect and dignity, among other things. According to Vir Bahadur Singh, the discrimination continues lifelong, even after retirement: in pension, in disability pension, in family pension, in rehabilitation, in all matters. For example, jawans are not given a licence to run petrol pumps or security agencies post retirement as these are reserved for officers. Similarly, in the Army Welfare Housing Organisation (AWHO), there are separate enclaves for officers and non-officers, although everyone makes the same payment. In the ECHS (medical facilities post retirement), there are separate lines for officers.

“At least after retirement they should treat us with some respect,” he said.

In fact, the resentment is so deep-rooted that jawans pitched separate tents at Jantar Mantar in Delhi last year to press for One Rank One Pension as they did not trust the officers, who have been protesting under the aegis of the Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Movement (IESM) at the same venue.

Coming back to substandard food, according to Army insiders, there definitely is some truth in the allegation because the pictures could not have been faked. “But it cannot be generalised. This must have been a local problem, which should be identified and accountability must be fixed,” a senior Army officer said.

According to Prakash Singh, former Director General of Police of Uttar Pradesh, who had served as Director General of the BSF, the pictures do tell a sorry tale and the government must order a thorough probe. “The BSF normally takes good care of its personnel, but it is very obvious that the video has an iota of truth in it and the government should find out whether this was a local problem or a general problem, whether it was corruption or sheer carelessness or negligence.” According to him, besides specifics like food quality, the government should also ponder over the larger issue of service conditions because of late the number of people seeking premature retirement in the paramilitary forces has gone up substantially.

Poor supply chain management

It is not as if the government is not aware of the problem, but there has been no political will to set things right. So much so that even the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s reports have failed to achieve much. The CAG pointed out in its 2016 report that food items that were supplied to troops deployed in operational areas of Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern region were past their expiration date. According to PTI, the report, which was tabled in Parliament, pointed to the poor supply chain management of rations in the Army and highlighted the very low level of troop satisfaction regarding the quantity, quality and taste of rations, including meat and fresh vegetables. “The Army continues to consume ration, even after the expiry of original shelf life,” the CAG revealed. According to the report, the Army spends over Rs.1,500 crore annually for the procurement of dry and fresh rations, including rice, wheat, dal, sugar, tea, oil, tinned items, vegetables, fruits, meat and milk, to feed its 1.3 million personnel. The CAG pointed out that despite the fact that the Parliament Accounts Committee submitted its detailed report in 2011 to improve and streamline the supply chain management of ration in the Indian Army, it implemented only two of the 12 recommendations. The CAG also pointed out that the process of procurement of fresh rations was non-competitive in Northern, Western and Southern Commands, resulting in poor quality and high rates. The full requirement of rations was not met by the Army Purchase Organisation, leading to local purchase by supply depots at higher rates, and “a single vendor situation created the risk of cartels taking advantage of the lacunae in the system of purchases”, the report stated.

The lack of competition was visible as abnormal variations in the local market rate and the rates accepted by the Army persisted, the report added. The CAG noticed wide variations in the receipt of fruits and vegetables in the prescribed proportion in the Western and Eastern Commands. During a field audit of selected units and scrutiny of documents relating to the receipt and consumption of fruits and vegetables, it was observed that units did not receive fruits and vegetables according to the prescribed mix. The CAG also noted that lack of coordination between the Ministry and the Army headquarters led to over-purchase of certain items.

In fact, in 2010, the CAG submitted an identical report, but the government did not pay heed or take any corrective steps suggested in the report.

In this context, the Army chief’s directive to the troops to refrain from voicing grievances on social media has met with derision from service personnel. “What can one do other than take to social media? This is not for personal gain, it is for the larger good of all. We submitted memorandums to the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, but nothing has ever happened,” said Vir Bahadur Singh.

The defence establishment might choose to brush the issue under the carpet and pretend that all is well, but it is high time the government took corrective steps as the malaise is corroding the armed forces from within.

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