The Indian Army, one of the world’s 10 largest employers with a headcount of over 1.2 million, has an officer shortfall problem. The proud fighting force is short of 9,106 officers, defence minister Manohar Parrikar said in a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha recently. This is about 18% short, less than the alarming 26% in 2010, but still an uncomfortably high number. The shortage of officers has been attributed, among other things, to tough selection procedures, difficult service conditions, perceived high degree of risk involved in the service career and a conscious restriction on numbers that could be trained without compromising on quality of training.
It is crucial that a force of this size has an adequate complement of officers; the Indian Army stands out in that its officer casualties are often disproportionately high compared to other armies because they lead from the front. There is plenty of fighting for the Army to do even without a war; battling insurgency claims young officers, such as the two captains from the elite Special Forces recently killed in Kashmir. The Army’s impressive recruitment advertisements are designed to attract more youth to serve as officers and wear their heart on their sleeves, but now the ads of “India’s best construction company and biggest logistic operator” have been taken too literally, as when the Defence Ministry called on it to build pontoon bridges over the Yamuna floodplains for an Art of Living function. This event is not the only one where the Army has been called upon; it is also asked to pull children out of borewells, build footbridges for the Commonwealth Games, maintain law and order in a country prone to communal strife and step in when natural calamities strike. These are unlikely to be reasons why nationalistic youth sign up for the forces.
Add to this the seemingly never-ending wait for the One Rank One Pension scheme to be implemented, with all its associated bitterness, and it becomes clear that the Army’s allure as a place to work is fading. Sad incidents such as the avalanche on Siachen bring home harshly the risks of the job, but these are a given; more relevantly, youth are ready to challenge the time-tested notions of nationalism and patriotism that are so essential to the Army’s appeal. Some wish to contribute to nation building in other ways, or opt for more lucrative careers in the private sector. To arrest this trend, the Army needs to be allowed to do the job it is mandated to, emoluments need to rise and the lives of soldiers need to be valued in more meaningful ways than the sad gun salutes to heroic men who come back home in coffins.