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Defence challenge: Luring the youth

The decline in intake have been noticed decades back but successive governments failed to take remedial measures. The situation is alarming now, reports Kanwar Sandhu.
Hindustan Times | By Kanwar Sandhu, Chandigarh
UPDATED ON JAN 21, 2008 12:25 AM IST

General Deepak Kapoor’s proposal of conscription, or compulsory military service, in the army has dragged back to focus the desperate shortage of officers in the defence forces.

The decline in intake was noticed decades back but successive governments failed to take remedial measures. The situation is alarming now.

As early as the 1980s, the defence establishment realised that the country’s youth was shying away from a career in the military. When courses at training institutes like the Indian Military Academy and the National Defence Academy began to go under-subscribed, Army Headquarters carried out a survey on 5,000 students to know their career preferences.

The Foundation of Organisational Research carried out another survey among nearly 4,600 graduate and postgraduates. What clearly came out was that the defence services were no longer a preferred career option.

Once the military schools felt the crunch, the army formations also began to sense the shortage. Seeing the decline in standards and officer morale, the three defence chiefs submitted a joint paper to the government on the matter.

Piecemeal measures, like free rations, have been initiated over the years, but there was no long-term treatment tried.

The gradual degradation of the monetary status of defence officers is seen as the key reason behind training courses going under-subscribed. This is apparent from the large number of qualifiers for these courses opting for the private sector after their selection for the Indian Military Academy.

What is significant is that a majority of senior defence officers’ children are opting to stay out of military service, primarily because of the disruptive lifestyle they have led.

Changing social requirements are also casting a shadow.

Unlike three decades ago, the matrimonial prospects of young defence officers have declined drastically, mainly because of the higher education levels among women.

The majority of them would not like to waste professional qualifications by marrying officers whose postings change every two to three years and often to obscure places. This is in contrast to the times when defence officers’ wives were content with teaching jobs at the place of posting and sundry activities at the Army Wives’ Welfare Association.

The government’s inability to arrange second careers for officers retiring at the age of 50-52 years — over 90 per cent of the total strength retires at this age — through lateral induction into other services or otherwise also made many choose careers with more stability and longevity.

What made things worse was the inability of the service headquarters and Ministry of Defence to set their house in order.

Squabbling among officers on issues like promotions and postings is common.

The result of this crisis was General Kapoor’s talk about conscription.

Although some countries have had compulsory military service for two to three years, this was only when they faced a security threat. Except for Israel, most have decided against it.

Since compulsory military service does not affect the officer cadre, it would not help overcome the shortfall problem here as the armed forces face no problem of recruitment of jawans, airmen or sailors.

Instead, what is desirable is to go in for professional defence services based on voluntary service and giving them their due. A separate Pay Commission for defence services, with adequate representation to them, is a necessity.

But the problem goes deeper. Joining the Army is more than a job; you walk in to a whole way of life and set of values. An army, any army, is hierarchical, authoritarian, isolates its personnel, fosters conformity and unthinking obedience.

In return, the officer gets a strong sense of belonging, personal dignity and worth. Military values have become anachronistic, with young men and families not willing to make this trade-off.

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