The big story: Battle weary
Overstretched, overstressed, underpaid ? the Indian Army needs more than just an image makeover, writes Veenu Sandhu.Updated: Jun 25, 2006 04:26 IST
In February 2005, when Lt Gen JJ Singh took over as the Chief of the Army Staff, the country saw a face of the army which seldom comes before television cameras. During a press conference at Western Command, Chandimandir, the Chief struggled to hold back tears as he recalled a Kashmiri terrorist’s family pleading mercy for their newly-married son.
Clearly, the Lt Gen, who was to lead the 1.13 million-strong Indian Army, was a soldier with a heart. A little over a year later, this image of the army being a strong yet gentle force has taken a beating. After two of its people — Shaura Chakra winner Capt Sumit Kohli and Lt Sushmita Chakravorty, both posted in the forward sectors — committed suicide, the top brass of the world’s third largest army not only distanced itself from them and their families, it also cast aspersions on their personal lives and made statements that smack of gender bias.
This, when the army is already stretching itself under a huge shortage of officers below the rank of lieutenant colonel. According to defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s statement in the Rajya Sabha this January 1, the army is short of 11,256 officers.
In post-liberalised India, when a youngster is faced with the choice of a fairly comfortable life, with an enviable salary plus perks, and stress within well manageable limits, the army is clearly not his first choice. Faced with multiple challenges, it might well be time for the old order to change and the army to reinvent itself. Several retired generals and defence experts opine that the force could start by looking at the five ‘S’s’: salary, stress, seniority, security and sensitivity.
“The army cannot be compared with any other profession, not even other government appointments such as the IAS, IPS or IFS. An army officer’s job requirements and level of professional and personal commitment are completely different,” says former vice-chief of army staff, Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (retd). “There is no doubt that India is shining economically.
The salary and perks offered in the private sector are far more than what an army officer gets. This realisation hits him when he compares himself with his friends and classmates after five to 10 years in the profession,” adds the retired general. He says that though the Prime Minister has announced the sixth pay commission, there ought to be a separate pay commission for the army.
Pune-settled Lt Gen DB Shekatkar (retd), who was the commandant of the Mhow Infantry School, however, feels pay is a very small part of it. “Happiness is a state of mind. Give a man Rs. one lakh per month, and he might still not be happy. Besides, no army in the world can pay as much as the corporate sector,” he says.
Short of officers at a level where maximum work happens, the army today is clearly overstretched. Even while it continues to combat insurgency in the Northeast, the force has also been constantly involved in counter-insurgency operations and proxy wars in the west and north for the last two decades. As a result, troops are coming to peace stations for shorter stints, says Lt Gen Oberoi.
Staff shortage coupled with higher operational tasks has taken a toll. Since 2002, 430 officers and other ranks in the armed forces have committed suicide. The army, which is also the most visible of the three forces, leads with 96 suicides in 2003, 100 in 2004 and 92 in 2005.
Gen. Oberoi, however, counters that the ratio of suicides vis-à-vis strength of the army has remained the same. But he agrees that stress levels have skyrocketed. “More so, the profile of the peace and field stations have changed,” says Maj Gen RK Kaushik (retd), adviser, National Disaster Management Authority. “Peace stations are no longer peaceful, given the constant threat to internal security,” he explains. With internal violence on the rise, the army’s involvement will only increase, cautions Lt Gen Shekatkar.
Besides operational stress, an officer has to deal with inhospitable conditions, constant fear of being accused of human rights violations and his own slipping status in society while he continues to work on a zero-error syndrome despite half the minimum required strength.
While counselling helps, the challenge to improve the internal functioning of the army lies with the top-brass. “Unhealthy competitive spirit adds to stress and needs to be reduced,” says Gen. Shekatkar. He believes that senior officers need to realise that a soldier killing five militants doesn’t alone qualify as good performance. If he has prevented five men from joining terrorist outfits, that’s a bigger achievement and needs to be rewarded. As of now, only visible results invite a citation. The staged encounter in Siachen was a fallout of this, say the generals.
Defence experts also feel that boys and girls joining the army today ought to be given some time to be moulded as soldiers, considering that they have led cushy lives for the last 18 to 20 years. “You can’t make Napoleons out of them in two years,” says Lt. Gen. Shekatkar. Gen. Oberoi terms it a social rather than professional issue. “The government and society should treat the soldier who fights for them with dignity.”
When it comes to promotions, the army has a very steep pyramid-like structure. “There are only some sixty lieutenant generals in the large Indian army,” says a retired colonel. Though in December 2004, the army implemented the decision to give quicker, time-scale promotions till the rank of Lt. Col., the pyramid suddenly narrows beyond this. “This pyramid needs to be flattened. More appointments are needed at the higher level,” says Lt Gen Oberoi.
Defence experts believe that lateral placement in other services and departments such as the BSF and CRPF should also be considered due to large-scale superscession in the army. The concept of the Annual Confidentiality Report (ACR) also needs to be looked into, they add. Even a tenth of a mark lost in the ACR because of a bias against the officer can cost him his next rank.
A seventeen-year-old joins the NDA and goes on to the IMA. It is here that he takes the final step over the threshold to wear the pips, becoming an officer of the Indian Army and remaining so until he retires. But nothing prepares him for life in the civil sector — a reason why many officers nearing retirement start feeling unsure about the life ahead. Many of them, who are determined not to put their feet up, face another challenge: of looking for and finding the right job post-retirement.
Lt Gen Arjun Ray (retd), former commandant of the Leh Corps formed after the 1999 Kargil conflict, is of the opinion that army training should also prepare officers in competencies such as innovation and the concept of life-long learning which are a must in today’s knowledge society. “Also, the management concepts taught in the army today are not in sync with modern, technical management skills. We need to revamp this,” says Lt. Gen. Ray, now settled in Bangalore.
Increasing vacancies in the Short Service Commission, which allows an officer the choice of another life five years after service, also needs to be looked into. “In life, space is what gives you momentum,” says Maj Gen Kaushik adding that within the army, the best is being done and cannot be stretched beyond a limit.
So perhaps the solution lies in going outside the frame of the army and also getting more people into this frame, he says.
He explains that while the corporate sector picks people on the basis of visible skills, the army selects its officers on other softer skills, such as qualities of leadership, commitment, group cohesion et al, which matter everywhere — “The two could consider a partnership and establish a happy rotation between the army and the corporate sector.” In fact, a survey undertaken by defence portal, DefenceIndia.com, found that 70 per cent of small and medium enterprises prefer ex-servicemen for the post requiring man-management skills, especially in large scale and labour-intensive units.
In the last few years, the army has by and large come across as a garrison which blocks society out and at times, is even indifferent to its own ranks and their families. Capt Kohli and Lt Chakravorty’s cases were examples of this. “As per rules, no army honours are given to officers who commit suicide. Even so, the army should have made some gesture of sympathy. After all, it’s a huge loss for the family,” says Lt Gen Shekatkar. “Greater transparency is needed and certain procedural bureaucracy has to be removed,” he says, adding that truth ought to be shared with people.
In fact, the army’s role needs a complete relook, says Lt Gen Ray. “Its role has to shift from war winning to war prevention,” adds the general who tried to do exactly that to ease out hostility in the Leh sector.