Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Young officers

Almost 90 years after the British first threw the door open to Indian officers (the pre-1919 army was entirely British) and made a King’s commission the ultimate goal for the aspiring youth of the previous century, the wheel has turned full circle.

It is not that today’s youth don’t have it in them, but that they have other options. Last year, the then army chief General J.J. Singh told India Today, “We don’t have a problem. There are lots of young men who want to join the army, the academy seats are always full.”

The cat, though, was let out of the bag when his successor General Deepak Kapoor recently warned that if the situation continues, the Government may have to consider compulsory military service: “We are not at that stage yet, but should the need arise, the Government may have to think about it.”

India Today
Sandeep Unnithan

The Indian Army has always been a force of volunteers, even at the height of the 1962 war, which was termed as a grave external emergency. The warning was clearly aimed at the Sixth Central Pay Commission, which will submit its recommendations to the Government in April.

The army has already asked that the pay of officers be doubled. “The implication is that if the Government does not hike pay substantially, the armed forces will have no option but to suggest politically unpopular moves like conscription,” says an official.

Doubling salaries, the army says, requires a three-per cent jump in its budget for allowances to officers, which constitutes nine per cent of its total budget for pay and allowances.

Last year, apart from a vigorous media campaign, Defence Minister A.K. Antony had announced a number of steps to make a career in the army attractive for the youth, including timebound promotions up to the rank of colonel, professional courses for officers who retire at a young age, and more service selection boards for screening and interviewing candidates.

Evidently, none of this has worked. Though there is no shortage of soldiers—every year there are 10,000-15,000 applicants for one post—the army is vexed by the declining number of applicants for the posts of officers and a dearth of young captains, majors and colonels.

It is probably for the first time anywhere in the world that soldiers are coming in and officers are not,” says Major General (retired) Surjit Singh. Part of it can be attributed to the inability of the government to pay higher salaries to attract talent, which finds other, more rewarding avenues that are also relatively risk-free.

Today, a management graduate starts at a salary higher than the army chief’s Rs 66,000 per month.

The army says it faces a threepronged challenge: to attract new talent, to keep officers from leaving, and to put an end to the shortage of young officers.

From commanding a battalion to wearing a general’s epaulettes— easily the highest privileges—nothing seems attractive enough.

Not only are we burning the candle from both ends but also from the middle,” says a senior army official. Even the traditional feeders—the 19 Sainik Schools, five military schools and the Rashtriya Indian Military Academy—which used to produce over 2,000 eligible youth every year, seem to be drying up, due in part to myopic policies.

Fees at the Sainik Schools has quadrupled in the past eight years to cross Rs 40,000 per year. So instead of rectifying class imbalances—the reason the schools were conceived in 1961—they are now out of the reach of the weaker sections.

This year, the army has doubled its intake of short service commission (SSC) officers—who are trained for 10 months and serve the force for a minimum of five years— from 500 in 2004. Still, ssc entries constitute only 20 per cent of the army’s present strength, whereas armies of the developed world, which, like the Indian army, are scouring white-collar industry for talent, are largely made up of short-serving officers.

What the Indian Army has done, however, is to try and incentivise SSCS by increasing the remuneration. Its recommendations to the Pay Commission include giving SSC officers Rs 1 lakh as loyalty bonus at the end of every year of service.

More such steps are needed to increase the intake of SSC officers to make up for the current shortfall.

The army should shorten their stint to two years and train them within three months for specific tasks,” suggests Singh.

These officers should be allowed to leave after the period of compulsory service. This will inject young blood into the army,” he adds.

Clearly, the army needs more such booster shots in its hour of need