Wednesday, February 20, 2008

ATTRACTING TALENT TO THE INDIAN ARMY: SOME RADICAL THOUGHTS

During the last couple of months, there has been a lively debate in the media about the difficulties that the Indian Army is facing in attracting suitable material to serve as commissioned officers. This exercise has become almost a ritual, to be aired periodically, without any concrete, practical proposals emerging to address the problem in any durable, tangible manner.

Articles are routinely written, many irrelevant and impractical suggestions are made and the matter is forgotten, to be dusted out at some point of time in the future. Often, when a practical, sensible and easily implementable proposal does emerge, it is shot down by politicians and bureaucrats seeking to protect their own turfs.

One such proposal made more than two decades back visualized “lateral absorption” of military officers and men into various central para military forces, the police of various states, public sector undertakings etc. There could not have been a more sound proposal to make readily available trained, disciplined and result oriented manpower to these institutions. But nothing came of it, though every one in the government agreed to its logic. Why? The Indian Police Service had already dexterously edged Army officers out of all para military forces earlier and had ensured its monopoly in virtually all top assignments. This, apart from other hidden benefits, enabled its officers to get accelerated promotions. In house cadres of these organizations were also not willing to let in better trained military officers and men. Above all was perhaps the fact that a massive stream of income accruing from direct recruitments would reduce to a trickle if officers and soldiers were inducted in place of fresh recruits willing to even sell their lands to get these jobs.

The Army, Navy and Air Force are all facing a severe shortage of manpower at the officer level. This has been so for many years. In fact the services have got used to functioning with the shortages; the famous jugaad works equally well in the services too! There are voices who say that if all units get their full complement of officers, it actually might create man management problems! Yet, there is no denying that the shortages in many cases are completely dysfunctional.

It is not as if the military leadership is blameless in creating such conditions, often mindlessly. When General VP Malik took over as the Chief of Army Staff, he had a “brainwave”, a wave so foolish that you would not believe that the Indian Army would fall for it and cut its own feet. He decided to cut down the strength of the Army by, yes, 50,000. Reason: the reduction would save Rs500 crores annually, an amount the Chief thought he could use to buy better equipment for the Army! He, and everybody else who obsequiously advised him, had obviously not even the foggiest idea about how defence funds are released, utilized and booked! He was never going to get that extra Rs500 crores separately to use as he pleased! But the Army did lose 50,000 men.

To implement this monumental stupidity, a study was ordered to identify, post haste, the appointments which needed to be eliminated to achieve the reduction. Not surprisingly, an equally arbitrary, funnel-visioned and utterly dysfunctional, infantry company commander level hacking was executed. It added in no small measure to stress and frustration at individual officer level, not to talk of serious functional problems that the reductions caused at all levels. When the same gentleman now says after retirement that the Army is not attracting the right sort of guys to join as officers because of stress, tough lifestyle etc, he should remember that when as Chief he had a chance to improve things for them, he made them worse by that one unbelievable decision.

Opportunities and Threats

The figures of shortage of officers in the services available publicly vary widely. Graver than those are the figures of officers wanting to get out of the Army and the fact that talented young men suitable to be officers do not want this job that offers them little in a fast growing economy.

These are the real threats that need to be tackled. Can they be converted to opportunities?

The present Chief of Army Staff, General Deepak Kapoor thinks that India should go in for conscription to tide over the problem. Some others have also come out with different suggestions which need not be laboured upon as they do not appear to be either workable or thought out. Radical and original proposals need to be examined with an open mind, yes that’s the really difficult part, if these threats are to be made the opportunities that have eluded the services thus far.

Here are a few of them that have found their way into my mind.

Let Those Want To Leave Go.

This is going to sound absolutely over the top to many. Let us look at it this way. How many would not want to get into a job which is a one way trap? If the IITs, AIIMS, IIMs etc were to lay down that those who are trained in these institutions have to compulsorily serve in the government or in public sector companies in India even for, say, two years, what do you think will happen? The quality of those wanting to join will drop drastically. The better lot will simply go elsewhere.

There are a few very old and typically rigid military arguments against allowing officers to leave. One is the totally insulated one that the government has spent a lot of money training officers who have to repay that debt. The second is that if free exit is allowed, the best lot will leave. Then there are those who believe that allowing young officers to compete for, say, the civil services would be tantamount to admitting that the armed forces are an ‘inferior’ option!

First, the government spends similarly on many civilian institutions whose products are allowed to work wherever they wish to. The armed forces too need to view their splendidly trained officers as national assets rather than bonded labour. It needs to be understood that once a young man weighing various job options knows that he is free to leave the army whenever he wants to, he might well be attracted to getting trained and groomed as a leader in a military institution, if only in the realistic hope that it might enable him to get a better job in the market than he would get after doing simple graduation/post graduation from a university elsewhere. If he chooses to leave after training, the Army should be happy that it has created a quality national asset who will prove his worth somewhere else. That limited, insulated mentality has to be shed to internalize and accept this thought. Though some might leave immediately after training, many will choose to serve as officers for varying lengths of time.

The challenge will then shift from attracting talented young men to keeping those who come in interested enough to stay on for as long as they are wanted by the organization.

Encourage Those Who Have Left To Come Back

As an extension of this change, I know this suggestion will really ruffle rigid minds, those who leave should be allowed to keep a lien on their service. A seniority protection clause for an absence of, say, two years should be included to encourage those who may want to return to do so without their career prospects being damaged. Their absence should be best viewed as a sort of study leave because they will come back experientially enriched. Return after a longer absence may invite loss of seniority equal to the period of absence.

Give Post Graduate Degree On/After Commissioning

Presently, cadets passing out from the NDA get a graduation degree. They have to undergo further training in the training institutes of respective services before they become officers, but their academic qualification remains graduation. This additional training period plus an additional year or so of distance education after commissioning should enable all officers to get a post graduate degree in some disciplines.

This will not only help increase their self esteem but also equip them to get better jobs and even pursue further studies should they choose to at any time. As of now, a graduate who get in knows that he is going to stagnate with that degree for a long time, a time criminally wasted for those looking for bettering their prospects in this fast moving and competitive world. Is there any practical use of giving post graduate degrees to the very few officers who do HC/LDMC after more than 20 years of service, as is the case now?

Do Away With Rank of Major/Captain

In good old days, Lieutenant Colonels used to command units and were promoted next straight to the rank of Brigadier, without becoming a Colonel first as the latter was considered an appointment, not rank. Thanks to the mockery of the rank structures made by the police and para military forces, the Army was compelled to upgrade unit commanders to the rank of Colonel. Then itself, company commanders should have also logically been made Lt Cols and the rank of Major should have been abolished. But, the Army literally shot itself in the foot by introducing one more level in the rank structure by keeping company commanders as Majors and creating new appointments for selection grade Lt Cols, downgraded to the level of Second-in-Command! Time scale promotions were also not upgraded to the equivalent rank of battalion commanders, i.e. Colonel.

It took the Army almost two decades to realize its folly, only partially, to make Lt Col a time scale rank! Earlier, officers used to attain company commander rank, Major, after 11 years; they now become company commanders as Lt Cols after 13 years! Earlier, officers used to become time scale Lt Cols at 21 years; now they become time scale Cols at 26 years, a full five years later! So, now you not only become a selection grade battalion commander later than before but you also get an equivalent time scale rank five years later than you got twenty years back! It is indeed a shocker that no one has yet realized that effectively, promotions have slowed down at junior levels rather than becoming faster.

The rank of Major is now functionally equivalent to a Captain. One of these is now clearly superfluous and needs to be done away with. Officers should also get their time scale rank as Lt Cols faster than the 11 years it used to take them earlier to reach the then equivalent rank of Major. Similarly, time scale rank of Col should also be given not at 26 years but even much earlier than the 21 years it used to take earlier to get the then equivalent time scale rank of Lt Col.

Effect In House Improvements in Environmental Conditions

It is all very well for the military top brass to bemoan poor salaries and wash their hands off. Is there not a hell of a lot that they can do within the organization to improve the environmental conditions, particularly of junior officers? Is there not a drastic attitudinal correction required for this to happen? Let us take a few examples less traveled.

The specifications of office and residential accommodation were laid down perhaps forty years back. We live in a different world now. Has the necessity been felt, for example, to provide air conditioned offices and residential accommodation? Even today in Delhi, not in a remote post on the China border, you can find offices of junior Army officers with ramshackle furniture and drinking water kept in earthen pitchers! What about transport? When a young boy on the street spots a Lt Col traveling in a rickety military truck on duty in uniform, he has to be crazy or stupid or worthless to even visualize himself in such a pathetic state after more than 20 years of service!

It’s not that things can’t improve. Some of the guest houses with attendant services that the Army has all over the country for senior officers will better the best suites available in the best hotels. Same goes for transport, magically available in plenty for their wives, dogs, kids and others! Unfortunately all these ‘perks’ come very late in the career, and to a very few who can rise due to the extremely limited top appointments functionally available in the armed forces.

There are many, many more examples of this exceptionally wide chasm that has been created in house. For the overwhelming majority of junior and middle level officers in the Army, it is a dog’s life and, tragically, the trainers are not outsiders.

Will Things Improve?

In India, we tend to react usually after a serious crisis that just cannot be ignored is upon us. The reactions are also usually knee-jerk and are at best a short term patch-up job. Pro-active, creative thinking is somehow not encouraged/possible in the rigid, hierarchical and bureaucratic structures that are found in most departments of the government, including the military.

BH Liddell Hart, the Captain who taught Generals had famously said: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into a military mind is getting an old one out.” The problem is clearly not limited to the Indian armed forces. Indians have of late shown their exceptional creative genius, as a result of which the country is now on an unprecedented growth path. This is going to throw up even more challenges to the military brass as they struggle to get the right talented young men to join the armed forces as officers.

There is no reason to suggest that those in uniform are any less than those in the street. All that is needed perhaps, to use an old cliché, is that that they open the parachutes of their minds and let the fresh air of new ideas and serious attitudinal corrections come in unhindered! If they do so before the crisis becomes more than alarming, they will be able to attract the right talent to take up the profession of arms, even in an economy which is likely to continue to gallop for a long time.