But only the first faltering baby step, not the final solution.
The Government of India has on 14th June 2020 announced a dramatic and revolutionary change in the recruitment pattern for “Personnel below Officer Rank” (PBOR) of the Indian Armed Forces, to be implemented from 2023. The rationale behind the new scheme is the pension bill of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Salaries and pensions together consume the largest amount of every annual defence budget, leaving very little, if any, for expenses relating to modernisation of the arms and equipment to fight the possible battles and wars of the future. And those, as President Vladimir Putin of Russia has shown the world very recently, are not yet obsolete notions that modern humankind has left behind a generation or two ago.
The new “Tour of Duty” (ToD) recruitment scheme has been evolved as a solution to the pension problem. Financial savings are to be made by inducting high-school qualified volunteer young men between the ages of 17.5 and 21 (later raised to 23), overwhelmingly farmers’ sons from rural India, into the Armed Forces, and then dismissing the bulk of them (75%) after four years. With as yet no guarantees of other government jobs such as in the Central or State Armed Police Forces, ordinary Police, Railways, Airports Authority, Port Trusts or other harbour management authorities, Fire Service departments, government hospital staff, or any other kind of suitable employment.
The other 25%, those selected for retention as full-service professional soldiers, are to be re-inducted after a gap in service, on fresh Terms of Service. Predictably, this and other anomalies of seeming “mala fide” intention, have met with criticism. Many senior military retied officers have explained the very real demerits and dangers of this system that is soon to be implemented. Other analysts have spelled out the inherent dangers to India’s social fabric that the thousands of unemployed ex-“Agniveer” soldiers, as they are to be called, will pose when frustrated at continuing joblessness.
Organisational problems are likely to be experienced in the implementation of this scheme at the grand roll-out of the scheme in totality. A “Pilot Batch” would have helped immensely, rather than this gigantic leap in the dark, organisationally speaking. Importantly, it would have helped to judge “volunteer enthusiasm”, for want of a better term, after the scheme had run for eight years.
But the biggest danger to the Armed Forces as a whole, and potentially most damaging to the Army, is the expected impact upon the quality of discipline. Discipline is the bedrock of the effectiveness of the Armed Forces, and even the intangible “regimental spirit” or fighting spirit is built upon discipline. The ToD scheme prescribes a training and indoctrination period of 23 weeks, half that of the earlier system. After about 12 to 16 years of the operation of this scheme there will be no Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) from the earlier recruitment and basic training systems left in the “New Model Army” that will result, since most will have retired by then. Every single person below officer rank will then be someone who has started his career as a ToD soldier, with its own outlook on military discipline, which cannot be altered later on re-induction for the chosen 25% retained. And as is well-known, it is the NCOs who run the day-to-day ground-level tasks and enforce discipline in any army. The nature of discipline in the Armed Forces will have altered permanently, and the older level of discipline will never be possible to bring back. There will be cases of shootings of NCOs and JCOs and of “fragging” of officers to deal with.
And yet, in spite of its inherent and potential dangers and its glaring faults, it is a step in the right direction, though a small and faltering step, and one that is certainly not a final solution to the problems it is trying to solve.
A completely new manning system for the Armed Forces is actually what India needs today. This new recruitment system is indeed a positive step forward, even though the inherent potential for loss of adequate military discipline exists and a glaring lacuna in good faith in the retention process will need to be addressed.
India has a labour surplus economy, which makes conscription the only sensible option for suitable military manpower induction. From the basic structural requirement of macro-economics, what India needs is Universal Conscription, because it is a historically proven method of creating and maintaining large armies at the lowest possible cost. Conscripts would be the entire youth of the country, from both rural and urban India, and from all classes and segments of society, rich, poor, and middle-class alike, undergoing their “national service” or “rashtra sewa” obligation to the nation. And therefore, conscripts will only be paid a stipend, not a salary, for the duration of their obligatory “tour of duty”. And unlike in the announced scheme, a conscription intake would not be restricted to high-school passed youth alone. The much-smaller professional cadre of the same 25% would be selected volunteers from conscripts being released every year, with continuity in service for pension from the date of their joining as conscripts. The age of entering the Armed Forces as obligatory conscripts should be 18 years for all young men, high school pass or otherwise. For the educated youth, who do not wish to serve as PBOR, there should be the option of serving as Short Service Commissioned Officers, as per an existing scheme. The vast difference in outlay on salaries of the serving Armed Forces PBOR would greatly ease the existing pressure on the defence budget. But this is a big subject which needs explanation at much greater length than as concluding paragraphs.
This ToD scheme itself, in spite of its glaring faults and inherent lurking dangers, treated as a Pilot Project both administratively and as a test of “volunteer enthusiasm”, can be useful. It can lead to the kind of Armed Forces that India really needs, both affordable and militarily effective. That is, provided the Government of India views it as such, and takes swift remedial action to prevent this scheme from running for more than eight years at most.
Born into an Army family in 1948, Gautam Das was in the Indian Army from 1968 to 1991, where he was an infantry officer of the 11th Gorkha Rifles.