A dying tradition

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Photo: AP

WHEN RAHUL Srivastava (name changed) was commissioned into the Indian Army in December 2000, he was overjoyed to be following in his father’s and brother’s footsteps. Money, Srivastava was clear, was not his priority. The army, he knew, was the wrong place for it anyway. “As army officers, our primary role is to prepare for a war. And I was ready to sweat it out for the nation,” he says. Seven years later, he had quit the service, discontented and ready for a corporate job.

“I was doing the job of a police officer,” Srivastava says, looking back at what led to his personal tipping point of opting out. “The moment a situation got beyond what the police could handle (as happens in most cases), we were called in. I was caught up in flood relief and riot control. And, worse, my efforts weren’t even recognised.” The 32-year-old father of a four-year-old says he will never encourage his son to take up his former career.

Disenchantment is an emotion shared by most officers who have opted for premature retirement. Srivastava touches on some of the other reasons he no longer finds the army an attractive prospect: poor promotional avenues owing to the army’s steep pyramidal structure, zero opportunity for lateral induction into other Central services, inadequate housing for family and insufficient educational facilities for the children as army personnel move across the country. As one retired Brigadier who spoke to TEHELKA on condition of anonymity said, “If a man agrees to risk his life for the nation, the government should assure him that it will look after his backyard. Otherwise we are in for tragedy.”

The Indian Army is, at present, facing a shortage of about 11,200 officers — 24 percent of its sanctioned strength of 46,615 officers. The situation looks unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future — in 2007, 190 cadets signed up for the National Defence Academy as against the institution’s total strength of 300 seats. The Indian Military Academy (IMA) had only 86 enrolments the same year as against its allotted strength of 250. Meanwhile, as the need to tackle the acute shortage of officers becomes urgent, few miss the irony of talk of establishing a second Officers’ Training Academy, on the lines of the one in Chennai, for short-service commission officers.

Another source of the officer shortage comes from the number of premature retirements. Between the years 2003-07, there were 3,474 officers applying for premature retirement, of whom 2,076 were released. There were 387 such applicants in 2003; by 2007, this figure had more than tripled, going up to 1,130.

 

Injustice Ex-servicemen return their gallantry medals to protest the government’s indifference Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

The hard fact the armed forces have been grappling with for years now is their diminishing appeal as a career option for the country’s young. Income issues in the services have been increasingly vocalised over the years — in February 2009, for instance, hundreds of ex-servicemen returned their medals to protest the government’s unresponsiveness to calls for pension parity among those of equal rank and length of service. While the Sixth Pay Commission last year made an unprecedented gesture at pay-scale revision, the forces’ dissatisfaction continues — the revisions have not gone far enough, they say. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s performance audit for 2008 has thrown stark highlight over the inefficiencies now systemic to the armed services — inadequacies in technology and arms capability, seemingly endless delays in delivery of indigenously-produced weapons systems and questionable procurement deals whose exposure stalls the expenditure of crores of budgetary allocations. None of these make a positive contribution to morale. Add now the rising incidence of suicide and nervous collapse among serving defence personnel and an already bleak picture of life in the forces is only further filled in.

“In our time, one joined the army for the adventure and the lifestyle. But today, all you need to be is smart and fluent in English. When a person has this kind of exposure, he turns around and says, ‘Am I mad to go serve the nation in Siachen?’” points out a retired Brigadier, who requested anonymity. “Times are changing. You’ve got to change with the times. How long can you keep flogging the slogan of naam, namak, nishan (name, loyalty and brand),” he adds.

But Major General (retired) Mrinal Suman argues that it is incorrect to claim that youth response to a career in the services is poor. “An adequate number of bright candidates still aspire for the services,” he says. “It is unfair to label them riff-raff (as some senior officers tend to do). It is our selection system that needs re-examining,” he says. Suman has been on the Union Public Service Commission’s Services Selection Board, which screens civil service aspirants, and says he has witnessed candidates for the defence services being rejected for little more than alleged angularities of personality. “A school captain of a famous public school was rejected when he stated that he disliked killing helpless animals for human consumption. The assessor thought he was soft and lacked the necessary killing instinct,” Suman says.

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HARD NUMBERS

The Indian Army is facing a shortage of 11,200 officers

The Indian Navy needs 1430 more officers

The Indian Air Force has a shortfall of 1368 officers

1130 Army officers applied for premature retirement in 2007

284 Navy officers applied for premature retirement in 2007

287 Air Force officers applied for premature retirement in 2007

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Colonel Malhotra (name changed) has applied for retirement but is still serving because his orders haven’t come through. “I can’t wait to quit the army. It used to be such a noble profession, especially at a time when my father was an officer. However, today there has been an erosion of status, respect and self-esteem,” he says. Roma (name changed), his wife, who is a professor at a Roorkee college, and their three children have been living in Roorkee since the birth of the youngest, a boy, now 16 years old. “Roma stayed back because she had her career and the children’s education to take care of. I’m like a stranger to my son.,” Malhotra says. The 48-year-old says he will make sure his children have nothing to do with the army. “There’s no question. I don’t want them to endure the trauma and get nothing in return,” he says.

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