Res ipsa loquitur
The official figure for the shortage of officers in the Indian army is 24.1%, a shortfall of 11238 officers against an authorization of 46615.
Imagine the impact on the army budget, if all the deficiencies in the officer cadre were to be suddenly made up. The current revenue to capital expenditure ratio of 75:25 would go awry due to the increased salaries and subsequently, the amount budgeted for pensions would assume gargantuan proportions. It would also be a nightmare for the HR managers of the army, the bloating at the base of the steep pyramidical structure would further curtail the avenues for promotion, and lead to greater dissatisfaction among officers. However, one area in which the HR managers would breathe a sigh of relief would be resignations and premature retirements from the army. Currently, there are restrictions imposed by the army on officers desirous of moving out, with barely one-third applicants allowed to move out last year and that too after waiting for nearly a year. With the number of applicants for release reportedly multiplying this year, a full-strength officer cadre would be topmost on the wish list of army HR top brass.
As per the ministry’s annual report, the total number of officers commissioned in the army last year was over 2000 (422 from NDA, 685 from IMA, 493 from OTA and 407 from technical entries). This is barely sufficient to meet the regular wastage rate and incapable of denting the shortfall.
However, the number of officers reported to be commissioned from IMA in June this year itself has been 625, the highest ever since its inception. This increased intake seems to be one of the measures undertaken by the government to make up the deficiencies; the other being the increase in minimum service for short service and women officers from 5 to 10 years, and further extendable to 14 years.
The shortage of officers in the three services, and most notably the army, has been highlighted in the parliament time and again. It is purportedly done to play up the tough conditions that the army men (and women) are working under and to showcase the career preferences of today’s youth. It eventually ends up, justifiably, asking for better pay and perks for the army men to redress this anomaly.
The ostensible reasons for this shortage and the remedial measures have been covered extensively in the popular media and need no repetition. Notwithstanding the sophistry proffered by the military and civilian bureaucracy, a novel approach is imperative to resolve this complex issue.
Obviously, this huge shortage in the officer cadre did not occur overnight. It could have started either from a sudden increase in the authorised officer strength due to sudden expansion of the army or from a sharp reduction in the intake of officers. Most plausibly, it was a combination of the two, spread over a long period of time. But, it is bewildering that the crisis continued unabated and reached such calamitous proportions unnoticed.
What most people tend to overlook is an historical factoid which is germane to the problem. In the pre-independence era, plebeians joining as soldiers (as with clerks or subordinate officers in the civilian stream) were of a higher calibre than those joining today, as only the privileged elite could join as officers then. Most of the officers today would have, in all likelihood, joined as soldiers in that earlier era. With such an intelligent and professional subordinate cadre, the system worked smoothly in the pre-independence era. The legacy and the momentum kept it going for many years after the independence as well. When it was time to implement modern management practices and update the system, the political and military leadership was found wanting. A fair share of the incrimination needs to be apportioned to the complacency arising from the longueur between the 1971 victory and the Sri Lanka fiasco.
Besides, ‘officers’ in the Indian army parlance refers solely to the commissioned officers, not to the non-commissioned officers (NCO) and junior commissioned officers (JCO). The JCO is a rank unique to the sub-continental armies and a legacy of the British army; they were then called the Viceroy commissioned officers (VCO) and acted as a conduit between the British officers and Indian soldiers. There was no direct recruitment as a VCO. A recruit would become a VCO only by promotion and acted as a village or family elder. The units and regiments were clannish, more like an extended family or a village society, and the authority of the VCO flew largely from social, communal and filial obligations rather than from any official authority invested in him. The concept of the authority of the current JCO has not been redefined in the last 60 years, while the civil society, recruitment patterns and the organisational requirements have undergone a sea change.
At the first instance, it seems to be an issue extraneous to the debate on shortage of officers. However, it is nonplussing that with the shortages likely to stay and unlikely to be made up in the short term, the obvious answer to look within the organisation was never explored fully. The role and authority of the NCO in the US/ French/ Israeli armies should have been adapted for the JCO in the Indian army. This would have not only taken a lot of burden off the shoulders of the over-worked officers but would have also brought down the authorisation of officers in the long run, especially at junior levels.
There is another aspect of this shortage. When hostilities are imminent, a lot of peace time activities take a backseat and certain officers from non-fighting organisations viz., training schools, logistics establishments and administrative installations, are moved to the forward areas. As no war in the present scenario is likely to last more than a fortnight (even a localised conflict like Kargil was over in a couple of months), such temporary movement tends to offset the deficiencies in fighting units to some extent.
An interesting aside is the authorisation and posting of officers to units posted on UN assignments. They are almost double the standard authorisation and much greater than the actual number of officers posted with the units. Moreover, an army so hard pressed by internal and external factors has no qualms in being one of the highest providers of peacekeepers to the UN. The other competitors for this position are, hold your breath, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Is the Indian army in the same league? Where are the US, French, British and other modern armies of the world? Something is certainly amiss here. Despite the media projections, these UN assignments haven’t been unqualified successes for the Indian Army. The examples of Generals Jaitley and Raghavan easily come to mind in this regard.
Nevertheless, this press release raises hopes that the army has finally woken up to the impending challenges and the top brass is willing to learn and implement latest management principles and techniques.
A group of senior serving Indian Army officers has just completed a weeklong advanced management course to hone their organisational skills and – and profess to be satisfied with the experience. The premier Management Development Institute (MDI) in suburban Gurgaon conducted the advanced management course for the 15 officers, some of them of three-star rank.
‘The course involved latest macro-management techniques for application in warfare and in the management of various departments in the army to achieve their organizational goals more effectively,’ a defence ministry statement said.
Organisation reform and restructuring is sine qua non to rejuvenating the army. The parliamentary standing committee for defence in its 11th report suggested ‘constitution of a high level empowered committee for restructuring of Armed Forces in order to have optimum use of limited resources and to suggest trimming the force size with corresponding increase in the use of sophisticated technology’. The committee lamented in its 15th report that the suggestion
…has been totally ignored by the Ministry. The Committee further notes that the recommendation of the Committee to examine the relevance of involvement of the Defence Forces in non-defence activities has been left unanswered. Therefore, the Committee wishes to reiterate their earlier recommendation and desire that the Ministry should give a serious thought to the recommendation in order to use the scarce resource in a well-planned manner and desire to have a detailed reply in this regard.
This high level empowered committee to study and suggest reforms for the army, with time bound recommendations, is the need of the hour. The shedding of the organisational flab, rationalisation of the rank structure, reduction in shortage of officers and enhanced attractiveness of an army career will ensue from this path breaking exercise. Implementing these reforms will lead into a tumultuous and fractious period of flux for the army. The organisation will have to very carefully manage this transition; the will to complete this monumental assignment amidst organisational inertia and against deeply embedded interests will have to be displayed by the political, bureaucratic and military top brass. The cost of delay or failure will be too heavy for the nation to bear.