gfiles magazine

February 9, 2011

NATIONAL SECURITY | defence services | policy blunders
Shooting ourselves in the feet
It is time to overturn detrimental decisions rather than justifying them
EVERY organization has its archetypal character and traits, some positive and some negative. The services are no exception. They have numerous admirable attributes but one major failing is their penchant for making a change for the sake of change. For no ostensible rationale, well tested practices and policies that have stood the test of time and served the services well are worked over and altered. It is a case of shooting oneself in the foot.

The problem of shortage of officers in the services has been defying a solution. There is a combined shortfall of 14,244 officers in the three services.

It is commonly pointed out that making mistakes is not as bad as persisting with them. Like all bureaucratic organizations, the services find it extremely difficult to admit their blunders – thereby making rectification impossible. Instead of extricating themselves boldly from an untenable abyss, they try to justify their actions through frequent policy amendments and get sucked deeper into a hole. The following issues illustrate this.

Raising of NDA entry criteria
The problem of shortage of officers in the services has been defying a solution. As stated by Defence Minister AK Antony in the Lok Sabha in August 2010, there is a shortage of 14,244 officers – 11,500 in the Army, 1,507 in the Navy and 1,237 in the Air Force. It is often said that an adequate number of suitable youths are not joining the services because other professions have become more lucrative. Under-subscription of seats at the National Defence Academy (NDA) is cited.
Unfortunately, the primary cause of the under-subscription is of the services’ own making. Till the 1980s, NDA enjoyed the “first pick advantage” and attracted the brightest youths. As Class X was the minimum qualification for entry to the NDA and the age group was 15-17 years, entry into the Academy was the first career option available. Understandably, parents encouraged their sons to sit for the NDA examination and be settled in a career at the earliest. As no other career option was available at that stage, most bright boys considered it prudent to give the NDA a try.
Further, as the average age of candidates at entry was around 16 years, their trainability quotient was very high. Early and middle adolescence are undoubtedly the best stages for moulding as per services’ requirements. With motivational levels high, young cadets of impressionable age easily developed the necessary mental and physical robustness.
NDA cadets, after four years’ training, got commission at an average age of 20 years and kept the age profile young at junior levels. Moreover, they served the services for longer periods. Resultantly, for the same quantum of resources invested in training an officer, the services got better returns by way of longer service span.
In a blunder of monumental proportions, the entry qualification was raised to 10+2. Consequently, the age group rose to 16-and a-half to 19 years. The fallout of this ill-advised move was quick and severe. NDA became one of many choices, if not the last one. Most candidates sat for the NDA examination only after failing to make the grade elsewhere.
With an average age of over 18 years at entry, cadets are near-adults. With established mindsets, habits and behavioural traits, they are difficult to train. Since the usual age at commissioning has climbed to 22 years, the service span has correspondingly reduced.
The justification given for this misguided move is laughable. It was stated that 10+2 qualification is essential to grant a graduation degree to cadets at the time of passing out to help them in having a second career after retirement. Can there be a more ridiculous reason? While selecting a young boy, the imperatives of a military career are being subordinated to his post-retirement resettlement after 30 years or more of military service.

Induction of women
In the early 1990s, when the euphoria over induction of women was still going strong, a group of Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) was overheard discussing the issue in all seriousness. The oldest remarked, “The Army has enough problems at hand. I do not know why another one is being sought.” Another declared, “The Army is going to rue its decision in the near future.” There was a rare unanimity in the group – they were all convinced that the move to induct women was ill-conceived and unwarranted.
The events of the past few years have proved their apprehensions to be prophetic. The JCOs foresaw what the top brass failed to. Instead of earning kudos for giving women a chance, the services are getting flak from the judiciary, media and self-appointed experts. Demands are being made to grant permanent commission to women in the combat arms, a demand that is unprecedented in any army. Worse, some have gone to the ridiculous extent of demanding all-women battalions. A matter that critically affects the health of the services has been belittled as one of “equality of sexes”.
The decision to induct women, taken in the early 1990s by a service Chief, was neither need-based nor well thought-out. No attempt was made to study the long-term implications of the multiple issues involved. In other words, a decision of colossal significance was taken in a totally cavalier and hasty manner. The first batch of women Short Service Commission (SSC) officers joined in 1992. As the other two services did not want to be seen as “male chauvinists”, they followed suit. Soon a race got underway between the three services.
Till date, no one has been able to justify the decision to induct women in the services. The low-tech Indian military is totally dependent on the raw physical strength of its manpower. With their abysmally poor physical fitness standards, women just cannot perform these tasks. Moreover, they suffer from frequent back problems, pelvic injuries and stress fractures. As very few desk jobs are available, most commanders are at a loss to employ them gainfully.
Instead of contributing to the effectiveness of the organization, women have become an encumbrance as considerable resources are diverted towards ensuring their comfort, dignity and safety. Worse, every commander runs the risk of being accused of sexual discrimination, harassment and even exploitation. It is no wonder that no commander wants women as they are considered a liability.
The SSC tenure was five years, extendable to 10 years. It has since been increased to 14 years. One does not need to be a visionary to understand that grant of SSC to women at 24 years of age is the most impractical proposition. That is the time for them to get married and raise their families. With two-child norms, they spend most of their service tenure involved with their children. For every delivery they are exempted physical activities for three years. A woman SSC officer is hardly ever available for military activities.
Champions of sexual equality are very selective in their demand. No demand has ever been made to induct women as soldiers. Women want to join only as officers, in the erroneous belief that an officer’s job is soft and easy. When reality dawns on them, they resort to the standard ploy of the weaker sex needing special dispensation. As regards their acceptability as leaders, the troops consider their induction to be a political gimmick that merits no serious deliberation. “How can a leader, who is unable to carry her personal weapon and equipment and keep pace with us, be expected to lead us in war?” is a common refrain of the troops.

Cadre review, mushrooming senior appointmentsWith a view to improving officers’ promotional prospects and to offset the effects of largescale upgradation of civil appointments, the services resorted to creating a huge number of senior appointments. Comparisons are often made with police appointments to justify this. Admittedly, every State police force has dozens of Directors General of Police (DGP). State governments can upgrade or downgrade any appointment to accommodate chosen incumbents, job content notwithstanding. It is always a political decision. A DGP might look after purchase of 100 computers or furniture. The services cannot follow the police in this.

Instead of earning kudos for giving women a chance, the services are getting flak from the judiciary, media and self-appointed experts.

All higher headquarters have become bloated and overstaffed. With overabundance of General Officers – red tabs and stars have lost their exclusivity. The stature of senior ranks has got diluted. Every alternate room in the Services Headquarters (SHQ) is occupied by a Brigadier or a General Officer. It is a sad sight to see them flitting between various offices, clutching bundles of files.
A job done earlier by a Brigadier is now being carried out by a Lieutenant General. Further, he has a Major General as his deputy and two to three Brigadiers to head different sections. Thus, a Brigadier has been substituted by two General Officers and two/three Brigadiers. As the job content has not changed materially, functioning has become totally bureaucratic and decision making is the main casualty. Decisions taken by a Brigadier earlier are now taken by a Lieutenant General. The emergence of multiple tiers has increased paperwork. As every link in the chain wants to remain in the loop and retain its relevance, urgency becomes inconsequential.
The Indian Army follows a system of command and staff streams. After doing mandatory command tenure, officers are sidestepped into staff appointments. As command appointments are limited, it has become a challenge for the organization to accommodate all aspirants. Consequently, the duration of command tenures has been considerably curtailed, affecting continuity of command adversely.
The services never tire of claiming uniqueness and dislike comparison with other Central services. Yet they have diluted their contention by demanding parity with the civil services. The Warrant of Precedence (WoP) cannot be adequate justification for seeking more senior appointments. As is well known, revision of WoP is a regular exercise and every review invariably results in lowering the status of service officers. As the services cannot go on upgrading appointments to keep pace with the rate at which WoP is revised, it is a self-defeating exercise.
The services are rigidly structured organizations with authority well delineated. Such organizations invariably become one-man shows with commanders at every level enjoying overriding powers. Dissonance and difference of opinion cease to exist. In the absence of any contrary perspective, commanders tend to acquire misconceptions of their infallibility, resulting in faulty decision-making. For instance, it is inconceivable that no staff officer could foresee the adverse fallout of inducting women and caution the cavalier Chief.
Due to the steep pyramid-like structure, the environment in the services is highly competitive. To ensure career advancement, one has to not only excel but outshine others as well. In the absence of any quantifiable and measurable performance matrix, performance is measured in terms of initiative displayed, howsoever misplaced it may be. Recognition as the initiator and author of fresh ideas fetches credit and good reports. Therefore, every aspiring officer strives to score brownie points by pretending to be an original thinker. He wants to suggest something new – it may be a scheme, concept or programme. The sole aim is to impress senior bosses by displaying original thinking, assiduousness and thoroughness.
In the absence of ability for genuine original thinking, the only alternative available to an ambitious officer is to tinker with existing policies and suggest changes. Further, prolonged staff tenures make many officers lose touch with ground realities. They start living in the make-believe world of files and notings. They fail to visualize the fallout of the policy changes.

The way forwardAll over the world, the ruling mantra is “catch ’em young”. Corporate houses go to professional colleges to have the first pick in campus interviews. The services have irrationally surrendered the same advantage. A graduation degree cannot be enough justification for forfeiting the opportunity to pick the best youth for the services. The entry age and educational qualification for admission to NDA should be reduced to the earlier norm. Grant of SSC to women should be stopped. Women have made creditable contribution in the medical, dental and nursing services. They have done India proud. Grant of permanent commission to them in legal and education departments of the three services, the accounts branch of the Air Force and constructors of the Navy is undoubtedly a sensible move forward.
The services should stop chasing the mirage of retaining parity with the civil services. Bureaucrats govern the country and call the shots. They will continue to concoct ingenious stratagems to maintain their supremacy.
The top brass must show sufficient moral courage to admit that the present mess demands a holistic review of the related policies. It is far better to accept mistakes honestly than continue with them indefinitely to the detriment of organizational interests. Most important, no decision that affects the primary role of the services should be taken as a compulsion of populist expediency and without studying the long-term consequences.

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