THE recent state ment of the Indian Army chief, Gen eral Deepak Kapoor, that the government may have to consider conscription in the future has right fully focused attention on the shortage of officers in all three services of the Indian military. Some commentators have cynically dismissed his statement as public posturing aimed towards influencing the sixth pay commission that, according to the grapevine, falls short of expectations. However, unlike what the army leadership would have us believe, there are deeper issues at work that cannot be fixed by a mere pay-hike. They require an improved utilisation of human resources, enhanced facilities for serving personnel and a sophisticated response from senior military officers, civilian bureaucrats and political leaders. It is as yet unclear if any of this is forthcoming.
The scale of the officer shortage is, in itself, alarming. According to some reports, the army faces a shortage of 25 per cent of its authorised strength, the air force 13 per cent and the navy 16 per cent, with most vacancies in junior officers' ranks. It would be logically hard to explain why a shortage of junior officers does not adversely impact the efficiency of the Indian armed forces. Especially since junior officers have been at the forefront of all operations - from the confusing jungles of Sri Lanka, the insurgencies that dot India's periphery to the heroic mountains in Kargil, India's finest have been fighting, dying but winning against impossible odds.
Making up for the shortfall should be an operational necessity and not, as it seems, a mere statistic.
However, before suggesting steps to increase officer enrollment, the military has to begin by admitting the failure of ‘feeder institutions' that were created to increase officer intake in the armed forces.
There are 22 Sainik schools, one in most of the major states, five military schools and the venerable Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) that were established mainly to groom future generations of military officers. These residential schools admit students in class VI and, at least on paper, provide them with an education that supposedly imbibes the Orwellian ‘Officer Like Qualities' making them, ideally, fit to join the National Defence Academy. While exact figures are hard to come by, cursory examinations of websites of the Sainik schools show that barely 1-2 per cent of students make the cut. Why have these schools failed to deliver? As the first Sainik school alumni to be appointed as army chief, General Deepak Kapoor would know more about this than anyone else.
Two other issues have exacerbated the problem. First, the quality of life offered to military personnel and their families. While the soldier expects hardships in operational areas, in peace stations he rarely lives the life advertised in slick media campaigns. The quality and availability of accommodation for both officers and men in cantonment towns are abysmal, with sub-standard construction, poor furniture and other faults. Similarly, the quality of rations, electricity and water supply and elements of ‘modernity', like Internet accessibility, are either sub-par or non-existent. Senior officers, with a few exceptions, are rarely affected, or bothered, as they live walled-off in their palatial bungalows with their numerous sahayaks. Compounding the problem is the near monopoly that the Military Engineering Services has on this sector, which, as economists will point out, usually leads to inefficiency and a lack of responsiveness to the customer. One solution, then, suggests exploring public-private partnerships to deliver the ‘goods' to military personnel.
The second issue is the anachronistic man-management approach followed within the military. Understandably, the hierarchical and pyramid structure of promotions within the military lends itself to having the largest number of superceded officers amongst all UPSC commissioned officers, with a corresponding loss of motivation and morale. But the problem is further compounded by an archaic system of career planning, placement and human resources development within the services, especially the army. Instead of encouraging officers to follow their interests, thus enriching human capital and creating opportunities, the services follow a rigid and old-fashioned approach to career planning resulting in disgruntled officers who, in turn, discourage others from joining. To reduce officer attrition and increase job satisfaction the services need to think up of imaginative solutions. It should create parallel job streams for personnel to shift towards cyber, nano and space technologies (the frontiers of future warfare), develop a cadre of trained area specialists to take advantage of the country's growing global aspirations, enhance intellectual capital by encouraging historical research (if the records are ever de-classified), strategic and doctrinal stud ies and other academic fields. Measures like these can also encourage officers to make a smooth transition to a second career.
Increasing job satisfaction is one way to make a career in the forces an attractive option. However, as the shortage of officers is in the junior ranks, other steps are required to attract youngsters to fill this gap.
To begin with, short- service commissions should be made more attractive. Among possible measures is to sponsor seats in top colleges for MBA, engineering, media studies, perhaps even medical colleges - and offer them to former service members. This could be viewed as a reward to those who serve. Another approach could be to tie up with private sector enterprises, and find ethical ways to encourage those who do, to accommodate suitable former military personnel.
Officer disgruntlement and, indirectly, shortage also feeds off the stifling organisational culture of the military whose ethos, to a large extent, curbs initiative and discourages self-criticism. The Indian army's institutional culture is traditionally risk averse, top-down and discourages initiative in junior ranks. This ‘passing the buck' culture is harmful to the development of junior officers and has completely destroyed any independent, leadership roles for JCOs and NCOs. This problem is compounded by the manner in which self-critical analysis is sacrificed for the sake of career advancement.
Changing this organisational DNA is undoubtedly a long drawn out process but it requires urgent attention from the current generation of senior officers, if they wish to attract idealistic and enterprising youth.
The military has historically served as a vehicle for social mobility. There has been a dramatic decline in the number of Ivy-league college graduates who join the US military, for instance. This is an inevitable and welcome process if the ‘elite' move onto more lucrative careers, creating opportunities for others. Dealing with these, and future changes, will require an innovative approach. It is not evident whether military, bureaucracy or political leaders are up to this task.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Washington D.C.