The Army is facing one of its greatest challenges ever. The poser is not an adversary at the borders, but adversity brought about by internal contradictions of the organisation, amongst other factors. The challenge is posed by shortage of officers, a problem that has assumed alarming proportions, irrespective of the fact that the brass and the government may not be willing to admit so. While human resources are a prerequisite for any successful organisation, this is particularly true for the Army, which is manpower intensive, and more than just a profession. Considering the nature of its task, the Army requires motivated men, and leaders who can lead them under the most adverse circumstances.
Inherent requirements of the organisation generate contradictions within the system which need to be understood to grasp the problem and its root in its full dimension. There is a need to keep the army young, to ensure optimum effectiveness in battle. The manpower requirements of the Army therefore dictate that people join and also retire at a considerably lower age as compared to other professions. Also, the Army’s organisation is necessarily hierarchical since a well defined chain of command is a pre-requisite. This results in an unusually steep pyramid with considerably dismal promotional avenues for officers.
In the past, these contradictions were manageable, due to lower levels of awareness and aspirations, simpler fabric of the society, and the prestige of the armed forces. With the change in times, increasing opportunities, and growing disparity in the pay packages vis a vis the private sector, these factors have begun to impinge on the quality of intake into the Army. While the attractiveness of pay packages is being addressed by the Sixth Pay Commission, it would be unrealistic to expect the revision to result in people scrambling over each other to join the Army.
The Indian Army is short of approximately 11,000 officers today. Though there are enough aspirants appearing for joining the various academies, people of desired standard are not forthcoming. Even amongst the candidates who finally get selected, only a fraction finally join up. The current NDA and IMA courses are short by approx 66% of their capacity, as per recent media reports. Given the current trends, making up the deficiency without lowering standards does not appear probable in the near future.
Lowering standards of intake is not an option, since security of the nation is at stake. There is therefore a need to look deeply at our system of recruiting and managing the officer cadre, and come up with ‘out of the box’ solutions to ensure that our Army continues to be officered in a desirable manner.
The age of intake of officer cadets in the Army varies from 17 to 24 years. Depending on the type of commission, the cadets are trained for a period varying between 9 months to 4 years. They receive their commission between 21 to 25 years of age. Short service officers serve for 10 to 14 years, and thereafter have an option to opt for permanent commission, subject to making the grade. The regular officers serve up to at least 54 years of age.
Promotion up to the rank of Lt Col is time based. An officer reaches the rank of Lt Col at 13 years of service. Promotion beyond this rank is based on selection boards, depending on the number of vacancies. The current rate of selection of officers from Lt Col to Col is approximately 25 – 30 %. Thus, virtually ¾ of the officers joining the Army are faced with a prospect of no further promotions at approximately 40 years of age. A large number of them decide to leave the Army at that stage, further adding to the deficiency of officers. Those who stay back are obviously difficult to motivate as they have no further promotional avenues. These officers have to be managed by posting them in ‘lower grade’ appointments for the next 14 years.
The Army remains short of approx 11,000 officers, despite the fact that there is no dearth of aspirants. The entire shortage of officers is in the non-select ranks, since the authorised number of select ranks always get filled in by promotion. The shortage of officers in the non-select ranks is further compounded by the fact that a large percentage of those held are non-empanelled for promotion, severely restricting their employability.
Considering the fact that a maj portion of the Army is deployed for Counter Terrorist operations, the requirement of young officers to provide quality junior leadership is inescapable. This is an organisational requirement which, due to shortage of officers in this particular slot, results in longer tenures in Counter Terrorist operations for affected officers. Even in peace stations, the shortage of officers has resulted in every unit being posted only about one third of its authorised strength of officers. This imposes considerable workload on the handful of officers posted, reducing the quality time they are able to spend with their families. Both these factors have resulted in increasing dissatisfaction amongst officers. Given the increasing opportunities due to a booming economy on the other hand, a large number of junior officers are opting for premature retirement at less than 10 years of service. The Army is exercising its option of denying release all but a handful of these officers. In the bargain, it is retaining the service of officers who are not really keen to serve, with obvious effect on their motivation level.
Depending on the rank, Officers retire between the ages of 54 to 58. At this stage they are still employable, and economic compulsions of a large number necessitate the same. However, the service in Army leaves majority of them with virtually no formal skills assuring employment. Even those officers belonging to technical arms and holding requisite qualifications, have to compete for jobs with people 30 years their junior.
Thus the uncertain promotion prospects and retirement at early age without reasonable assurance of suitable resettlement adds to making career in the army unattractive to the youth. This exacerbates the shortage of officers, which further leads to erosion in quality of life of existing officers due to increased responsibilities. It is a vicious circle that needs to be broken.
In order to meet requirements of individuals as well as the organisation, there is need to have a system that inducts young people, trains and employs them for an optimal period. It thereafter caters for lateral absorption of adequate number of people to ensure that the steepness of the promotional pyramid is considerably reduced.
Ideally, Short Service Commission serves this purpose of having adequate number of officers available at service below 10 years who move on to the Civvy Street before they become eligible for promotion to select ranks. However, in the current scenario, the number of Short Service Commission officers does not match up with this requirement. Also, the quality of intake remains a problem even for Short Service Commission, resulting in even the limited capacity being underutilised.
Some possible solutions are being discussed in the succeeding paras.
One way to overcome the problem is to have a small core group of career officers who hold permanent commission, with the balance being TA officers. These would be drawn from other vocations, holding steady jobs and not dependent on Army as their sole source of livelihood. These would be embodied for a specified period, say two months per year, and in times of need. Having six times the required numbers would ensure availability of the requisite number of officers in units all year round. The TA officers would form approx 60% of the non-select ranks, and while bulk of them would not be contenders for the select ranks, provision to absorb a small percentage on permanent basis could be retained as an incentive.
Implementation of such a system would ensure that adequate number of officers are available in the non-select ranks, while the percentage of selection for promotion to higher ranks amongst the regular officers would improve drastically.
While this model is successfully followed in a number of countries, it may not really be suitable in our case, wherein the commitment of the Army in Internal Security operations is a constant factor. Since the TA officers would be embodied for short duration every year, there would be a serious lack of continuity and such constant transition of officers in any unit would hamper efficient functioning. The level of training of such officers would be lower, and aspects such as familiarity with the operational area would suffer. Apart from these constraints, the biggest impediment in implementation of any such system would be the availability of volunteers in adequate numbers to fill in the requirement. Given the intense competition in the corporate sector, it is questionable whether the requisite number of people of the desired quality would opt for spending two months every year away from their primary job.
Due to non-availability of volunteers for TA, conscription is another possible method. However, this has further drawbacks. Firstly, such a move is likely to be unpopular with the people at large, and as such the political decision to impose conscription is not likely. Even in the eventuality of it being agreed to, it would have maj implementation problems, considering the huge population of the country. Finally, conscription is a method suited to make up requirement of the ranks, and is not suited for inducting part time officers.
Single Point Entry System
While adequate number of people of the desired quality are not joining the Army, there is no such crisis as far as other government services are concerned. It is a hard fact that despite a near parity in pay, these services are considered more attractive due to better promotional prospects, lesser hardships and most importantly, the fact that due to the nature of their job, officials of such services wield more power as seen by the ordinary man.
There is a possibility of making Army the single pt entry sys for all central and state govt services, incl all the PMF, IAS and IPS. The aspirants for civil and allied services are of a higher age profile, and have generally completed five to six years of higher education prior to joining. The common entry could be based on written exam as well as SSB as is happening in the case of the Army now, with the aspirants joining at the age of 17 to 21. All the selected personnel would be trained for a uniform duration, ideally for about two years. The capacity of NDA would require to be increased and training at OTA be made at par with IMA. The cadets would receive their commission by 19 to 23 years of age.
There would be no distinction or allotment of service to the candidates at the time of joining, to ensure the requisite degree of interest and dedication amongst all of them whilst in the Army. After putting in six years of service, selection of persons for sidestepping into various other govt jobs, PSUs etc could be made, based on a suitable selection system. This could be through a written exam, maybe combined with DSSC exam presently being conducted. The persons opting and selected to join the central / state govt service would step out of the Army into their new career at approx 28 years of age, which is comparable to present age of joining such services. Due to the side-stepping of this lot of officers, the percentage of officers from amongst those remaining making it to select ranks would be higher.
Such a system would ensure that the Army receives good quality officer material, and reduce steepness of the promotional pyramid while obviating the shortage of officers at junior levels. The overall attractiveness of Army as a career would therefore improve. The spin off benefits of this would be that colour service and the ethos of the army would provide persons entering all wings of the government service better sense of discipline, values and purpose, and develop esprit-de-corps within all the government officials. It is therefore a win-win situation for everyone.
The suggested system has a large drawback, of likely unacceptability by the bureaucracy who has sufficient clout to ensure nipping such an idea in the bud. However, there is a need for the government and the people to realize that the problem is not an internal matter of the Army. The army is a national asset of vital importance, and the issue of shortage of officers has begun to seriously affect its functional efficiency. It is also quite apparent by now that the problem is neither going to get resolved with the Sixth Pay Commission, nor is it going to go away on its own. The suggested system may require refinement and fine tuning, but is highly implementable, and in the absence of better ideas forthcoming, merits discussion at appropriate levels.