By Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain*
Recently, the Indian Army proposed a ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) system, which involves a changed format of recruitment with amended terms and conditions for a few officers and personnel below officer rank. A highly manpower intensive organisation such as the 1.3 million strong Indian Army always needs a dynamic pattern of manning and recruitment contingent upon the social environment and budgeting parameters. The domains of officer recruitment and that of jawans are considerably different, and there is a variance in terms and conditions too. Therefore, they must not be confused with each other. This two-part commentary will help to clarify misnomers and ascertain the worthiness of the proposal.
Shortage of Officers
The Indian Army has proposed a few changes which are not transformational in nature, primarily to overcome current identified constraints. First among these is a long-standing challenge of officer shortage. There is no dearth of men and women willing to serve in the Indian Army as officers. However, the issueis not about numbers but about quality. The Indian Army abides by certain standards in its intake, and has, over the years, refused to compromise on this. India’s economic liberalisation, which was initiated in 1991, raised the aspirations bar in the traditional manpower base which provides the officer cadre. This resulted in a dilution in the quality of personnel seeking an army (officer) career, with the commercial world and other professions stealing a march in attracting better recruits.
Consequently, since the turn of the millennium, there have been serious implications at the operational end, with units having to contend with 25-30 per cent shortage in officer cadre even with the security situation in Jammu & Kashmir and other threats intensifying along the borders. An 11,000 personnel shortage in the officer cadre at one time forced the Indian Army to extend the engagement period of the Short Service Commission (SSC) from five to 10 and even 14 years. The higher the age for exit for these officers, the lower their chances are of finding a second career. This situation made SSC less attractive in the long run, especially since the promised and approved system of the Peel Factor never got implemented. The Peel Factor was simply a method of lateral absorption of SSC officers and others from the main cadre who could not be promoted due to shortage of vacancies, into other government services, especially the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF).
Obverse Cadre Ratio
The second consideration pertains to the obverse ratio of the main cadre (career officers on permanent commission) and support cadre (non-career on tenure contract). Professional armies around the world have a lean main cadre and a large support cadre (1:5). In India’s case, it is the opposite. Retention of higher numbers of SSC officers in service on permanent commission basis only swells the main cadre. This results in the creation of a very large base from which promotions to a limited number of vacancies at higher ranks has to be executed. Unlike that of the civil services, the Indian Army’s rank structure is pyramidal, and this can only be tampered with at the cost of operational functionability.
The current experiment and effort is aimed at ultimately reversing the ratio by generatinga larger number of officers on short contractsexiting after their tenure. The ToD proposes three-year contracts for serving only in frontline operational units. This reduces costs and enhances the prospects for such personnel to be absorbed in other careers upon exit, thereby making this proposal highly workable. Since large numbers of younger aspirants rue their inability to acquire military experience, it helps in increasing their chances of service in the army.
The Indian Army is hopeful that this step will leave reasonably young, energetic, patriotic and well-trained personnel to be absorbed by industry or by other government services such as the CAPF. Yet, its experience in lateral absorption inspires no confidence. A cabinet approval to the Peel Factor in 2003-04 was never implemented because of intense resistance from the CAPF. It will need the government’s legislative intervention if it wishes to see this proposal succeed. That is something which has probably not been thought through by the army at all. Alternatively, lateral absorption vacancies can be sought in state civil service cadres and some assurance be taken from the corporates and PSUs. In 2003, the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee on restructuring of the officer cadre recommended industrial deputation for two years with eventual absorption, but it never took off. There is no guarantee that the proposed ToD will either, if the terminal promises for the entrants are not delivered.
The ToD system has been proposed to overcome budgetary constraints. If the Indian Army continues to live with an inflated main cadre of officers, it is forced to retain officers overlooked for promotion even at first stage for as long as 15 years and pay them a pension thereafter. This is financially irrational besides producing discontent when seniors serve under juniors in service, creating a functional constraint too. An SSC officer exiting at 14 years has in him/her an investment of INR 6.8 crores. In contrast, the estimated sum for a ToD officer with a three-year engagement is INR 85 lakhs. In times of lean defence budgets, this is tempting the planners to introduce a shorter tour of duty with no post service obligations.
At the outset, a misnomer must be set aside: that the entire Indian Army will be manned on the proposed ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) terms and conditions. Some analysts have even interpreted it as conscription; but that is not possible with our population base and the perpetual need for a professional army.
Apart from officers, the ToD system is also proposed for a limited number of jawans. In their case, the proposal is more for savings in the budget since there is no shortage in quality and no existing deficiency such as the one in the officer cadre. A soldier on a three-year contract as against one for 17 years will obviously have far lesser investment and no obligations for pension and gratuity, which translates to an average lifetime saving of INR 11.5 crores. It will also lead to better promotional avenues for the permanent cadre of soldiers below officer rank since that cadre too will shrink to an undetermined percentage of the whole. Ideally, below officer rank, the right ratio between ToD and permanent cadre will need to be established with financial considerations being matched against operational efficiency. Jawans under ToD can also have provisions for absorption by industry, state civil services or the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) if possible.
These proposals are yet at a nascent stage. Some have interpreted the proposed numbers of 100 officers and 1000 jawans as the limit and have thus questioned the viability of the entire exercise with such small numbers. However, these numbers are only for initial trial and experimentation. What needs to be remembered is that the Indian Army’s budgetary constraints demand greater prudence in revenue costs so that the capital expenditure on modernisation can be enhanced. The proposed experiment is a reasonable step in that direction. It is workable as long as the Indian Army can ensure that short period of training or deployment in no way compromises its frontline efficiency. That is the issue being analysed and commented upon very deeply by a majority of veterans and deserves a more detailed look.
Proposed ToD for Officers
The period of training cannot be included in in the proposed three-year period. Having an entrant train for a year to deliver for three years defies rationality. Reducing training to six months and then denying further centralised training (courses of instruction) during the tenure of three years will leave a relatively untrained officer to lead the sub-units. There is a temptation to compare the concept of some foreign armies. We need not attempt to do that because our conditions of service, terrain, threats and social environment from which we draw our aspirants is so uniquely Indian that comparisons are pointless.
Deployment of ToD Entrants
Deployment of ToD entrants must be only for operational areas with an enhanced engagement for four years instead of three, two each in different areas. Their leave entitlement will have to be reviewed as also their training needs. Short Service Commission (SSC) officers in the past, on only five-year engagements, attended army level courses of instruction in development of skills but not career courses. However, they attended the Young Officers (YO) course to prepare them for leadership roles. ToD officer entrants will either need to be further trained in formation level cadres or restricted to perhaps just one army level course even if their tenure of engagement is enhanced to four years. Anything more than that will compromise their residual availability to frontline units. More cadres at formation level will need investment in facilities far more than exist today and improvisation in this is the last thing which needs to be adopted.
Unit Functional Efficiency
It will have an impact on unit functional efficiency since the unit is the army’s main entity of effectiveness. A mix of entries at the level below officers is not desirable. However, if it has to be done, new challenges in the realm of leadership will emerge, with a need for greater sensitivity amongst officers. Over time, this will be overcome provided the ratio between the different entrants is kept optimal. That figure is initially difficult to arrive at and will need to be kept flexible with trial and error.
If service of such officers and jawans is only with units deployed in operational environment, per force it will be infantry which will bear the brunt. This aspect needs greater thought. Four years of operational service by these personnel will be higher than the operational service and experience of many other regular personnel from the permanent cadre. In due course, there will be awkward demands for compensation against risks undertaken and these may not be denied from a legal perspective.
There are a range of thoughts that come to mind when such change is proposed for a complex organisation such as the Indian Army where personnel management is sometimes even more challenging than operational deployment. What the Indian Army’s leadership needs to do is to hold extensive consultations and refer these proposals for reviews by different organisations; the College of Defence Management is just one of them. Wide consultation without constraints of time is necessary if path breaking changes are to be effectively executed with no hiccups at a later stage.
*Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain is Member, IPCS Governing Council; Member, National Disaster Management Authority, and former GOC 15 Corps and Military Secretary, Indian Army.