The government has failed the armed forces, writes Shashi Tharoor in his most recent book. An extract.
Besides the three formal arms of the government, the load-bearing pillars of our democracy, there is a fourth institution that is responsible for ensuring the safety, integrity and well-being of our country, our armed forces. Our soldiers give their all in the service of the nation — up to and including their own lives — something that is not expected of the rest of us. This is one of the reasons why it angers me to see the army treated shabbily.
The BJP government came to power talking big about its commitment to the defence of our country and the armed forces, but it has fallen short of providing one of the country’s most important institutions the support and honour it deserves. To go through all the ways in which the army, navy and air force have been short-changed by Narendra Modi’s government would require a book to itself — a revolving door of ineffectual defence ministers, shortage of equipment, outdated ammunition and technology, confused signals and dangerous war talk, a dysfunctional procurement process and much more. I will therefore limit myself to just two issues in this chapter on which the government could have done a great deal more than it has done.
(Editor’s Note: The first issue that the writer deals with is OROP, which is not included in this extract)
With all the understandable (and justified) focus on OROP, the media appears to have missed another major development in the Ministry of Defence — a decision to extend Short Service Commissions for fourteen years.
The issue of recruitment and the shortage of officers in our country is widely known. But the army appears to be addressing this by extending the duration of Short Service Commissions in a way that is doing an injustice to the officers concerned. In the old days, you would have a five-year commission. You would then leave and you would still be in the prime of your life; you would be able to find a job and move on. Today, they are making these Short Service Commission officers stay for ten years, eleven years, even fourteen years. These are people who have no pensions; they have no benefits. They leave the army late and, as a result, they are not in a position thereafter to actually resume life in the civilian sector. In December 2014, I had raised the question in Parliament, asking the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, to explain what the government’s policy was on Short Service Commissions. If they were going to do extend them for so long, would it not be fairer to give them all the benefits that a normal officer would be entitled to, pensions included?
Parrikar replied as follows (this is a verbatim transcript from the parliamentary proceedings):
Madam, I entirely agree with the Hon. Member. Whatever was the original concept of the Short Service Commission is being totally put upside down by extending it to fourteen years. In fact, I had a discussion on this issue. We are trying to address this issue very shortly. We will definitely take care of this concept. There was 17 per cent shortage of officers by the year 2012. As of now, we are recruiting more officers. Every year, we are addressing one per cent. So, we are coming down by one per cent every year. I expect that by another ten years, we should be able to ultimately fill up the vacant posts. As far as the Short Service Commission is concerned, I will definitely address this issue because I am also concerned with the same issue. I have asked for more details. There is some reasoning given by them. Give me some time. I think, in a couple of months, I should be able to address this issue. I understand your concern. The same concern was expressed by me. You are virtually suggesting to convert them into a regular Commission by taking it to fourteen years. The original idea was different.
That’s the point. The original idea behind the Short Service Commission was a good one: it kept the armed forces young, gave men and women in their twenties an opportunity to experience military life, while allowing them to have the satisfaction of serving our motherland in their youth and going on to pursue other careers thereafter. Those Short Service Commission officers who sought it could seek a Permanent Commission, but few got one and the vast majority was supposed to move on to other careers outside the Forces.
This is why the Short Service Commission was genuinely short — five years in your twenties added to your experience without making a major dent in your life or career plans. But there has been a gradual extension of the five-year period to seven, ten, and now fourteen. As a former officer who brought the problem to my attention observed to me, ‘The SSC ceased to be short when it was made minimum seven years. It became exploitative when made minimum ten years. Now that the minimum service is fourteen years, it is just abuse of the youth.’ As this former officer, Mr Balakrishna, argues, ‘Anything more than seven years should be treated as a career option. And a career cannot end abruptly after ten or fourteen years.’
The charge of exploitation or even abuse is not exaggerated. I recently received a heart-rending email from a navy lieutenant on a Short Service Commission, who shall remain nameless since he is still in service and I do not want him to be open to reprisals, I am quoting from it in his own language (without editing the English) to convey his genuine anguish: ‘The charter of duties are same for SSC officers as of PC officers. If duties are same then why there is a huge difference in benefits. We SSC officers will be out from the services at ten or fourteen yrs. At that stage we will be at critical stage we don’t have any further exposure of outside world. We SSC are neither entitled for pension, ECHS and membership of any club… All benefits is only for permanent commission officer and the other ranks who does minimum fifteen yrs of service and gets all facilities. If we are also relieved at the same age bracket then why this discrimination. Dear sir it is a sad state of affairs, all veterans are busy in asking OROP, but they left their brothers behind who had also spent their prime young time with them… Most of us has just started our families. Few are about to become fathers. Sir we are also human being and did nothing wrong while joining service enthusiastically but some where it is getting diminished… Our future is at stake.’
It is time that, as a nation, we thought about the human beings who don uniforms to keep us safe. After fourteen years of service, SSCOs would retire at the age of around 36-40 years, the time when job/financial security matters the most. By this age, most would have married and have school-going children; this is likely to be the case also for those released after ten years. The chances of a Permanent Commission are minimal for most of the SSCOs; indeed the policy on granting Permanent Commission is very vague and decisions are left to the discretion — sometimes the whim — of the senior officers concerned. Those in the executive branches of the navy and air force are not granted Permanent Commissions even if their performance has been better than their fellow officers who are permanently commissioned. It is a criminal waste of India’s human resources that young officers, well-trained, qualified, medically fit, and willing to serve, are simply let go because they were hired under one category rather than another.
In fact many choose to extend their service to fourteen years because of the uncertainty of a second career. And where can they go? There are no special provisions for them, and the existing rules don’t help. Former SSCOs who are 36-40 years old will not be eligible to most of the Group A equivalent positions in the civil services or in public sector undertakings, as the age limit at entry is 30 years (a relaxation of five years is sometimes granted for ex-service personnel, but at 35 that prospect also disappears).
As young officers who joined the services in the first flush of idealistic enthusiasm wake up to these realities, disenchantment sets in. Our country cannot afford demoralisation among SSCOs after a few years of service. Worse, the government is beset with a large number of ongoing legal cases and representations against the evident discrimination in terms of grant of financial and other benefits on release.
The solution is simple. Keep Short Service Commissions short: in and out in five years, no further obligations on either side. But for those who wish to continue further in service — and whom the armed forces consider good enough to keep — they should be converted to a status that gives them the same benefits and entitlements and Permanent Commissioned officers of equivalent experience. This would make the SSCO both a platform to give motivated young people an opportunity to experience military life, and an alternative route to filling the ranks of military officers and curing the chronic shortages our armed forces are suffering from.
Those who quit after five years (typically in the age group of 27-30 years when the pressures of family are much lower and the appetite for risk is higher) will not find it difficult to embark on a second career; indeed the experience will stand them in good stead in landing a job. And these officers can be ambassadors of the armed forces in their second career and attract more youth to join the services.
As for those who stay on for ten and even fourteen years, the government should pay a pro-rata pension and related benefits, based on the length of service. The government should also consider making arrangements for lateral entry into the civil services, the central armed police forces, or public sector undertakings, relaxing the rules that prevent this from being an option.
It has been four years since the then Defence Minister Parrikkar asked in Parliament for ‘a couple of months’ to address the issue I had raised. The Modi government’s failure to do so is yet another indication of the fecklessness with which it has dealt with its responsibilities to the defence services. These brave young women and men protect our nation with their lives. We cannot let them down.
The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi And His India
Aleph Book Company, Pages 498, Rs 799