Armed Forces at 58 and Aspirational Young India at 70

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By Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)

The feedback I got on the article ‘1/3rd Fauji Retirement at 58′ was illuminating and educative. It brought forth some fundamental issues which are relevant and must be considered before a case is taken up to increase the age of retirement of 1/3rd of the Armed Forces to 58. However, there are issues beyond that. That is what this is all about.

The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ view of increasing retirement ages is very currently visible through the Assam Rifles prism. An officer who did three tenures in Assam Rifles and was an IGAR (equivalent to the GOC of a Division) mentioned that he had tossed around the issues thrown up in this debate. He highlighted that retirement age for troops in AR is 60. Once men cross 40-45 years of age, a very large number of them become medically unfit. To put things in perspective, on an average each AR bn has around 120 Low Medical Categories as per him. That is a company plus strength! Resultantly, they have many non-op casualties, mostly owing to lifestyle diseases. Some of his battalions had two sets of food being cooked too! One for the young, and one (less salt, less fat and no sugar kind) for the elderly. And of course, there is this huge frustration of having to wait for promotions. The Subedar Majors’ on an average do 2-3 tenures as SMs!! To top it off he highlighted that there were many cases of 50 plus year old jawans who had to be evacuated from remote Company Operating Bases with acute problems. Is that what we want our Army to look like?

Another officer quoted the statistics from the Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia cannot be a primary source it is still partly true. It is stated there that on an average a defence civilian pensioner costs five times more than a military pensioner. This is attributed to increased age of retirement and enhanced pension. The civilian defence pensioner is at the top of the pay scale by the end of his service, has been granted OROP and NFU! Obviously, he will have a fat pension. The Fifth CPC, Sixth CPC, the Koshiyari Committee and all such and many more studies have strongly recommended to the Government to absorb and sidestep Armed Forces personnel into CPMFs, Civil Government organisations including police organisation as is the custom in many other countries. It is no great imagination or rocket science that Armed Forces personnel with their training, discipline and skills should be sidestepped into other government departments. Everyone agrees with this thought process but every government since I can remember has done nothing about it but give lip service. This government has been no different. So far, as a result the pension bill is only ballooning. Can something different be done? That is the real gauntlet to surmount by the Government.

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The CDS has also spoken about monetising defence land. Till now I have only heard suave bankers, seedy politicians, elusive DEOs, self-serving lawyers, sleazy land sharks and greasy officials talk about monetising defence land. The very kind who were responsible for ‘Adarsh’ to happen. For the first time I am hearing someone serving talk about it in public and being seconded by other respected personalities. This must be music to people’s ears in some quarters! After 70 years, they have found voice of support from within the establishment. Well, I will rest my case there.

It is obvious that increasing age of retirement and disposing defence land off are contentious ideas which demand a rethink. I am sure the CDS also knows about this. Having known him for more than four decades now, I ‘do not’ repeat ‘do not’ doubt his integrity or his intent at all. He is an honourable man with the best interests of the Service at heart. That I will vouch for. However, he has stated these as options in a public forum. It is therefore important to understand that either he has been driven to a state where he feels that one must adopt these desperate measures. Else, someone is firing this gun over his shoulder! Indeed, these are desperate times when the mention of even an outlay for a defence budget is conspicuous by its absence in the Finance Ministers budget speech. The CEA looked as if he has swallowed a dead fish when someone asked him about the defence outlay or its absence from the budget speech. Overall it summed up the Governmental attitude. Naturally the CDS is compelled to think up of something even if surreal.

In this context I got some valuable perspective from two cerebral generals. One, a recently retired Infantryman and the other a long-retired Gunner. I must share it with all. The elder General stated, “National Security doesn’t come cheap not where India is. The nation must bear this burden. Paucity of funds will remain a constant. While the Services leadership must do better in resource management to ensure the optimum utilisation of funds the Government cannot absolve itself of its responsibility to provide adequately for defence besides finding ways to ensure that the Services are not driven to situations where they feel compelled to raise retirement ages to save on pension”. The younger General stated, “It’s the Government’s call to have an Army, Air Force and Navy. If it wants, it must find the money too. It is not for the Armed Forces to self-finance its modernisation by monetising land or cost cutting by some arbitrary age amendments. If the Government cannot afford the Armed Forces, shut it down or reduce the strength. Decisions must be based on need, pitfalls, history and affordability”. Put these two together, and the essence of the role of Armed Forces in the national security paradigm comes forth. It also highlights the role and responsibility of the Government in shaping the Armed Forces of the nation. It is worth reflecting upon this.

What these two gentlemen are saying is that-Is there any doubt that we are living under a constant nuclear overhang? We are hemmed in between a toxic Pakistan and a predatory China who will remain our adversarial constants. Is there any doubt that we want to be a regional power and grow into a US$10 tn economy via the US$5 tn mark? To achieve that we need strong, modern and fit Armed Forces to meet the oncoming challenges of a rising power. Is there a doubt that the way wars are being fought are changing? New technologies are disrupting military affairs as never before. Is there any doubt that our Armed Forces despite the chest thumping are manpower intensive and equipped with some vintage stuff all set to come apart at the seams? This disjointed mass needs to be shrunk and modernised to meet realistic threats. All this is common knowledge. The responsibility for all this does not lie with the CDS alone. It lies with the Government of India. It is the job of the CDS to nudge the Government into taking the right call on these issues by putting the cards squarely on the table. It is not his call to be the handsome prince to wake up sleeping beauty with a kiss. That is the job and responsibility of the government. That is why they have been voted into power.

It will do well to remember that a Poor India with a strong leader like Indira Gandhi and an astute chief like Sam Bahadur built a strong Army to trounce Pakistan and create a nation. It remains to be seen if a Rich India led by a strong Modi and an enthusiastic CDS can transform our Armed Forces, which in turn can propel us to the high table of the world. That is the challenge. The bar is set.

Am I a pessimist? No. I believe that in our PM we have someone who is not afraid to take the bull by the horns. He has shown it during the Balakot Strike. He has shown his strategic acumen in Abrogation of Article 370. He has ensured creation of the CDS to open ways for further reforms. I think it is time for him to take the next resolute step to downsize our Armed Forces realistically, weld and modernise them into a lean and mean self-dependent force which propels India to achieve its true potential and thereby its standing in the comity of nations. Nothing like Strong Armed Forces to muscle on to a seat on the high table. Otherwise forget it.

I am also aware that budgets for such endeavors will never be available. They will always be short if we continue with the same old Indian Rope Tricks of our bureaucracy – military and civilian. There are very clear and tangible methods not only to modernise Armed Forces and achieve self-sufficiency but also get India to be a net defence exporter despite tight budgets. We need to do things differently. Am I a dreamer? Yes. I was always one in the ‘Imagine’ mode of John Lennon….

You, may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
and India will be the one…
Jai Hind

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