Indian military faces serious shortage of officers


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Equipment wise, the Indian military is expanding quite rapidly, but according to this new report the number of officers are decreasing at such an alarming rate, talks of conscription are being bounced around.

India mulls draft to augment officer corps
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The 1.13-million-strong Indian army is facing a crippling shortage of officers. For the first time, a serving army chief has indicated that the government might need to consider conscription at some point to address the looming crisis.

According to official figures, the army is facing a shortage of 11,238 officers, against a sanctioned strength of 46,615 officers - a staggering 25% shortfall. And it's not the army alone that is confronted with a dearth of officer corps. The much-smaller Indian Air Force is 1,565 officers short of its sanctioned strength of 12,128, and the navy is short 1,461 officers of its optimal strength of 8,797.

"The shortage is at the level of majors and captains," points out P R Chari, research professor at the Delhi-based Institute for Peace

and Conflict Studies. "These are the men who lead the troops in battle." The shortage therefore could "seriously degrade the army's effectiveness" in battle.

According to a senior army officer, the shortage of officers was keenly felt by the army during the India-Pakistan conflict at Kargil in 1999. "Officers had to be rotated from one operation to another with different battalions to direct artillery fire," he told Asia Times Online.

Even if the likelihood of war with Pakistan or China has receded, the armed forces are engaged in counter-insurgency operations in various parts of the country. Here too, the shortage of officers is being felt acutely. "The problem is serious," Chari said.

The shortage of officers is not a recent development and has persisted despite efforts to address it.

The armed forces are no longer attracting the best and the brightest in the country. Low salaries, high stress and slow promotions in the armed forces have contributed to its downgrading as a career option. Youngsters prefer jobs in the more lucrative private sector.

The declining interest in employment in the armed forces is evident from the fact that seats for courses in the highly reputed defense academies are now going unfilled. Only 190 of the 300 seats at the National Defense Academy at Khadakwasla were filled this year. The situation at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun was worse; only 86 joined up for a course that offered 250 seats. In comparison, almost 200,000 students competed for 1,200 seats in the reputed Indian Institutes of Management last year.

What's more, the armed forces are facing serious attrition. Officers are handing in their papers, with the number seeking premature retirement mounting from 290 in 2004, to 365 in 2005, 464 in 2006 and 306 up to July 2007.

"If things don’t improve, the government may have to take a decision on it [conscription]," Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor said on Monday when asked at a press conference if compulsory military service was an option to address the shortage of officers in the army. Kapoor, however, quickly added that the country had not yet reached "that stage" where it needed to conscript.

The Indian army is a volunteer force. It has never conscripted, not even at the height of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 (when the Indian armed forces found themselves ill-equipped and outnumbered at the front) or during the India-Pakistan wars in 1947, 1965 and 1971.

There have been sections in India that have recommended conscription as a solution to diverse ills in the country. It is not uncommon to hear Indians - even civilians - recommend a compulsory stint in the military for youngsters to discipline them, to instill patriotism or to make men out of boys.

Retired military officers, too, have suggested conscription in the past. A decade ago, retired Chief of Naval Staff J G Nadkarni suggested "limited conscription" as a cost-cutting measure. Educated boys in the 18 to 21 age group who are conscripted could be paid a small stipend and provided accommodation. He argued that not only would conscription help cut costs but also, "the services will gain from an educated crop of men. Nearly a million men can be inducted each year for a three-year tenure who will meet the Army goal of keeping the service young." The country would benefit as well. "The nation will have a million disciplined and well-trained men each year, bringing to their civilian life self-confidence and maturity. The Army will take youth and give the country men," Nadkarni said.

Not everyone sees conscription as beneficial. "Conscription goes against the ethos of democracy. It would be a break from India’s post-independence tradition of having a totally voluntary army," Sumona Dasgupta, assistant director of the Delhi-based Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace said.

Many believe conscription would also increase the militarization of society.

There are also serious doubts as to whether conscription would ensure quality of recruits. A volunteer army draws willing recruits. People are drawn to join the army out of patriotism, commitment or a sense of adventure. Their motivation is high, points out Chari. But conscription entails force to bring people into the army and not all those who are brought in are likely to be of high caliber.

This is of particular concern in India, where the armed forces are used extensively in counter-insurgency operations. Dasgupta argues that "such operations in particular require personnel who are disciplined, have greater commitment and a moral fiber of the highest kind, so that human rights violations do not occur".

"When even a voluntarily recruited army has fallen short of expectations in zones of active conflict in our country, what can we expect from conscripted officers? What can one expect from people who have been drafted and then put into counterinsurgency roles and commanded to 'win the hearts and minds' of the people?" she asked.

Army officers admit that they are not in favor of conscription. They do not want to lower the standards of the army, they argue. The solution to the officer shortage in the armed forces is not conscription but measures to attract bright youngsters. "If the army should be an attractive career option, salaries should be hiked and employment benefits should be made more attractive," the senior army officer said. "Advertisements promising an exciting, adventure-filled future or a great career are not enough."

Government officials told Asia Times Online that Kapoor’s statement was by no means an expression of support for conscription. Neither was the General pointing to conscription as a solution to the shortage of officers. "It was a warning to the government of what lies ahead if the latter refused to read the writing on the wall," said a civilian bureaucrat in the Ministry of Defense. "It was a warning that if salaries were not increased, the only way out would be conscription."

The timing of Kapoor’s comment on conscription is significant. It has come ahead of the submission of the report by the Sixth Pay Commission, which is reviewing salaries and perks of central government employees and defense personnel. The three services submitted a joint memorandum to the commission last year seeking a raise in pay scales, enhancement of existing allowances and introduction of new allowances, among other things.

Kapoor's statement on Monday is a reminder to the government that it could well have a huge crisis on its hands if steps are not taken to attract talent into the army and retain it. And then it would have no option but to go for conscription - a politically unpopular move.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.