Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Military Morale – A Perilous Neglect

Karan Kharb

In terms of national defence preparedness, the last decade has been particularly worrisome.  Modernisation programmes and defence acquisition initiatives have remained mired in scams resulting in blacklisting of large number of firms that virtually blocked vital sources of equipment procurement. This has led to poor maintenance and upkeep of warlike equipment as has been amply evident from the frequent accidents and mishaps in the aircraft and submarines. Cases of suicide and insubordination in the military units have also shown a rising trend.  That discontent is steadily growing even in the higher echelons is evident from an ever-rising number of senior military officers going to courts to seek redress of their grievances. Never before in the history were so many star rank officers court-martialled as in the last few years.  What would explain the eerie disquiet and simmering resentment in the top military leadership more than the fact that an Army Chief had to sue the Government and a Navy Chief resigned in disgust?
Military affairs have obviously been neglected badly over the years. The age-old convention of keeping military insulated from the civilian gaze has lately proved to be detrimental in two ways.  Firstly, the decay has remained hidden from the public for long in the name of 'military security'. Secondly, it has encouraged the political leadership and the bureaucracy to remain strategically ignorant and logistically indifferent towards military needs even as the Armed Forces were always taken for granted on the face value. Thankfully, the new dispensation in New Delhi – the Modi Sarkar – now seems to have woken up to this grave reality.  The black listing has been reviewed and a number of vital procurement projects have since been cleared by the Government.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited and interacted with troops in the forward areas including Siachen Glacer, Naval and Air Force bases but, thanks to the deep rooted military custom, no officer or jawan could be expected to appear anything but proud and happy in the company of a visiting dignitary – more so when the dignitary happens to be Narendra Modi – no matter what problems they faced.  The fact, however, is that in clearing the long pending acquisition projects, even the new government has taken note of only the tangible military assets.  The intangible and even more vital asset – morale of the fighting men – still lies less cared, far below the optimum levels. No amount of modern technology and wherewithal can win a war until the man behind the gun is adequately motivated to give out his best.  Military history is replete with evidence that even ill equipped but highly motivated soldiers have won battles defeating better equipped but badly led and poorly motivated units.  
Unfortunately, decision makers in India have viewed the question of 'military morale' in a skewed manner as if it were merely a 'welfare issue', a notion that has prevented governments to fathom the real value of this war winning factor called 'military morale'. Such mind-sets threaten to turn this invaluable asset into an unaffordable liability for the nation.  Ignorance of military capabilities, limitations and needs has led successive pay commissions to treat Armed Forces just another 'government service'. Pundit Nehru and his contemporaries had despised military as a non-productive and unwanted organisation in a Panchsheel inspired India. This attitude of the national leadership earned them the rude shock of Chinese aggression in 1962. That attitude seemed to again overwhelm the government during the last decade.  The new regime in New Delhi will have to comprehensively review and reorient the official viewpoint about the country's Armed Forces to comprehend the problems and to rebuild India's military potential.  
Unique Terms and Conditions of Service:
1.         Truncated Career span. As many as 75 per cent military personnel retire between the age group of 35 to 42 years even as most of their schoolmates in civil life would still be streamlining their career. Of the remaining, 20 per cent retire between the age of 42-52 years; and a fraction 5 per cent retire between the age of 52-60 years. In the civil services on the contrary, every employee has an assured job up to the age of 60 years, a stage in life when life's responsibilities are mostly over providing the employee optimal fulfilment in a happy retired life. In sharp contrast to this, a soldier retiring in his late thirties or early forties is surrounded by onerous responsibilities like buying or constructing a house, school-going children, ageing parents, younger siblings and a host of other familial-social obligations.  
2.         Long Separation from Family: Military service necessitates frequent transfers and postings at non-family stations devoid of basic amenities of the civilised world. Children of military personnel remain mostly deprived of parental care and fatherly affection in their formative years. Even in peace stations, majority of the personnel have to stay in barracks still separated from their families owing to service exigencies.  Cases of encroachment on the property of military personnel and exploitation of their families at the behest of unscrupulous elements in villages have been rising, as are the costs on justice.
3.         Unmatched Hazards and Hardships: Active borders, insurgency and terrorism have placed unique demands on the military that has to adapt to the changing role, terrain, climate and operational environment. Indian military finds itself drawn in to handle conflicts in areas as varied as towns, cities, forests, desert, frosty mountains and glacial high altitude exposing troops to risks like exhaustion, pulmonary oedema, frostbite and icy crevasses that swallow lives. Even in times of cease-fire, Indian troops perpetually remain at war with the vagaries of Nature – treacherous terrain and chilling climate, which has claimed more lives than the enemy forces. Operational environments are such that momentary casualness and minor mistakes can be fatal and one hardly ever gets a second chance. Peace or field, land or sea, a soldier is 24 hours on duty and there are is no such thing as 'duty hours' or 'overtime' in this profession.
4.         Fundamental Rights curtailed: The Fundamental rights like freedom of speech, expression and assembly and the right to form associations or unions enjoyed by every citizen under Article 19 (1) (a) (b) and (c) of the Constitution are abrogated in their application to members of the Armed Forces because of the special nature of duties performed by the members of these Forces. These provisions are like a lid over a cauldron while the steam builds within. In such a scenario, the absence of a sensitive and responsive safety valve can be highly dangerous because the turmoil building within cannot be seen as clearly as in the case of non-military setting where people's dissatisfaction manifests instantly and openly in the media and streets. Therefore, it is in the highest national interests that the government must be sensitive and receptive to the military advice and opinions expressed by the top brass of the Armed Forces.    
5.         Nation's Last Resort: The role of India's Armed Forces is to protect territorial integrity of India, defend the country from external aggression, internal security threats and to restore order and services in situations like natural calamity, disasters and civil disturbances when it is no longer possible for the civil authority to manage affairs. In addition, a bigger global role requiring India's Armed Forces to undertake peacekeeping operations across continents is also steadily evolving in the face of instable regimes, expanding menace of international terrorism and other regional conflicts. In the evolving geopolitical equations, India can be only as strong as its military power. In times of grave crises when all components of civil machinery fail, authorities and people alike turn to Military, which has a glorious record of superb performance. But if ever the military failed, all hopes and options of the country would crash. Unquestionably, military might is the ultimate power of the state and its last resort to assert its will domestically, regionally and even globally. Logically, if their delivery standards in turning chaos to normalcy after all other components of the civil administration had failed have been so unique and unmatched, why should the salaries and privileges of military personnel not be likewise unique and unmatched, that is, a notch above all else?  
            The rising trend of revolt and insubordination among the serving military personnel and the ex-servicemen (ESM) taking to streets, returning their medals and protesting against injustice are eloquent reminders for the government and the people that their military is losing its sheen and self-esteem. Whereas there is a need to constitute a Defence Reforms Commission to examine all aspects of national security and defence preparedness, the immediate need is to restore the fading sheen and self-esteem of the Armed Forces.   Seventh Pay Commission has been constituted even as anomalies of the 6th Pay Commission are yet to be resolved.  It has neither a military member on its panel nor specific terms of reference to improve the lot of the Armed Forces.    
            In the backdrop of these realities, it is necessary to identify the impediments and pave the way for definitive and speedy improvements in the state of affairs.      
Official Antipathy
Departments and organisations created to serve interests of the serving and retired military personnel have gradually become either defunct or counters of corrupt practices.  The ESM community is unhappy with the functioning of departments like the Department of Ex-servicemen Welfare (DESW) and Rajya and Zila Sainik Boards. The DESW headed and staffed by civilians who are neither organised nor trained and oriented to comprehend and serve the interests of the ex-servicemen. Rajya and Zila Sainik Boards are no more than a countersigning authority, which is often seen as another layer of bureaucratic red tape to impede and delay rather than hasten and sharpen the process in favour of the ex-servicemen. Directorate General of Resettlement (DGR) headquartered in New Delhi, though staffed by military personnel, is powerless in garnering adequate jobs and occupations for the retiring military personnel.   
Growing callousness in the government offices has forced the ESM to voice their woes through rallies and protest marches.  Thousands returned their medals to the President pledging that they would receive these tokens of honour back only after their grievances are redressed honourably.  At the top of the list of their grievances is the issue of 'one rank one pension' (OROP) which has been tantalising the ESM community despite having been accepted by both – the outgoing UPA Government and even the more promising Modi Sarkar.
As for the serving military personnel, all the three Chiefs of Services had expressed their dissatisfaction over the 'raw deal' given to military personnel by the 6th Pay Commission and the Manmohan Singh Government itself.     
The anti-military mind-set of the bureaucracy seems to have formalised the practice of challenging all court verdicts given in favour of serving or retired soldiers into an official policy of the government, whereas challenging such verdicts should be a rarity. Here are just a few samples of how this official antipathy has ripened into an outright brazen animosity towards military:-
(a)    OROP: The issue of OROP has affected the morale of the Armed Forces more than any other issue because today's serving soldier is tomorrow's ESM.  The "principle of OROP" has been upheld by all – the Government, political parties, and parliamentary committees. It has been unequivocally accepted by PC Chidambaram and Arun Jaitlely on the floor of the Parliament amidst thunderous applause. Whatever be behind the scene machinations, if any, no department, agency or organisation has openly raised any objection to this entitlement of military personnel. Yet, the ESM community continues waiting for it till this day! And lately, it is rumoured that the Defence Minister has referred the matter to "a Tribunal".  That means the bureaucratic red tape has won and the OROP will lie to ferment until the next Defence Minister alters the status quo!
(b)   The Disability Pension Case: Dismissing a Central Government appeal (CS Sidhu Vs Union of India) on 31 March 2010 against the grant of adequate disability pension to an army officer who had lost an arm in an accident while on duty in a high altitude field area, a Supreme Court bench noted this official antipathy and caustically remarked, "….Is this the way you treat those brave army officers? It is unfortunate that you are treating them like beggars…… The army personnel are bravely defending the country even at the cost of their lives and we feel they should be treated in a better and more humane manner by government authorities, particularly in respect of their emoluments, pension and other benefits."    
(c)    Denial of Enhanced Pension: The case of illegal deduction of 'enhanced pension' from the salary of re-employed ESM has been playing seesaw since 1997. The 'deduction order' of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) was challenged in the Delhi High Court, which quashed it on 09 August 2004. When it was not implemented, the matter was again taken to the Delhi High Court, which passed strictures against the government on 23 May 2008, calling the non-implementation "high-handed and need to be deprecated" and observing, "Such action besides being illegal and unwarranted was also contemptuous."  Yet, the government filed a special leave petition against it, which was yet again dismissed by the Supreme Court on 07 November 2009.  The ESM, however, are still shunting from pillar to post!
(d)   The Rank Pay Case: Rank Pay arrears accruing to all those officers of the Armed Forces who held ranks of captain to brigadier and their equivalents in the Navy and Air Force from 01 January 1986 onwards have been unfairly denied to both serving and retired officers ever since. After the government approved recommendations of the 4th Pay Commission in 1987, the CDA (Officers) deducted an amount equal to the rank pay while re-fixing the pay of officers.  This was challenged by Major AK Dhanapalan and the Kerala High Court held the action of the CDA (Officers) wrong and ruled that the pay be re-fixed without deducting the rank pay and arrears accruing since 01 January 1986 be paid to the petitioner. All the government appeals were successively rejected. After the Supreme Court ruling the government issued orders for re-fixation of pay in respect of the petitioner only, leaving all the similarly affected officers of the Armed Forces in a quandary. Later when the Retired Defence Officers Association (RDOA) filed a case to claim the same justice as granted to Dhanapalan for all others similarly affected, their plea was upheld and government appeals finally rejected at the apex court.  Yet, the heads of the concerned departments in the government deftly devise new intricacies to delay and deny the genuine dues of soldiers despite stern rulings from the highest judiciary. Even today, both serving and retired officers continue waiting for their long denied dues.    
Today, there are over a hundred cases decided by courts in favour of the military personnel – serving and retired. Almost all these cases are a result of either remarkable inefficiency or callous and hostile attitude of government officials heading the concerned departments.  The practice of government filing SLPs in every case decided in favour of these aggrieved soldiers lays bare the hostile attitude against the sentinels of national defence and security. 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's closer inter-action with the Armed Forces has kindled a new hope among the serving military personnel and the ESM. While the comprehensive defence reforms can be assigned to an appropriately constituted commission, the following issues must be addressed and resolved without any further lingering:-
(a)             The 7th Pay Commission: The 7th Pay Commission has no military expert on its panel to offer sound advice on the special features of the military service and genuine requirements of the personnel in this profession of arms. There is a need to have a military member on the panel and specific terms of reference concerning the uniqueness of military occupation that distinguishes the service from all others.  Also, the terms of reference must include military being treated as a "unique and matchless service" that deserves special privileges. Their pay, allowances and perquisites must be a level above the highest paid government service.
(b)             Grant of Non-functional Upgrade (NFU): The organisational structure of military is so pyramidal that a large number are squeezed from its sharply narrowing funnel and left out to stagnate. Being thus deprived of higher promotions despite possessing requisite qualifications frustrates large number of efficient officers. There should be a system like NFU to keep them motivated and to avail of their knowledge and experience even if they cannot be given higher promotions. Justifiably, no other service merits the grant of NFU more than the military because the stagnation rate is nowhere as high in the civil services as in the military.  Yet, this provision is granted to the civil administrative cadre (Group A Service) but not to the military service.   
(c)              Right to Vote: Military personnel can vote at the place of their posting as per directions issued by the Election Commission.  However, a large number of military voters and their families in cantonments remain deprived of their right to vote freely. 
(d)             Armed Forces Commission: The Government must consider institutionalising a central authority to safeguard interests of the Services and ESM.  Departments like DESW, Rajya and Zila Sainik Boards and DGR may be abolished.
Justifiable needs and genuine grievances of the serving military personnel and the ESM are inseparably interlinked and must be addressed holistically. Treating issues concerning them as mere 'welfare issues' is a short-sighted misplaced notion because morale and motivation of the Armed Forces is the single most valuable national asset that can be dissipated at grave national peril.