The Pathankot Air Force Base attack is a reminder that India is located in a hostile geopolitical environment. The enlightened diplomatic endeavors of the Government need to be supplemented with high alert, always-in-readiness, defence forces. It is in this context that the defence related recommendations of Seventh Central Pay Commission (SPC), submitted recently to the Government of India needs to be examined. The elite Indian defence forces (EIDF), consisting of Army, Air Force and Navy, explicitly continue to be unsatisfied with SPC recommendations.
An dispassionate perusal show that some recommendations, made with an objective of fiscal consolidation, need a revisit, as these would not yield any substantial saving for the fisc but correcting them can help assuage the sentiments of defence personnel. The EIDF, especially the Indian Army, has been playing a pivotal role in India be it in defending our borders or in times of every national calamity, in the mountains or plains. In fact, EIDF, with hetereogenous composition of its soldiers, and presence in every nook and corner of the country, has played an important role in national integration too, worthy to be emulated by others.
It is important that EIDF enjoys a special status for the yeoman service that they have already done for our citizens, and more importantly, because they have to be on high alert all the time, irrespective of their location on the border or otherwise. Hence, in acknowledgement, as Indian Administrative Service continues to enjoy the supreme status, deservedly, in comparison to other civil services, EIDF deserves a special status in comparison to other para military, border and police forces. Also, if India has to emerge as a global super power, it will need, amongst other things, active assistance and preparedness of its EIDF. The super powers of an earlier era, like the UK, or today, the US, relied heavily on well-furnished defense forces. The aspirants like China and Russia follow the same pattern. Incidentally, USA allocates largest amount of resources to its defence budget, more than 4 percent of GDP.
Costs will be minor
Interestingly, some of the grouses of EIDF are easily addressable and seem minor in terms of costs to the Government. One such is the curtailing the food allowances of its officers when they are not in hardship locations. Officers account for less than 5 per cent of defense personnel, and such curtailing of their food allowance would not lead to any significant savings in the fiscal deficit. Rather it would only create resentment and hardship for officers when they are undertaking war training for months together, away from family, but not on the borders. In such war-like locations, ensuring private food supply to such officers would probably imply higher costs than savings in curtailing food allowance.
Similarly, given that promotion avenues are few at every level in EIDF, because of sharp tapering, a large number of soldiers stagnate at different levels and many of them get superseded which results in severe blow to their self-esteem. A soldier survives on self-esteem and if that is hurt, battle readiness is impacted. Remember, in battle, not only the soldier facing the enemy but complete supply chain behind is equally important. It also needs to be recognized that many of these soldiers suffer from ailments because of harsh conditions on very long border of India ranging from heavy snow-filled mountains to heat–oven deserts. Such ailing solders, obviously get superseded and continue to suffer from psychosomatic ailments. Therefore, compensation and allowances for stagnating solders should factor such extreme conditions to ensure that they stay motivated to actively contribute in active defence of the country. Also disability pension of solders needs to be related to the specific disability rather than a fixed amount, across-the-board. Similar, are other issues in SPC, which seem to be impacting the morale of EIDF but don’t emerge to be guzzling tax-payers money.
To have an enthusiastic army, it is necessary to provide a rewarding career prospects. The reward system of the British Army needs to be closely examined as an example. It was not without reason that Indian soldiers were happily fighting on behalf of the British in distant, alien lands. This is in sharp contrast to the present situation where the EIDF, despite so-called lucrative compensation, are substantially short of officers. Further, curtailment of defence compensation may not be a productive strategy to correct fiscal deficit, at least not at the current juncture when India is facing challenging geopolitical situations. The pragmatic approach is that civil diplomatic initiatives need to be solidly backed by more defense preparedness. Therefore, the government needs to initiate dialogue with EIDF to publicly dispel the notion, mainly held within defence forces, that they are being given a short shrift. Saving some allowances but regularly having skirmishes and losing soldiers in cantonments does not make fiscal sense. Such instances impact the country’s morale, generally, but more specifically conveys to the world that India is a soft target, vulnerable and incapable of securing its borders, ring-fencing its defence establishments, protecting its assets and safeguarding its citizens. This notion needs to be dispelled.
Charan Singh is RBI Chair Professor of Economics at IIM-Bangalore. Views expressed here are personal.