The viral video, captured by journalist Vinod Kapri, gave a glimpse of the country’s aspirational youth who won’t shy away from working hard to get to their goals, while also testifying to the motivation that many of them carry to join the force. Many of these young men, particularly in rural Punjab and Uttarakhand, run regularly and self-train in their efforts to join the Army.
But, the video also underscored the grim reality of the Army—the largest of the three defence forces—suspending recruitments in the last two years, officially citing the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason.
Earlier this month, defence minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that the recruitment process remains suspended for the last two years because of the pandemic. He added that the planned recruitment of 199 women candidates during 2020-21 and 2021-22 into the Corps of Military Police (CMP) has also been withheld.
It is not fully clear why a complete suspension was ordered on recruitment rallies even as multiple election rallies continued during the pandemic years. The move comes with a set of ramifications, the biggest of which is a shortage of around 80,000 troops in the Army over the last two years.
Unless the government devises a separate mode of recruitment to address this shortage immediately, any further delay will only make this vacuum bigger, impacting the operational efficiency of the force in the immediate future.
The recruitment process
Recruitment in the Army is carried out on the basis of the recruitable male population (RMP) of each state for general duty (GD) soldiers as well the various trades of the force including clerks, housekeepers, chefs, and others. The class composition of various regiments is pre-decided.
After the candidates are shortlisted, they go through a training period of 36 weeks for GD soldiers and 18-20 weeks for tradesmen.
The process is carried out by Army recruiting offices/ zonal recruiting offices in various states and the schedule for recruitment rallies is given out in advance for the interested candidates.
Once shortlisted on the basis of the laid-down physical and medical criteria, the candidates are trained in various regimental centres across the country for their respective regiments or arm/service.
As per data presented to Parliament, 97 recruitment rallies were planned in 2020-21, of which only 47 could be conducted. Of these rallies, Common Entrance Exam (CEE) for only four rallies were conducted before recruiting activities were suspended. As many as 87 recruitment rallies were planned in 2021-22, and just four of them have been conducted but no CEE was held.
The data also shows that the Army had recruited 53,431 candidates in 2018-19 and 80,572 in 2019-20.
As per a parliamentary standing committee report on defence, the Army said the sanctioned strength for other ranks and JCOs was 12.12 lakh and there is a shortage of 81,000 personnel as of January 1.
The Navy made 8,269 recruitments and the Indian Air Force made 13,032 recruitments in this period in 2018-19 and 2019-20. In 2020, the Navy recruited sailors only once a year, while in the IAF, the selection test for airmen recruitment scheduled in March was delayed to November that year.
Why recruitment should begin ASAP
As I mentioned earlier, no recruitment for consecutively two years has created a deficit of nearly 80,000 soldiers in the Army.
The gap is pronounced when looked at simultaneously with nearly 60,000 soldiers retiring every year.
It will continue to be a vacuum difficult to fill, even if the Army begins recruitment tomorrow, particularly considering the weeks required for shortlisting the candidates and also the overall training period that is close to a year.
Moreover, there is a fixed training capacity of each regimental centre, based on accommodation and training infrastructure available.
Unless a major policy change towards recruitment of soldiers is on the cards, the Army won’t be left with many options to reduce the shortfall except for either shortening the training period or stretching its infrastructure to temporarily accommodate a bigger number of soldiers, or suspending retirement for a limited period of time.
This shortage of soldiers assumes greater importance at a time when there is an enhanced deployment against the Chinese troops at the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. Reduced ranks at this time affect the ratio of troops serving in peace and field areas.
A tour of duty proposal to recruit soldiers on a temporary basis to reduce pension bills has not seen any movement in the last two years.
Another factor that the government may consider at this point is that thousands of motivated young men preparing and waiting to join the Army will lose the opportunity since the force recruits soldiers within the age bracket of 17.5 to 21 years for general duty. In some other categories, such as soldier tech or nursing assistant JCOs in catering, this could go up to 23 years.
Mehra is 19, but many others would have lost out on a dream they long nurtured with them overshooting the age bracket in the last two years.
The government should not deprive thousands of others of the dream, merely because of their higher age, by delaying recruitments any longer.
Unless it plans to specially give them a separate chance.