The Tour of Duty (ToD) proposal is understandably making waves. It has largely been received positively both by potential candidates aspiring to wear combat dress and bear arms, as well as others who have been concerned with housekeeping challenges faced by the armed forces in general and the Indian Army in particular.
There is little doubt that the Indian Armed Forces never faced a lack of volunteers, despite its over million-strong size. This was not only a reflection of soldiering being seen as a secure job opportunity, but more importantly, for many it remains the first if not the only choice they choose to pursue. From family traditions to love for arguably the most respected profession in the country, the armed forces have always been more than a career. It has been a way of life.
The ToD proposal opens up the entry gates of the haloed portals of the Indian Army just a little bit wider for those who wanted an opportunity to serve the country, even if this meant that it was a fleeting opportunity. The in-house surveys conducted by the army indicate an overwhelming 90 percent, or more, favouring such an option.
In light of these realities, where does the ToD proposal fit in and how can it be ensured that it serves the purpose it is intended to achieve?
The recent past has seen pay and pension rise to almost 60 percent of the defence budget. The impact of Covid-19 on the economy, while unarguably severe, is still being assessed for its consequences across sectors. The defence budget and capital procurements are unlikely to remain unaffected by its cascading influence. For the Indian Army, which was already looking for ways to reduce its revenue budget, this could not have come at a worse time.
The ToD option, while meeting the aspirations of the youth, is also meant to address the financial concerns of the army. It is felt that both soldiers and officers entering service through this route, by serving for a period of three years will reduce the pensionary outflow, which has risen in recent times and could move up further unless creative solutions are found to limit this trend.
This would in turn lead to a reduction in recruitment under the existing intake pattern, thereby saving on long term financial support measures of not only pension but also medical facilities.
It has been indicated that depending on the numbers, the proposal could lead to a saving of Rs 8,000-9000 crore, which is a substantial cut on revenue expenditure.
However, for the proposal to succeed, it cannot be based merely on the motivation of youth and their selfless desire to serve the country. Over time, it has to be converted into an opportunity through three essentials. First, it must ensure that the liabilities associated with soldiering are covered in terms of injuries and even death while undertaking operational duties.
Second, an officer or a soldier must at the end of three-year service, receive the support of the government and society to resettle into an economically viable job opportunity.
Three, the opportunities should be such that it motivates the very best to join through this entry, rather than those who could not get in elsewhere. For this can have a serious impact on the functional efficiency of the army. Each of these factors deserves greater emphasis.
In all likelihood, a soldier or an officer selected is more likely to find himself in a unit in field and possibly in active counter terrorism operations. This brings its allied risks to life and limb. While a soldier fights for the “izzat” of his “Paltan”, however, this motivation can best be sustained when he knows that his life as a battle casualty will remain secure in terms of emoluments and medical support when he does not remain capable of undertaking a “normal” job any longer.
Similarly, soldiers coming from humble economic backgrounds will want the assurance of their families being suitably compensated in case they were to die fighting in combat. Unlike other dissimilarities with existing service conditions, these officers and soldiers will have to be compensated in exactly the same way as are others, operating under existing regulations.
A soldier who gets recruited through such an entry, cannot be left in a lurch after three years, especially after his decision to give up on his education to serve the country. A well trained, motivated and disciplined soldier should not ultimately become a security guard outside an ATM, which will deeply hurt his self-respect and financial stability. It will also adversely impact the motivation of others to join after the initial rush subsides.
It deserves emphasis that this is often the stage at which soldiers consider marriage and commence their settling down process. The challenge of remaining unsettled, can best be overcome by sidestepping such soldiers into Central Police and Paramilitary Forces. The recipient force will receive well-trained, battle hardened and motivated cadres for their force.
However, in doing so, care needs to be taken that their seniority is protected, failing which, it is bound to have an adverse impact on their motivation in comparison with their peers, leading to disgruntlement and poor morale.
In the case of officers, there are a number of options that deserve closer scrutiny:
The possibility of sidestepping these officers into Central Police and Paramilitary forces, given their training, experience and age profile, without any loss of seniority is an option that can be explored. Given that these officers would have cleared their Services Selection Board and a UPSC examination would guarantee quality of intake.
Alternatively, secure positions in top management schools can be allocated, which will in turn practically guarantee a suitable job opportunity on passing out.
Secure positions in Public Sector Undertakings is yet another option. In case of Defence Public Sector Undertakings, this can serve the additional purpose of receiving officers with an exposure to service life.
An endeavour to coordinate collaborative intake into the corporate sector at comparative positions through close liaison with the government, is yet another option that can be explored. While the private sector will benefit from the induction of young and motivated officers, the officer cadre will be able to further their career options through greater exposure.
For both entries, it is suggested that their emoluments be made tax-free to provide an added incentive to the volunteers in case they do not sidestep into a government or public sector job.
In addition, a 4-6 month severance pay can be included in the package to ensure financial stability, yet again, in case they do not sidestep into a government or public sector job.
When seen from the perspective of the army, a soldier or an officer will almost certainly be part of a team in combat. They can only operate seamlessly when the standard of intake and their motivation to fight in the face of odds remains similar to the others in their units. For this to succeed, the quality of recruitment can only be better and not worse than any soldier who is inducted under the existing policy.
It is also under these circumstances that a company commander and a commanding officer will feel confident enough to take them into operations. This will also ensure that no entry-based gradations and labels exist within the same unit.
The ToD proposal is an attempt to break the shackles of the existing logjam the army finds itself in. The very attempt to think afresh and beyond the obvious deserves to be applauded. Few uniformed organisations tend to adopt change willingly and voluntarily. However, even as change is attempted, similar examples, though under different socio-economic realities attempted elsewhere deserve close scrutiny.
This includes implications of future demands for medical support, even if it clearly not on offer presently, criticality of ensuring fair job opportunities at the end of the tenure and considering them an asset and not a military issue equipment, which has completed its shelf life.
While the army has indicated its willingness to bite the bullet, however, the organisation alone cannot manage this change. It must be taken up as an all of government endeavour to ensure that some of the suggestions indicated in this article receive positive support. Only then can it possibly meet the aspirations of the volunteers and the needs of the army.