War Not an Option Yet India on a Shopping Spree

We need to ask ourselves is there a way to contain spiraling wage and pension bill of the armed forces personnel in India? Will not a lean force enable the government to provide a respectable compensation package? Do we need more armed personnel when war as an option has been ruled out? Asks Gautam Navlakha

01 January, 2011 Defence, Opinion
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To speak of expectations from the annual budget requires that we first take a step back in order to make sense of the budgetary allocations. Annual budget does not spell out the underlying assumptions behind the financial allocations, although the allocations are informed by it and funds for various departments and ministries of Government of India are determined within parameters set by the policy decisions. For instance if the Thirteenth Finance Commission considers salary and wages of teachers or medical practitioners to be consumption expenditure and not investments which create future productivity of the people, then budget will continue to show them as allocations to meet consumption expenditure. Indeed these two social sectors may also receive short shrift at the hands of Ministry of Finance whenever there is a move to contain revenue expenditure. This issue acquires acuity in the absence of a robust debate on military or security matters and there is a fawning acceptance of military’s role in the service of the nation-state even when their role as defenders of the nation-state is getting undermined by the not-so-desirable task they have been performing in internal security for past several decades. Indeed even as armed militancy declines in the North East and Jammu and Kashmir, army and central paramilitary forces’ counter-insurgency footprints are expanding in heartland India.1

Between 2002-2007, India imported weapon systems worth about Rs. 1200 bn and another about Rs 1440 bn will be spent between 2007-2012. Shopping list includes 124 combat planes (Rs 420bn), six Scorpene submarines (Rs 20 bn), three submarines bought off the shelf (Rs 12bn), 300 attack helicopters (Rs 5bn), C 130 airlift carrier and also includes howitzers for high mountain terrain and more lethal assault rifles, among other items (India’s $50 bn Shopping Spree, Ninad D Sheth; Open, 20th December 2010). Since there is also a feeling that that previous big ticket acquisitions did not result in equipping the armed forces to respond to Pakistan after 13th December 2001 parliament attack or after the 26th November 2008 Mumbai terror attack, it is a moot question whether current spree of acquisitions will prove any different. The ‘Operation Parakrama’ in 2001-2002 showed that response for war mobilization was a little slow, because the army took nearly three weeks to moblise troops. It also suffered 798 casualties (176 fatal) without firing a bullet and cost the exchequer in excess of Rs 8.3bn. (Lost Opportunities, Gurmeet Kanwal; The Tribune, 13th December 2010). In other words there is a cost attached to every policy and decision.

Besides, the Prime Minister has reminded us, that war as an option is ruled out with Pakistan. It is even far less of an option with China, and yet,

In sharp contrast to the elite who are reluctant to join armed forces, underclass is recruited in large numbers in various military and paramilitary formations because for them other job opportunities are scarce

we are engaged in raising two mountain divisions and an armoured brigade for Sino-Indian border region. Apparently the expensive C130 and C 17 airlift carriers are meant for them. Point is that possession of sophisticated armory does not necessarily enhance our response capabilities nor provides security. So why must India go in for muscle-flexing or military power projection when it is known that even coercive diplomacy depends on actual capability to strike which is lacking and war as an option is being ruled out?

This is all the more important when it is realised that our military projection and actual capacity are impacted by the armed forces getting sucked into a burgeoning internal security role which has affected its preparedness for the primary role, which is to defend the country against external aggression. For instance, counter-insurgency has resulted in poor performance of Indian army officers with 23-25 per cent clearing the in-house-service exams for promotions. Retired Lt General H S Bagga, formerly Director General of Army’s Manpower, Planning and Personnel Division says that, until “late 80s, when Kashmir was peaceful, almost 80 to 90% officers cleared these exams”. (Hindustan Times, 2nd February 2009).

Therefore, it is necessary to ponder over the logic of Indian security perceptions and military acquisitions. This acquires urgency because while we go on buying more weapon systems there is also simultaneously an augmentation of personnel being recruited by the various branches of the Armed Forces of the Union. In 2000 then army chief V P Malik had announced a reduction of 50,000 soldiers over two years by not filling vacancies in non-combat arms. No one even talks about this anymore. Much worse in 2007 it was pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor General that 33,000 soldiers were recruited above authorised strength by the army. Army claimed that it made erroneous estimation of “wastages” i.e. retirements, desertion, failure in training, discharge on medical grounds and deaths. (The Hindu 26th May 2007).

Be that as it may. Now more than 40,000 personnel will be recruited by the army to fill the posts in the new divisions and brigade being raised. And 300,000 personnel will be recruited for armed police battalions! Armed police formations are incidentally trained along the lines of infantry formations of the Indian army. To equip them and to create facilities for them will require additional capital investments. But there is also a recurring cost in shape of their salary, wage and pension bill that has to be considered. Is this a wise utilisation of our scarce resources? Consider the following.

There is a need to radically change the assessment and approach towards security in general and internal security in particular to ensure that primary role of army as defender of the country is restored and its discipline and morale not jeopardised

Fighting against our own people can never inspire enthusiasm among public nor can such combat activities be invested with nobility of task. Therefore, job stress/trauma, is much higher fighting one’s own people.2 Secondly, in sharp contrast to the elite who are reluctant to join armed forces, underclass is recruited in large numbers in various military and paramilitary formations because for them other job opportunities are scarce. Were other options available to the underclass they too would opt out of such thankless and uninspiring job which, for all practical purposes, involves killing or getting killed. Thirdly, it saps the energy of the people who bear the brunt of bloodletting caused by obsessive pursuit of military suppression at home.

According to Expenditure Budget (Volume I) Government of India’s wage bill for Army (Rs 31.6bn) and Central Para Military Forces (CPMFs) (Rs 27bn) in 2010-11 was approximately Rs 58.6bn The pension bill for 2010-11 is estimated to be Rs 40bn This comprises Rs 25bn towards defense forces and Rs 5.5bn for CPMFs. Significantly, out of an estimated strength of 14,06,052 government personnel – i.e., excluding 480,000 postal employees and 13,86,000 railway employees – 880,000 or 60 percent belong to the CPMPs. And the combined pension bill for DF and CPMFs would be Rs 30.5bn, which is more than 60 percent of the total pension outgo of the GoI, railways and posts included, and an incredible 80 percent if railway and postal employees are excluded! Thus the salary, wage and pension bill for the military comes to Rs 85.6bn. To place it in a perspective budgetary allocation for DF and CPMF is estimated to be Rs 205.7bn for 2010-11, which is more than 20 per cent of the estimated plan and non-plan expenditure of Rs 110.8bn.

It is equally worth noting that whereas number of employees in Railways and Posts and Telegraph, two of the biggest civilian sectors, have either been stagnant or declining, number of personnel in the Armed Forces of the Union (that is besides Army, Navy, Air Force also includes the Para Military) have been rising.3

Thus we need to ask ourselves is there a way to contain spiraling wage and pension bill of the armed forces personnel in India i.e. other than by reducing manpower strength? Will not a lean (not mean) force enable the government to provide a respectable compensation package? Indeed do we need more armed personnel when such job involves employing someone to fight “our own people” which is neither a democratic way of resolving social conflicts nor a socially useful form of labour? Above all would not the prestige and performance of the military get enhanced with their less use in internal security and instead make them more effective in responding to outside challenges and simultaneously, offer respite to people from armed conflicts?

Consequently, there is a need to radically change the assessment and approach towards security in general and internal security in particular to ensure that primary role of army as defender of the country is restored and its discipline and morale not jeopardized, the burgeoning salary and pension bill of the armed forces personnel are arrested, and socially productive and useful wage employment is created in place of raising more and more battalions of armed police for fighting our own people. Securing life of dignity for our people must receive priority. At the very minimum budget 2011-12 ought not to increase allocations for Armed Forces of the Union.

  1. Indian army chief, two days after the meeting of the Chief Ministers, which was held on 14th July 2010 and inaugurated by the Indian Prime Minister, told his senior officers to be “mentally prepared to step into the fight against Naxalism. It might be in six months or in a year or two but if we have to maintain our relevance as a tool of the state, we will have to undertake things that the nation wants us to.” (Indian Express 17th July 2010). Two brigade HQ are coming up. One in Koraput (Orissa) and another at Jagdalpur (Chhattisgarh). Besides, editor of Force magazine, which monitors military developments pointed out to The Hindustan Times on 7th November 2010 that “ at any given point, more than one third of the army is in internal security. Another one third is preparing for changeover. In internal security checks and balances are not so stringent. The commanders are tasked with providing the best for their troops. There is enormous scope for corruption”.
  2. A study from 2005 lends credence to this operational experience of the personnel by identifying “operational stressors”. It points out the following: “feeling of anger/frustration at fighting with ‘one arm tied behind the back’ (88%)”; “anger at public admonition (84%)”; “bitterness at not being able to deal with the unarmed but vicious ideologues/motivators/financers of militants, the ‘jamayatis’ who were blatantly misusing religious institutions such as ‘madrasas’ in their anti-national activities (64%)”; “ambiguity with regard to aim (30%)”; feeling of uncertainty (26%); feeling of fighting a futile war with no benefits to the country (25%)”, and fear of ever present danger/attack from unexpected quarters (18%)” . The study goes on to point out that since there is no enemy and the main task is to ‘win hearts and minds’ and yet ‘some killing is still required’ all these compound the dilemma for the soldier. It is worth noting that 88% of the respondents felt that they were fighting with ‘one arm tied behind their back’, 84% resent public criticism, and 64% felt bitter at not being able to “deal with” “over ground workers”. In contrast only 30% are troubled by “ambiguity about the aim”, 25% believe they are fighting a “futile war” and only 18% fear attack from “unexpected quarters”. Anger and resentment outweigh fear and doubt among personnel. In spite of this the soldiers feel constrained and hounded by criticism whereas the population feels helpless against the security forces. (Impact of Low Intensity Conflict Operations on Service Personnel: S Chowdhury, P K Chakaraborty, V Pande, T R John, R Saini, S P Rathee, Industrial Psychiatry Journal 2005.
  3. All figures taken from Expenditure Budget of Government of India, Volume 1 and 2 for 2010-2011.

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