Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The capture of Fort Happiness

Photograph: Courtesy Ajai Shukla
Right: Interviewing soldiers at the China border near Bum La in Arunachal Pradesh 

by Ajai Shukla
(Business Standard, 8th April 08)

The uncharacteristic promptness with which Parliament clears pay raises for its members has already proved that nothing brings a divided house together like the prospect of its own benefit. This principle was again illustrated last week when the army, air force and naval chiefs jointly petitioned Defence Minister AK Antony to give the military more than has been recommended by the 6th Pay Commission. Vital strategic issues --- the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), to name just one --- have been put on the back burner because the three services cannot forge agreement. Perhaps a joint campaign for more pay will bring together the generals, admirals and air marshals. 

Their disappointment over the Sixth Pay Commission report is not without basis. There is merit, for example, in the demand that the military must be compensated adequately for its harsh service conditions; and that this compensation must be a part of soldiers’ salaries; and paid antedate from 1st January 2006. There is merit too in the demand that military ranks retain parity with traditional civil services counterparts. 

But much of the disillusionment within the military stems from wider issues than low salaries or difficult and dangerous service conditions. Hundreds of conversations with soldiers, sailors and airmen tell me that they worry most about two major issues. Most troubling for them is the shortage of good schooling for their children, and of family accommodation in many cantonments. And there is equal frustration --- particularly amongst the more intelligent --- about the stifling professional environment of unquestioning obedience, where autocratic commanders can end promising careers with one stroke of a pen.

The latter issue requires fundamental reforms in the system of performance appraisal, and a rejection of the military’s outdated belief that disagreeing with the boss is disloyalty. But encouraging dissent requires secure and confident commanders, and the only one who officially propagated dissent was General K Sundarji, in a letter to every army officer when he took over as army chief in 1986. Having despatched that letter, Sundarji himself remained brusquely dismissive of opposing views. Creating a vibrant professional climate would boost the morale of the services far more than a petition to Mr Antony. But that would require tough decisions and difficult changes; it is far simpler to ask for more salary.

An equal boost to military morale would come from guaranteeing accommodation and quality education in military cantonments. These needs are gaining urgency from social changes across the army’s rural recruiting areas. Traditionally, most soldiers’ families lived in their villages, choosing the security of the joint family over the uncertainties of life in an unknown cantonment. But the erosion of the joint family system is now driving many soldiers to seek family accommodation when they move to peace stations. Soldiers recruited from economically weaker areas also welcome the opportunity to move their families to better housing and to provide their children with quality schooling that would be unavailable in their home villages.

But, according to decades-old scales, only 15% of all jawans are authorised family quarters in a cantonment; and even these have not been built. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has allotted Rs 17,358 crores towards constructing the shortfall of two lakh married quarters across India’s cantonments, but the time frame of four years for completion of this project has clearly been underestimated. And, once constructed, the family quarters will remain largely empty until the generals address another internal problem: schooling.

Bigger cantonments today house one or more Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs), but these give jawans short shrift. Governed by rules of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Board, mid-term admissions are seldom allowed, even to the children of soldiers who are posted in from the field. Turned away from the KV, the jawan’s only option is the “Army School”, set up by the Army Welfare Education Society, and run by the local military units. Without educational expertise, without experienced teachers willing to work for a pittance in a remote cantonment, and without steady funding from the army, Army Schools offer no more than an adequate education.

Contrast this with Pakistani cantonments, where the Army Welfare Trust runs excellent schools that have even set up their own system of examinations --- called the Askari Education Board (AEB) --- which has standards higher than the national boards. Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc., a seminal study of the Pakistani military, writes that the army has set a new benchmark by offering AEB accreditation to eager private schools. The Indian Army, fortunately, is not as inclined to expand its roles, but there are lessons to be learnt from the way Pakistan’s military has funded cantonment education, leveraging the excellent campuses, playgrounds and free transport that are also available here.

But while the Indian jawan makes do with whatever is on offer, officers with school-age children increasingly maintain their families in metro cities with quality schools, creating a new series of family, financial and social stresses. A key reason for so many officers wanting to leave service is the cumulative loneliness of years away from the family.

Private companies, like the Tatas in Jamshedpur, have succeeded on a massive scale at providing housing, schooling and a congenial working environment. Why does the military --- with endless tracts of real estate, equipment, enormous funds, the most committed cadre, and unquestioned organisational coherence --- find it so difficult?

Better pay scales and parity with civil services are laudable objectives; but for the military happiness really lies within.

7 comments:

adam brown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

That was some lateral and forward thinking article.....quite contrary to what you posted at pragmatic euphony. Keep it up!

Solutions to some of the most complex issues are within the decision making powers of the Armed Forces. It just requires a radical shift in the thinking of the people - doing the same thing differently!

Btw, Military background and media is a potent combination. Hope the latter will be used for betterment of the former....for old time sake...

Ajai said...

Anonymous, don't remember posting on this subject at Pragmatic Euphony. Could you just remind me... or direct me to where the post is?

thx

Pragmatic said...

@Ajai:

I think he is referring to your comment on the IAF officers who lost the case in the Delhi HC.

Ajai said...

Pragmatic, couldn't find the article where I made a comment... would you happen to know where I posted it?

Anonymous said...

" Raat gayee; baat gayee"!

'kuch to log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna; chodo en bekar ke baton me, kahin beet na jae raina!'

Pragmatic said...

Ajai:

http://pragmatic.nationalinterest.in/2008/03/23/an-apathetic-iaf-some-facts/#comment-2526