Two years after it was conceptualised, the department of military affairs (DMA) has accepted the ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) scheme. This will allow civilians to join the armed forces for a fixed period of three years and serve as officers as well in other ranks.
Initially, when the idea was first drawn up, it envisaged 100 officers and 1,000 men for induction. However, now the speculation is that the number of officers to be inducted would either be reduced or done away with completely. The focus would be only on recruiting soldiers. On the platter is an offer for those who wish to experience the military life but do not want to make a career out of it.
Ever since it was introduced, the idea has been debated fiercely. Whether or not the civilians should be given a walk-in walk-out in the defence forces is a question many have asked. Those in support of the idea say that this will create valuable assets in the civilian job market since the brief experience in the forces would have exposed the candidates to hard work, teamwork and stress management apart from discipline.
While the concept is already in the public domain and much is being made out of it, the defence establishment is yet to come out with clear details of how it will take shape. There is ambiguity about the future of the men who would choose to join the army for three years. Will they be given lateral entries into the CAPFs? Will they be able to take up government jobs through reservations or will the private sector be their only opening? Will they be retained in the army beyond three years, and for how long?
Another speculation is that since the army already inducts officers through the Short Service Commission (SSC) route, it will only focus on hiring soldiers under the new scheme. There is no formal statement from the military as yet, and the army website does not mention the ToD. Also, there is no clarity on the application dates, pension, gratuity, leave encashment and medical facilities through the Ex-servicemen Cooperative Health Scheme, or even if the Ex-Servicemen (ESM) status will be provided to the ToD personnel.
What is being speculated is that they will, however, get a pay-out package. Though it is not yet known whether they will be given any preference in government jobs, including in the police forces and CAPFs. But with CAPFs already reeling under heavy pressure, extremely slow promotions of the cadre officers (and men as well), and a leadership that is borrowed from the IPS, it is unlikely that the lateral entry of the ToD personnel will be acceptable to these services.
The ToD concept was introduced by the late chief of defence staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat. The basic driver was reducing the pension bill. Currently, a huge amount of annual defence allocations is spent on pensions, which comes in the way of modernisation.
While the army took its time to deliberate on either implementing the ToD to fill the growing vacancies or making the existing short service commission ‘more attractive’, the IAF and the navy were apparently not keen on the scheme from the word go. However, it realised that ‘making the SSC more attractive’ would not resolve the pension bill problem.
Roughly 60 per cent of the SSC inductees are granted permanent commission to serve until 54 years of age. And then they become eligible for pension. For instance, the Centre allocated a sum of Rs 5.25 lakh crore for 2022-2023 in the defence spending, which was a steep increase of 9.8 per cent from the previous year’s Rs 4.78 lakh crore. Out of this Rs 5,25,166 crore, 1,19,696 crore will go in defence pensions. At present, recruits even under the short service commission can serve for up to 10 years, extendable by 14 years. This is the lowest that one can serve in the army.
Reducing the pension bill apart, what actually made the army warm up to the idea of ToD were mounting vacancies, especially in the fighting arms. The forces have been suffering from the impact of stalled recruitment due to the Covid-19 pandemic for the past two years. According to army sources, low recruitment in the past two years is adversely affecting the force preparedness. As per the government’s own data from last year presented in the winter session of the Rajya Sabha, there are over 1,22,55 vacancies in the three services.
While at the Officers’ level, there are 9,362 vacancies, at the JCOs/ ORs/ Airmen/ Sailors level, the shortfall is of 1,13,193 personnel. The army, which is the largest among the three forces, and also the first to go in for the ToD scheme, has 7,476 vacancies in the Officer rank and 97,177 at the Junior Commission Officers (JCO) and Other Rank (OR) level. For a force that has a strength of nearly 12 lakhs, it is obvious that pensions and increments in salaries must be a heavy burden to bear for the exchequer.
The other argument in favour of the ToD is that it would help maintain a low age profile in the fighting arms.
For all its seeming benefits, the idea of the ToD has not found much traction both within the services and among the ex-servicemen. The reason, they argue is that the minimal financial benefits which the ToD will accrue, will be at the cost of discipline and cohesiveness of the military.
For example, 50 per cent of the soldiers inducted will retire within five years and the rest will continue till the standard age of retirement. The SSC costs Rs 5.12 crores for ten years and Rs 6.93 crores for 14 years. If an officer becomes eligible for Permanent Commission (PC), then the cost increases by another three crores. In the ToD there will not be a PC, only retainment for a brief period. Though the details are not clear as yet, however, it is speculated that the cost to the government of a ToD officer would be Rs 80-85 lakhs and of a soldier, Rs 4.89 lakhs. The savings on 1,000 men under ToD will then amount to Rs 11,500 crores.
Experts believe that this figure, saved over a period of three years, will not be enough for any meaningful force modernisation. Worse, this saving will prove unworthy of the investment because of short term engagement of forces. While the recruits will come and go, the army stands to lose in quality. One of the most worrisome factors is the dilution within the army.
Maj. Gen. Rambir Mann (retd) says, “On an average, the earliest a soldier retires is after 15 years as a Lance Naik and at a maximum, after 28 years as a subedar. A soldier goes through multiple training cycles during this period. It is after a soldier goes through seven-eight cycles of training, that he acquires a degree of proficiency, to handle advanced equipment such as tanks, artillery guns, ICVs, missiles and so on.
He has to go through multiple field firings because he is given charge of a tank gun or an artillery gun or a BMP gun. The ToD concept is thus going to detract from the training format that we have in the Indian Army. The entire training and the curriculum now has to change because a bulk of people are going to remain only for three years and only some of them will be selected and retained for a subsequent period of time.”
The army is heavily deployed on counter-insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir, which are largely carried out by the specialised Rashtriya Rifles, a counter-insurgency force comprising different army units, including the Territorial Army (TA), which is a volunteer reserve force. Given the complexity, and the high attrition rate in CI Ops, the soldiers deployed there need to be very well trained. A lesser trained person can cause harm to not only oneself, but his brothers in arms too.
If the army chooses to not deploy the ToD recruits there, the shortfall in numbers will remain. Especially in the current times when with no recent recruitments there has been an imbalance at the unit level, including in those that are deployed against China at the LAC. Managing with a reduced strength has become a major challenge for the commanding officers. With the influx of the ToD recruits, the number of green horns will go up. Each unit will have a large percentage of new recruits.
Typically, the percentage of raw recruits is kept controlled, maintaining the efficiency of each unit. Each year, a unit sees about 50-60 raw recruits. Now, there will suddenly be up to 200 of them. A ToD soldier will not be able to learn the basics of soldiering which will have a perceptible effect on the efficiency and competence of the army, insists a senior officer.
When the idea of ToD was first floated, Gen. Rawat had said that while it was being worked upon, efforts were also on to make SSC more attractive. “The officers might be given medical facilities post retirement along with an attractive severance package and more importantly they may get to do a professional course in management and technology from prestigious institutions,” he had said.
On SSC, he said that a boy or a girl joins at the average age of 21-22 years and once they leave in the age bracket of around 35-36 years, they have the responsibility of a family and children. “Among those joining through SSC we will allow between 25 to 30 per cent getting Permanent Commission and the rest will not lose with severance financial package and the professional degree making them eligible for a decent job.”
This clearly seemed like a more lucrative idea, which could have been worked upon by the services depending upon their specific requirements and limitations. In contrast, ToD seems like a haphazard measure to save money at the cost of the strength of the military.
The other worry is about the future prospects of the new recruits. Says Maj. Gen. Mann, “Typically there is an urge amongst the rural youth hailing from humble backgrounds, to join the army. For them the safest and honourable option to escape poverty is to join the forces. The best recruits are selected from a large number of aspirants.
Due to the ToD, the percentage of the people coming into the army will reduce as most would prefer to go to the BSF, ITBP and other CAPFs where they will get permanent employment. The quality of recruits coming into the army will thus see a drop. The better lot will want to go to the CAPFs.”
Further, there is no guaranteed employment once you exit from the military after three years. If a person gets unemployed after three years of employment, how does it help him? In fact, a lot of them would have lost opportunities in the civilian sector, becoming over age for other options in the three to five years of the tour of duty.
The Indian Army already has a provision to allow civilians to enter the force through the Territorial Army (TA). This provision has attracted a number of civilians who consider this as their career. TA is a reserve force which was raised in 1920. Its first raising in independent India happened in 1949. The Territorial Army is part of regular army, and its present role is to relieve the regular army from static duties and assist civil administration in dealing with natural calamities and maintenance of essential services in situations where lives of the communities is affected, or the security of the country is threatened and also to beef up the numbers for the regular army as and when required. The efficiency of the TA has increased over a period of time, as it keeps its soldiers on its rolls for a long period of time.
According to Lt Gen. H.S. Panag (retd), India once had a colour/active service (7-10 years) and reserve service (5-8 years) scheme. Seven years was considered optimum for building unit cohesion until 1976. “Earlier when India’s population was low and landholdings were large, people would go back and start farming. They were given preference in government jobs. Once in two years, they trained for two months for which they were given full pay.
During reserve service, a soldier received a nominal stipend, but was given full pay when attending refresher training of two months once in two years. The reservist soldiers were given preference for civilian jobs. We did away with it owing to welfare measures.”
Later, landholdings became small, and no one wanted to go home. They preferred to be on reserve, which is why this time period was changed to 15 years of active service. At the end of 15 years, the soldier was granted a reservist pension, which was much lower than a regular soldier’s pension. Now 17 years of service is the minimum to get mandatory pension.
Adds Lt Gen. Panag, “The same programme could be adopted now, without a reservist pension. They could be given an NPS (National Pension Scheme), contributory pension, pay-out package and preference in jobs.” According to him, all reforms must begin from a national security strategy point of view. He says that the administration is putting the cart before the horse. “The army needs urgent reforms because it is still a manpower intensive force with medium technology.
Instead of trying to introduce reforms in recruitment, we should decide what our national security strategy is. How are we going to fight the future wars? What will be the size of the new army? What will be the technology?,” he says. The Indian Army’s infantry battalion, for instance, is the largest in the world. The American Army has 550-600 people, while India has close to 850 people.
On whether three years will be enough to inculcate discipline in the youth for them to find employment outside, he says, “People in the army are disciplined because there is military law. It is enforced. When the same guy goes outside, is he going to remain disciplined? In the case of the disciplined ex-servicemen, it is after serving for decades together.”
A worry that a number of people have expressed is that once these young people finish their ToD and are unable to find jobs in the civilian street, they are likely to become easy catches for religious and political militias. This will further threaten the fabric of Indian society, which today hangs by a thread. Journalist Sushant Singh in an eye-opening essay in the Caravan, cites a paper written by Steven Wilkinson and Saumitra Jha, titled, Does Combat experience foster Organizational Skill? Evidence from Ethnic Cleansing during the Partition of India, writes, “During Partition in 1947, a curious pattern emerged in the districts with larger concentrations of combat veterans from the Second World War.
In these districts veterans were heavily involved in campaigns to persuade members of the other religious communities to leave, in organising the mass flight of their own community in areas where they were outnumbered, and in encouraging co-religionists to move into a district where their dominant position seemed tenuous. The most violent ethnic cleansing occurred when members of the majority community had gained combat experience as soldiers and the minority community was unorganised.”
Singh adds that this does not automatically mean that all veterans were involved in violence, but the threat emanating from the ToD remains.
Similar fear has been expressed by several veterans. One of them, who did not wish to be named, said that fringe or lumpen elements might get into the military through the ToD process. “The Constitution empowers the President of India to use the army when the law and order situation goes out of control of the civil administration. If you want to use the military as a force of last resort, they must be apolitical. That is exactly why the fundamental rights of military personnel are abrogated. Giving weapons in the hands of the citizenry is problematic,” he says.
According to him, with the army already getting politicised, this is a worrisome move, which does not particularly lead to cost saving. After all, the cost of training is much higher. With expenditure happening repeatedly to train young men, how is this a viable idea? For instance, if men are trained to maintain a tank and 75 per cent of them are sent back, then the Army will have to train more. There is a need to cost this.
There is an outcome budget which was introduced by former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. For instance, if a million-dollar missile got fired during training, what is the outcome of having spent that much money? There are quantifiable methods by which it is calculated. This means that if such firing is done even once a year, how durable is it? The men who will have come, will go and it will only lead to more cost. All the three forces are highly technical.
“To me, the effect on an advanced military with all its technological complexity is a source of concern. A lot goes into training a highly skilled military workforce. While such approaches may be okay for some low skilled tasks it cannot be assumed as good for a professional military that must fight and win the nation’s wars. It’s not just about constabulary functions. There’s a lot more to all this,” he adds.
About The Author
Smruti Deshpande is a Correspondent at FORCE Magazine & is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @smrutidesh.
(This article first appeared in the May edition of Force Magazine, and has been reproduced with due permission in the larger interest of the serving & veteran communities. Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)