Govt. Denials on Reductions in Army Manpower

27 Jan, 1998    ·   54

P. R. Chari feels that the issue of manpower reductions in the Indian Army is getting curiouser and curiouser, starting with the denial by the Government that any such move is afoot

The issue of manpower reductions in the Indian Army is getting curiouser and curiouser. Let’s start with the denial by the Government (The Hindu--January 16). This described newspaper reports asserting that the Cabinet had approved a plan to initiate manpower cuts in the Army and to utilise the money thus saved for its modernisation as being "totally incorrect". The impugned newspaper reports (Telegraph--January 2, and Indian Express--January 15) had informed that the Army had decided to reduce its troop-strength by 50,000 and use the money saved--estimated between Rs. 600 to 750 crores-- to obtain modern weapon systems. This reduction was to be effected by gradually freezing recruitment in "support elements" over the next few years. Since the strength of the Indian Army is over one million the annual retirements can be placed around 55,000 taking into account normal terms of service. Hence these reports argued that graduated reductions in intake would not impair the Army’s capabilities, but would provide the funds for its much needed modernisation programme.



Over the years, it has become increasingly evident that manpower and manpower-related costs are consuming larger and larger proportions of the Army’s budget, and this was being met at the expense of its allocations for maintenance and modernisation. Hence the modality of reducing its manpower to modernise the Army is obviously in the interests of its functional efficiency. Consequently The Times of India editorially (January 16) "welcomed [this measure] as a first step in the long delayed process of restructuring the forces for the 21st century". It added: "The new move would be in tune with world-wide trends, including in China , towards developing leaner and meaner forces equipped with the state of the art equipment". That, of force, begs the question: what is the threat assessment on which this requirement for "the state of the art equipment" is based?



For years altogether the official assessment of threat projected by India’s Ministry of Defence in its Annual Report to Parliament has pinpointed Pakistan and China, in that order, to be the primary sources of external threat to India. But, over the years, a subtle shift is discernible. The threat from China is deemed to arise from its nuclear/defence co-operation with Pakistan . And the threat from Pakistan is believed to emanate from its "proxy war" in Kashmir , and general assistance to militant and extremist elements of all hues in India . Also from its single-minded quest for nuclear weapons. Only the slightest reflection would inform that armed forces equipped with "the state of the art equipment" are not required to meet these threats. Indeed, the majority of India ’s "strategic thinkers" also believe that a state of "non-weaponized" or "recessed" or "existential" or "opaque" deterrence is currently obtaining between India and Pakistan , based on their capability to manufacture nuclear weapons at short notice. In that case, why should India procure "the state of the art equipment"? In other words, the reduction of the Army’s strength cannot be made hostage to its modernisation programme, unless a clear need is established for replacing equipment, and that need is premised on a realistic threat assessment, and that threat assessment derives from the defence policy laid down by the Government.



This last issue of the defence policy of the Government is of seminal importance. Some years back the Estimates Committee of Parliament was informed by the Defence Secretary that India ’s defence policy "has been basically a policy to defend our territory, our sovereignty and our territory, and no more than that". The inanity of that official declaration would be difficult to improve upon. But some years later the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, informed Parliament that certain "guidelines" had been issued that encompassed India ’s defence policy. These included a set of general postulates like "defence of national territory" and insuring "against any threats to its [ India ’s] unity or progress" and so on. But it also called for the ability "to exercise a degree of influence over the nations in our immediate neighbourhood", which must give pause for greater thought and consideration. Especially as it does not seem to accord with the spirit of the Gujral doctrine. The basic argument being made here is that, unless the defence policy and threat assessments on which it is postulated are reviewed, force structuring exercises like re-establishing the Army’s manpower "ceiling" are bound to be half-baked exercises. Moreover, all revenues of the Government of India, by law, pass into the Consolidated Fund of India from which appropriations are made for expenditure under various heads, including defence. A direct transfer of savings made to expenditure by any Ministry or Department of the Government of India does not seem possible, again under Constitutional law. Indeed, it is dubious if any savings are being effected at all, in the first place. This is for the reason that the Army is already under-strength in regard to its established manpower ceiling. The arcane reasons for this situation need not concern us. But the important point to note here is that the savings being touted are wholly notional, whereas the expenditure against the same would be very real. One hopes the Defence Minister understands these abstrusities in the area of public finance.



There remains the question why the government chose to deny these reports and hide behind technicalities that the Cabinet had not approved the proposal. Obviously, the fact that the Army wishes to get funds by pointing to illusory savings must be doing the rounds in the Ministry of Defence. A conspiracy theory would suggest that this was the clever defence civilian way of killing an untenable proposal. The political angle would be that the Gujral government--known for its kindness to the Indian bureaucracy--does not want to be seen as doing the unpopular thing by reducing the size of the Government--civil or military. At least, not before the elections. And with the BJP panting in the wings, and hoping to make this a national-security-in-danger issue.