The Indian Army’s ‘Tour of Duty’ Proposal: A Review (Part-I)

21 May, 2020    ·   5690

Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain assesses the proposed changes to the Indian Army’s recruitment and manning patterns in this two-part commentary.

Recently, the Indian Army proposed a ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) system, which involves a changed format of recruitment with amended terms and conditions for a few officers and personnel below officer rank. A highly manpower intensive organisation such as the 1.3 million strong Indian Army always needs a dynamic pattern of manning and recruitment contingent upon the social environment and budgeting parameters. The domains of officer recruitment and that of jawans are considerably different, and there is a variance in terms and conditions too. Therefore, they must not be confused with each other. This two-part commentary will help to clarify misnomers and ascertain the worthiness of the proposal.

Shortage of Officers
The Indian Army has proposed a few changes which are not transformational in nature, primarily to overcome current identified constraints. First among these is a long-standing challenge of officer shortage. There is no dearth of men and women willing to serve in the Indian Army as officers. However, the issue is not about numbers but about quality. The Indian Army abides by certain standards in its intake, and has, over the years, refused to compromise on this. India’s economic liberalisation, which was initiated in 1991, raised the aspirations bar in the traditional manpower base which provides the officer cadre. This resulted in a dilution in the quality of personnel seeking an army (officer) career, with the commercial world and other professions stealing a march in attracting better recruits.

Consequently, since the turn of the millennium, there have been serious implications at the operational end, with units having to contend with 25-30 per cent shortage in officer cadre even with the security situation in Jammu & Kashmir and other threats intensifying along the borders. An 11,000 personnel shortage in the officer cadre at one time forced the Indian Army to extend the engagement period of the Short Service Commission (SSC) from five to 10 and even 14 years. The higher the age for exit for these officers, the lower their chances are of finding a second career. This situation made SSC less attractive in the long run, especially since the promised and approved system of the Peel Factor never got implemented. The Peel Factor was simply a method of lateral absorption of SSC officers and others from the main cadre who could not be promoted due to shortage of vacancies, into other government services, especially the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF).

Obverse Cadre Ratio
The second consideration pertains to the obverse ratio of the main cadre (career officers on permanent commission) and support cadre (non-career on tenure contract). Professional armies around the world have a lean main cadre and a large support cadre (1:5). In India’s case, it is the opposite. Retention of higher numbers of SSC officers in service on permanent commission basis only swells the main cadre. This results in the creation of a very large base from which promotions to a limited number of vacancies at higher ranks has to be executed. Unlike that of the civil services, the Indian Army’s rank structure is pyramidal, and this can only be tampered with at the cost of operational functionability.

The current experiment and effort is aimed at ultimately reversing the ratio by generating a larger number of officers on short contracts exiting after their tenure. The ToD proposes three-year contracts for serving only in frontline operational units. This reduces costs and enhances the prospects for such personnel to be absorbed in other careers upon exit, thereby making this proposal highly workable. Since large numbers of younger aspirants rue their inability to acquire military experience, it helps in increasing their chances of service in the army.

The Indian Army is hopeful that this step will leave reasonably young, energetic, patriotic and well-trained personnel to be absorbed by industry or by other government services such as the CAPF. Yet, its experience in lateral absorption inspires no confidence. A cabinet approval to the Peel Factor in 2003-04 was never implemented because of intense resistance from the CAPF. It will need the government’s legislative intervention if it wishes to see this proposal succeed. That is something which has probably not been thought through by the army at all. Alternatively, lateral absorption vacancies can be sought in state civil service cadres and some assurance be taken from the corporates and PSUs. In 2003, the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee on restructuring of the officer cadre recommended industrial deputation for two years with eventual absorption, but it never took off. There is no guarantee that the proposed ToD will either, if the terminal promises for the entrants are not delivered.

Financial Considerations
The ToD system has been proposed to overcome budgetary constraints. If the Indian Army continues to live with an inflated main cadre of officers, it is forced to retain officers overlooked for promotion even at first stage for as long as 15 years and pay them a pension thereafter. This is financially irrational besides producing discontent when seniors serve under juniors in service, creating a functional constraint too. An SSC officer exiting at 14 years has in him/her an investment of INR 6.8 crores. In contrast, the estimated sum for a ToD officer with a three-year engagement is INR 85 lakhs. In times of lean defence budgets, this is tempting the planners to introduce a shorter tour of duty with no post service obligations.

Part-II of this commentary delves into the applied aspects of the ToD proposal to personnel below officer rank, and to its functional effect on front line units.

Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
is Member, IPCS Governing Council; Member, National Disaster Management Authority; and former GOC 15 Corps and Military Secretary, Indian Army.