17 September 2015

Not Just OROP. Another Grave Injustice For Army.

With all the understandable (and justified) focus on OROP, the media appears to have missed another major development in the Ministry of Defence - a decision to extend Short Service Commissions for 14 years. This is a gross injustice, and it is all the more difficult to understand in light of the Defence Minister's response to a question I raised in the Lok Sabha on December 12, 2014 (verbatim exchange follows):

"Madam Speaker, the issue of recruitment and the shortage of officers in our country is now widely known. But the Army appears to be addressing this by extending the duration of Short Service Commissions in a way that is doing an injustice to the officers concerned. In the old days, you would have a five-year commission. You would then leave and you would still be in the prime of your life; you would be able to find a job and move on. Today, they are making these officers stay for 10 years, 11 years, even 14 years. These are people who have no pension; they have no benefits. They leave the Army late and, as a result, they are not in a position thereafter to actually resume life in the civilian sector. I would like the Defence Minister to explain what the policy is now on Short Service Commissions. I would like to know whether the Government has begun extending these unobtrusively at the expense of the civil rights of the officers concerned. If they are going to do so, whether it would not be fairer to give them all the benefits that a normal officer would be entitled to, pensions included? Thank you, Madam, Speaker."

The Minister for Defence, Manohar Parrikar, replied as follows (again verbatim transcript from the parliamentary proceedings):

"Madam, I entirely agree with the hon. Member. Whatever was the original concept of the Short Service Commission is being totally put upside down by extending it to 14 years. In fact, I had a discussion on this issue. We are trying to address this issue very shortly. We will definitely take care of this concept. There was 17 per cent shortage of officers by the year 2012. As of now, we are recruiting more officers. Every year, we are addressing one per cent. So, we are coming down by one per cent every year. I expect that by another ten years, we should be able to ultimately fill up the vacant posts. As far as the Short Service Commission is concerned, I will definitely address this issue because I am also concerned with the same issue. I have asked for more details. There is some reasoning given by them. Give me some time. I think, in a couple of months, I should be able to address this issue. I understand your concern. The same concern was expressed by me. You are virtually suggesting to convert them into a regular Commission by taking it to 14 years. The original idea was different."

That's the point. The original idea behind the Short Service Commission was a good one: it kept the armed forces young, gave men and women in their 20s an opportunity to experience military life, while allowing them to have the satisfaction of serving our motherland in their youth and going on to pursue other careers thereafter. Those Short Service Commission officers who sought it could seek a Permanent Commission, but few got one and the vast majority were supposed to move on to other careers outside the Forces.

This is why the Short Service Commission was genuinely short - five years in your 20s added to your experience without making a major dent in your life or career plans. But there has been a gradual extension of the five year period to seven, ten, and now fourteen. As a former officer who brought the problem to my attention observed to me, "The SSC ceased to be short when it was made minimum 7 years. It became exploitative when made minimum 10 years. Now that the minimum service is 14 years, it is just abuse of the youth." As this former officer, Mr Balakrishna, argues, "Anything more than 7 years should be treated as a career option. And a career cannot end abruptly after 10 or 14 years."

The charge of exploitation or even abuse is not exaggerated. I recently received a heart-rending email from a Navy Lieutenant on a Short Service Commission, who shall remain nameless since he is still in service and I do not want him to be open to reprisals. I am quoting from it in his own language (without editing the English) to convey his genuine anguish: "The charter of duties are same [sic] for SSC officers as of PC officers. If duties are same then why there is a huge difference in benefits. We SSC officers will be out from the service at 10 or 14 yrs. At that stage we will be at critical stage we don't have any further exposure of outside world. We SSC are neither entitled for pension, ECHS and membership of any club. ...All benefits is [sic] only for permanent commission officer and the other ranks who does minimum 15 yrs of service and gets all facilities. If we are also relieved at the same age bracket then why this discrimination. Dear sir it is a sad state of affairs, all veterans are busy in asking OROP, but they left their brothers behind who had also spent their prime young time with them. ... Most of us has [sic] just started our families. Few are about to become fathers. Sir we are also human being and did nothing wrong while joining service enthusiastically but some where it is getting diminished...Our future is at stake."

It is time that, as a nation, we thought about the human beings who don uniforms to keep us safe. After 14 years of service, SSCOs would retire at the age of around 36-40 years, the time when job/financial security matters the most. By this age, most would have married and have school-going children; this is likely to be the case also for those released after 10 years. The chances of a Permanent Commission are minimal for most of the SSCOs; indeed the policy on granting Permanent Commission is very vague and decisions are left to the discretion - sometimes the whim - of the senior Officers concerned. Those in the executive branches of the navy and air force are not granted Permanent Commissions even if their performance has been better than their fellow officers who are permanently commissioned. It is a criminal waste of India's human resources that young officers, well-trained, qualified, medically fit, and willing to serve, are simply let go because they were hired under one category rather than another.

In fact many choose to extend their service to 14 years because of the uncertainty of a second career. And where can they go? There are no special provisions for them, and the existing rules don't help. Former SSCOs who are 36-40 years old will not be eligible to most of the Group A equivalent positions in the civil services or in public sector undertakings, as the age limit at entry is 30 years (a relaxation of five years is sometimes granted for Ex-Service personnel, but at 35 that prospect also disappears).

As young officers who joined the services in the first flush of idealistic enthusiasm wake up to these realities, disenchantment sets in. Our country cannot afford demoralization among SSCOs after a few years of service. Worse, the Government is beset with a large number of ongoing legal cases and representations against the evident discrimination in terms of grant of financial and other benefits on release.

The solution is simple. Keep Short Service Commissions short: in and out in five years, no further obligations on either side. But for those who wish to continue further in service - and whom the armed forces consider good enough to keep - they should be converted to a status that gives them the same benefits and entitlements as permanent commissioned officers of equivalent experience. This would make the SSCO both a platform to give motivated young people an opportunity to experience military life, and an alternative route to filling the ranks of military officers and curing the chronic shortages our armed forces are suffering from.

Those who quit after five years (typically in the age group of 27-30 years when the pressures of family are much lower and the appetite for risk is higher) will not find it difficult to embark on a second career; indeed the experience will stand them in good stead in landing a job. And these Officers can be ambassadors of Armed Forces in their second career and attract more youth to join the services.

As for those who stay on for 10 and even 14 years, the government should pay a pro-rata pension and related benefits, based on the length of service. The government should also consider making arrangements for lateral entry into the Civil Services, the Central Armed Police Forces, or public sector undertakings, relaxing the rules that prevent this from being an option.

If the Defence Minister really meant what he said in his impromptu answer to me in Parliament, he should review the decision of his bureaucrats to perpetrate an injustice upon the brave young women and men who protect our nation with their lives.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Story First Published: September 14, 2015 10:36 IST

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