A serious shortage of personnel in all branches of the Indian armed forces persists despite efforts by the government to bridge the gap. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told the Lok Sabha recently that the armed forces are facing a shortage of nearly 60,000 personnel. Of these, 9,259 are at the officer's rank. The
Indian Army has around 27,864 vacant posts, while the Navy and Air Force face a shortage of 16,255 and 15,503 personnel, respectively. The shortage in personnel is not new; it has existed for years. Successive governments have taken an array of measures, including motivational lectures in schools and publicity campaigns, to draw recruits. These campaigns focus on patriotism and the opportunity to serve the country by protecting its borders and the thrilling life it offers. But such campaigns by themselves cannot attract today's youth to the armed forces. With the private sector offering higher salaries and a less hazardous life, our youth prefer to take up employment in the corporate world. It is imperative that, among other measures, the government offers competitive salaries and other benefits to draw them to the armed forces.
But dig a bit deeper and we find that the basic reason for the shortage of personnel is not so much because the armed forces are not attracting new recruits - the number of applicants for seats in the National Defence Academy, for instance, outstrips the number of seats available - as it is about finding the right personnel and holding on to them. High attrition rates point to serious dissatisfaction. Personnel leave because of stress and poor working conditions. These need to be addressed urgently. This, of course, is not easy to fix in a country like India, where soldiers are posted for long periods in insurgency-wracked regions and along the border, where hostile climate and geographic conditions add to the misery of living amidst hostile populations.
Several countries are in the process of downsizing their armies. China, for instance, has announced plans to reduce its 2.3 million-strong army to under a million. Growing reliance on technology to safeguard its security underlies this decision. Also, with China increasingly keen to project force abroad and less worried about threats to the mainland, it is cutting down the number of soldiers. Can India consider a similar downsizing of its armed forces? Downsizing, or rather rightsizing, of the armed forces will involve cutting flab. But also, it will require massive investment in expensive military hardware. And, importantly, it will mean massive unemployment in a country that is already burdened with this problem. Still, it is time India considered other options than continuing to expand the forces. We need to focus on cost-effectiveness and better teeth-to-tail ratio, without compromising on national security.