Compulsory national service

Has the time come?
Last Updated 12 June 2019, 18:36 IST

Lured by high corporate salaries and the attraction of rapid advancement, India’s youth are no longer opting to join the armed forces. This is so because armed forces officers are not as well paid, deployments in border areas and for internal security duties are frequent, family life is often disrupted, and a rigid exit policy demands that regular officers must serve for at least 20 years.

Consequently, there is a shortage of over 10,000 officers in the army. A large number of vacancies at the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla, and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, remain unfilled every year. This growing shortage adversely affects the army’s junior leadership – the cutting edge of the army. There is a similar shortage of officers in the navy and the air force as well.

The armed forces had pinned their hopes on the Seventh Pay Commission. As had happened after the previous Pay Commissions, these hopes were not realised as the central government simply cannot match the salaries and career flexibility provided by the corporate sector. What can then be done to ensure that the armed forces attract a steady stream of high calibre candidates to fill officers’ posts?

The answer lies in innovative lateral thinking, rather than attempting to flog the dead horse of better pay and allowances. As the shortage of officers is primarily in the ranks of Captain and Major and equivalent ranks in the navy and the air force, the solution lies in a re-vamped short-service entry scheme which offers lateral induction into civilian jobs after four to five years of service in the armed forces, or the opportunity to quit. Such a scheme would confer the twin benefits of filling all the vacant positions and reducing the pension bill.

The best option — with multiple benefits to the nation — would be to make a short stint of ‘military service’ compulsory for all aspirants for the central services, including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), other Allied Services, the Central Police and Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) and other similar organisations as there is no dearth of volunteers for these services. All new recruitment to the central services should be channelled only through the armed forces, for men as well as women. In six to eight years, the problem of shortage of officers in the armed forces will be satisfactorily resolved.

Soon after assuming office as prime minister in 2004, Manmohan Singh had mooted a proposal to select candidates for the IAS and the Allied Services after the Class 12, with a view to catching them young and moulding them for a career in the bureaucracy. These young candidates would be trained at the NDA, which provides the finest all-round education at the under-graduate level in India.

It would be in the national interest for the budding central services officers to undertake compulsory military service for about four to five years, during which they would be exposed to a disciplined way of life, gain hands-on experience of man-management, inculcate leadership qualities, imbibe values and ethics and learn to be officers and gentlemen.

To give effect to this win-win proposal, all entry into the army, the navy and the air force should be through the Combined Defence Services examination for the NDA, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). On graduating from the NDA, the cadets should receive further training at the respective academies of the three services and then join these as commissioned officers. After four to five years of service, all volunteer officers should be given three chances each to appear for the UPSC examinations and interviews for lateral transfer into the IAS, IFS and the Allied Services.

Those who do not wish to leave or do not qualify could chose to continue to soldier on in their respective service or opt to leave with a reasonably attractive golden handshake. The option to leave should be available at 10, 15 and 20 years of service and with full pension any time thereafter. Besides better pay and allowances, other conditions of service also need to be improved substantially for officers of the armed forces. For example, there is no reason at all why married accommodation should not be made available at 100% scales.

Graduates of the NDA receive BSc degrees as the armed forces require a fairly high threshold of the knowledge of science. The NDA syllabus can be suitably modified to accommodate the special managerial requirements of the central services. Particularly at the IMA, Dehradun, and the corresponding academies of the navy and the air force, studies for a recognised management diploma can be included in the syllabus and, if considered necessary, the duration of training can be increased to two years to enable the Gentlemen Cadets to acquire an MBA degree.

The overall gains will be phenomenal. Armed forces officers joining the central services will be trained leaders of men, some of them baptised by fire, and would have had the unique privilege of commanding men in active operations. Above all, they will have the opportunity to serve the national cause in many strife-torn corners of the country and will gain first-hand experience of the problems of the local peoples. Their acquaintance with and insights into the unique diversity of India’s culture and traditions, reflected in the armed forces, would surely stand them in good stead in the remaining 30 to 32 years of their service.

Besides all else, there will be an exponential increase in inter-service cooperation, something that is vital for good governance but is conspicuous by its absence today. This is a win-win proposal that can be quite easily implemented and an idea whose time has come.

(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi)

(Published 12 June 2019, 18:30 IST)

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