The Indian Army’s Officer Crisis

Robin JeffreyRobin Jeffrey
Visiting Research Professor

India today has plenty of distractions: ministerial scandal, Maoist insurgency, Kashmir unrest, spiralling food prices, non-functioning parliament. But a deep-seated problem gets overlooked: “the officer crisis in the Indian military”.

That’s the title of an article by Indian journalist and scholar, Dinesh Kumar, in the most recent issue of the academic journal, South Asia (vol. 33, no. 3, December 2010). It deserves wide reading.

Kumar is not an other-worldly academic or callow graduate student. He was defence correspondent of the Times of India for nine years and resident editor of its edition in Chandigarh, once the heartland of Indian military recruitment, Punjab and Haryana states. He has just finished a PhD dissertation.

There is nothing secret in what Kumar reveals. The facts are public, but they are unconnected and few people are thinking about them. The Big Fact is that the officer corps of the Indian Army is about 25 per cent under strength. Voluntary armies often face recruitment problems, but the Indian Army’s predicament is striking. US officer-training academies have been able to hit 95 per cent of their targets in recent years; the Indian Army could manage only 66 per cent of its officer- recruitment target in 2007-08 (Indian Air Force officer recruitment was 11 per cent below target; the Navy, 17 per cent).

In the 1960s and 1970s, a career as an army officer was seen as rewarding and glamorous. The brother of a friend with whom I taught school in Chandigarh in the late 1960s had been promoted to major during the 1965 war with Pakistan. He was barely 30; his family was immensely proud. And there were perks. In old, waiting-list, quota-raj India, the major was the first in our circle to acquire a motorbike, the result of a military quota.

However, in the 20 years since 1991 and the unleashing of Indian capitalism, the attraction of the military has fallen away. Kumar tells us that the last public survey attempting to gauge the popularity of a military career was in 1995. It revealed that among career choices, “the armed forces rank at the bottom”.

There is more money and comfort to be had in scores of other occupations. Kumar tells us that a junior officer now starts on a salary of Rs 325,000 a year (about US$7,100 or S$9,000). A bus driver in Singapore starts on a salary about one-third higher. Little wonder that enterprising young Indians choose to take their chances elsewhere. And experienced officers are leaving for more attractive opportunities. Kumar says that ten of the colonels selected to go to the Army War College in 2008 declined because they did not want to accept the condition that they commit themselves to a further five years of service.

As warfare and security operations become both more technical and more dependent on intelligence (with a big and a small “I”), the need for highly trained and motivated officers grows. Without them, a large standing army can become a large and unruly white elephant.

Footnote: My friend, the motorbike major, was killed in the Bangladesh war in 1971.

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