A recent Defence Ministry circular that downgrades the status of armed forces officers vis-a-vis their civilian counterparts deserves to be condemned in no uncertain terms and reversed without delay. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has promised to review the order within a week but that it was issued in the first place is itself a shocking commentary on how the ministry is functioning. Indeed, the Defence Minister can hardly claim ignorance on how the circular was issued and what it contained when officials say that it had been cleared by him.
If, in effect the Defence Minister was bypassed in the issuance of the order, some heads ought to roll in the Ministry. If the morale in the Indian armed forces is low today it is in no small part due to a deep-rooted feeling among armed forces officers that the bureaucrats see to it that the defence services get a raw deal in comparison to civil officers. It is the duty of the Defence Minister to ensure that this does not happen and that the morale of the armed forces is restored.
There has been simmering discontent in the armed forces over the One Rank One Pension scheme which the armed forces officers say was watered down at the behest of the bureaucrats. The Pay Commissions are also being blamed for bias against service officers. In a letter dated October 18, 2016, the joint secretary dealing with recruitment and provisioning of civilians in the Defence Ministry, has defined the rank equation between civilian officer and serving military officer based on duties and functional responsibilities. As per that, a principal director is equivalent to a major general, a director is equivalent to a brigadier and a joint director is equivalent to a colonel. Earlier a colonel was considered equivalent to a director and so on. The order says that the above rank equation has to be followed… in assigning duties/ functional responsibilities and for all purposes such as channel of reporting, detailing of officer to training courses, providing stenographic assistance etc. It concludes by saying that “this has the approval of Hon’ble Raksha Mantri.”
Forces officers say Selection grade colonels have now been equated with promotee jt directors, who have just five years of Group A service. A colonel, on the contrary, has 20 years of service experience. In addition colonel and above ranks are selected based on promotion boards and less than half the officer cadre makes the cut from lieutenant colonel to colonel rank. All this has been done by throwing aside various parameters for establishing equivalence like Warrant of Precedence, pay scales, years of service in particular class/grade and various judgements by courts of law, reports of various Pay Commissions and report of Group of Ministers headed by Pranab Mukherjee that was constituted vide PMO note dated September 27, 2008.
In what clearly reflected a bias towards IAS officers the Sixth Pay Commission put into action a mechanism called “non-functional financial upgrade” under which it is mandated that when an IAS officer from a particular batch is promoted to a certain rank all his batchmates from some sixty Group ‘A’ central services also start drawing the higher pay scale two years later, irrespective of competence or vacancies in that rank. The military had taken up the case for a similar upgrade, but this was not agreed to. The Seventh Pay Commission does not recommend its extension to the military either. Thus, while practically every civilian central service officer would make it to the top pay grades, the army will remain a sharply pyramidal meritocracy, where less than one per cent of officers are promoted to lieutenant general rank (higher administrative grade, in pay commission scales). Such blatant favouritism has angered the military and must be looked into on priority by the Modi government to raise morale in the forces and in the interests of fair treatment to the armed forces.
It is indeed surprising that the Narendra Modi government has been so insensitive to the buzz in the armed forces. Unlike the civilians, the service officers are governed by stricter rules of conduct and cannot give vent to their resentment in public. But it devolves on the government to perceive the resentment and to address issues as soon as possible to satisfy and raise the morale of the armed forces which have been defending the country’s borders at great risk and sacrifice to their personal welfare. It is indeed time the Defence Minister looks into the grievances of the serving officers with due earnestness. Some of the fears and assessments of the armed forces personnel may be exaggerated but it is for the government to separate the wheat from the chaff and to ensure that the service officers’ case does not go by default. Justice to the armed forces is indeed an imperative need.