The most appropriate and also the most cost-effective method of induction and retention of Armed Forces personnel is a ‘National Service’ conscription system along with a continuous induction of selectees for long-term professional service

“What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”, it is said, but realistically, very few people in India will have heard of this saying. A minuscule percentage only. But if it can be considered that the brain is the controlling part of any living body, then the Cabinet of Ministers and the Niti Ayog (the erstwhile Planning Commission) can together be considered the collective brain of the Government of India. The Government of India is certainly the body that controls the rest of India. And its brain would undoubtedly have heard of the saying.

For the vast majority of the years since India’s Independence in 1947, the Ministry of Railways has been the largest employer of people in the Government of India. Within the last two decades, with the People’s Republic of China increasing its assertiveness and committing acts of territorial aggression along the unsettled common frontiers, the Indian Government has been forced to increase the size of the Indian Army, to be able to put more boots on the ground. As per the Government’s own figures released from time to time in various contexts, the Ministry of Defence is seemingly now the Central Government’s largest employer, paying salaries, and later pensions, to 30% of all Indian Government employees and former employees. The Ministry of Railways has become the second-largest employer, paying the same to 28% of the Central Government’s employees and retirees. Together, these two ministries pay out almost 60% of the total salaries and pensions paid regularly by the Government of India. And therefore these payments of both these ministries should be of serious concern to the Government and the planners. An emphasis on effecting savings has been laid on only one of them, the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Railways should be looked into as well.

Up to the year 2020 there was regular concern expressed over the Railways’ burgeoning salaries and pensions expenditure, which was greatly eating into its annual budgeted expenditure. Articles and discussions in the print media examined this serious problem, and how to solve it. There were, however, no suggestions, in the media, by the Government, or in Parliament, that the Railways themselves should be required to find a solution to this by reductions in total numbers of personnel, by reductions in pensions, or any other form of cutting down expenditures on manpower for running the trains or staff for it bureaucratic functions. The Railways are a national social service.

In the case of the Ministry of Defence, however, the Government replaced the earlier system of manning of the Armed Forces with another that may affect the motivation to fight of the soldiery. And discipline founded on morale and motivation is the base on which the effectiveness of any armed force rests. Consider in this light the four-year contractual “Agnipath” or “Tour of Duty” scheme, which has recently gone into effect in 2022. In a labour-surplus and job-scarce economy there will always be volunteers eager and willing to serve for four years, but it may have issues for long-term fighting capability. [These have been elaborated in my article of 19th June 2022 in this newspaper.] It is a good manpower employment scheme in many ways, and would be ideally suited to the requirements of reducing salaries and pensions expenditure in the Railways, where it should simultaneously have been applied, although with a different name.

For the Armed Forces, and particularly for the Army, which perforce has the bulk of the manpower, there need to be better ways of effecting the savings, the desire for which has driven the “Tour of Duty” idea. But to go back briefly to the fundamentals of the problem before looking at the better solution. Cost-effectiveness in a labour-surplus economy cries out for a “National Service” army or armed forces as a whole, with conscripted young soldiers performing an obligatory “national duty” for a short period of say three years, being paid only a stipend (but not a salary), and being entitled to no pension. For obvious practical reasons, volunteers from among these will need to be selected at the end of the conscription term to become the long-service professional soldiers, sailors, or airmen, from whom in time will be promoted the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and further the Warrant Officer level. There can be no more cost-effective system as well as practically effective system than this. Which is why numerous countries have employed this system, starting well over a century ago. The Tour of Duty or Agnipath scheme has produced an ellipse which will not roll along freely. It circumvents the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972, which applies equally to Government employees, and is applicable after five years of service. Moreover, it deliberately creates a “break in service” by not re-appointing the selected volunteers for professional military service in continuity with their first four years of service under the Agnipath Scheme, and thereby denying the selected professional soldier, sailor, or airman the benefit of continuous service for pension from the initial date of joining the armed service. This needs a relook.

The most appropriate and also the most cost-effective method of induction and retention of Armed Forces personnel is a “National Service” conscription system along with a continuous induction of selectees for long-term professional service. It would be best for the nation if Government of India were not to stand on its pride, and to transition to this within a period of six to eight years at the most, so that there remain in the armed Services a number of NCOs and their immediate supervisors, the Warrant Officer level, who had joined under the previous long-service system.

One must hope that good policy will prevail, so that the country gets the most cost-effective yet militarily effective Armed Forces, along with savings to the exchequer. This is what is expected of the Government of India by the people it has been elected to serve.