It is perhaps the closest that the Indian Armed Forces have come to disobedience, and this time, it happened at the highest level: the three chiefs of staff. The chiefs refused to accept the new wages as recommended by the Sixth Pay Commission for the armed forces, by which the armed forces personnel would have continued to receive old salaries, even as the salaries of government servants would have gone up. The government has set up a committee comprising three senior ministers to look into the issue.
Most people sympathise with the armed forces, and with clear justification. They guard our borders, and have ensured that, except against China in 1962, India has never lost a war. Even in 1962, our defeat is attributed to blundering and interfering politicians and ideologues, not to the gallant army.
Armed forces' officers have often complained: "Civilian supremacy does not mean bureaucratic control". Yet, today, this is what has happened. None of the service chiefs baulk at the fact that they have to take orders from the defence minister or the government in office; or that the civilian president of India is the supreme commander of the armed forces. But what has been questioned is the assumption that the service chiefs are inferior in rank to the defence secretary, though protocol does not say so. Also, the pay commission has suggested that the salary and ranks of military men be downgraded into lower bands. How come it never occurred to the bureaucrats to do likewise with itself?
The Indian armed forces today have a shortage of some 13,000 officers; one key reason is pathetic salaries. This shortage comes at a time when India's internal security is a cause for concern, with religious and ideological extremists creating havoc. India has two nuclear armed countries on its borders; China's military might is growing, and Pakistan backed terrorists continue to sneak into the country. We need the military to protect not just our borders but our economic interests and our way of life. We need bigger armed forces, made up of the best quality personnel.
Yet, few youngsters care to join the armed forces. Seats in the NDA/ IMA stay empty. Decades ago, service in the armed forces was not just an honourable profession but was among the better paid jobs. Even till a couple of decades ago, armed forces were sought after. But today, at least in the cities, joining them armed forces is often among the last options. This, in turn, means the people joining the forces are no longer the creme de la creme of society, even as the demands on the soldiers and officers have gone up.
And disparity prevails at all levels. Our jawans serve in some of the world's coldest and hottest regions; surely, they deserve to earn much more than the mere clerks who man our bureaucratic offices doing little. At such a time, the bureaucracy and politicians conniving to lower military salaries virtually amounts to betraying the country.
Yes, there is a desperate need to increase the salaries of all government servants too. In the early 1900s, India's top judges earned Rs 4,000, on a par with their counterparts elsewhere in the British empire. This today is worth tens of lakhs of rupees at least; yet only now do the Supreme Court justices start earning Rs l lakh per month. One reason for the rampant corruption in government is that salaries have not kept pace with rising costs and salaries in the private sector. Surely, those in public service need salaries comparable, if not equal, to what their peers in the private space earn.
If we don't match salaries, India runs the risk of attracting the less talented to jobs in public service - be it the armed forces, civil service, para- military forces, police, judiciary, etc - precisely at a time when persons in these jobs exercise huge responsibilities and whose judgements affect day to day life.
But till the salaries of all is increased, it does not behove to treat the armed forces as someone who matter so little that we choose to pay them less than the babus. It is India's tragedy that we remember the armed forces only in times of calamities, or when they take steps to have their voices heard. With our rising security concerns, the need is for more integration and more of their view point, not less.
The armed forces too are at fault. First, refusing to accept salaries was a step too harsh; surely, there are better ways of getting heard. There has been a tradition in the West of generals speaking their minds. For too long have Indian generals not made their views known on issues ranging from salaries to defence budgets. The armed forces need to make themselves heard, to stand up and be counted.
One of the editorials in Business India dated Oct 19, 2008 titled "Give them their due".
We thank col VRK Prasad for sending us the copy of the article.