May 08, 2022

Tour of Duty to Facilitate Indian Army’s Privatisation

B Arjun

THE Modi government has taken another retrograde step regarding the Indian army. This time the target is the army's well established recruitment system. Using the pretext of Covid-19 pandemic, the government abruptly suspended the recruitment process of soldiers in the army in 2020, while continuing with recruitment in navy and air force.  

This arbitrary suspension of recruitment rallies in all states has led to serious manpower shortages in the Indian army, hampering operation efficiency of units that are now operating much below their sanctioned strength. 

Not only is the army under stress but the young aspirants with zeal to serve the nation and get respectable employment are out on the streets protesting against the sudden moratorium on employment opportunities in the military.  

This government does not care for the people. It is hell-bent on imposing its neoliberal agenda – downsizing the national army to pave way for privatising many of its roles and missions and handing them over to cronies with business linkages to foreign military logistic companies.  

It is reported that in order to meet the shortfalls, the government has decided to inch closer towards finalising the proposed recruitment model, called Tour of Duty (ToD). The proposed draft envisages recruiting all soldiers in the Indian army under the Tour of Duty (ToD) model. Around 25 per cent of them would serve in the army for three years and 25 per cent troops would serve for five years and the remaining 50 per cent would serve the full term till the retirement age.

The government has been toying with the idea of tampering the recruitment system since 2020, but the army has been resisting the change.

Many in the army believe that short-term association may train the young boys into handling weapons but would not be adequate for them to imbibe the military ethos and norms that go on to make the profession noble. It is also believed that the government may not save much by implementing the penny wise pound foolish” scheme. 

Governments argument is that the defence revenue budget which includes pay and pensions needs to be slashed to make more money available for buying modern equipment.

The soldiers recruited on short-term contract of three years will neither be eligible for pension nor for any other benefits that accrue to a person who serves for more than 17 years in the army.  A soldier doing driving duty in the army earns more than Rs 30,000 in salary. The advocates of privatisation argue that the government pays too much to a driver, when the market rate for hiring a driver is almost half. 

This anti-people logic lies at the heart of all arguments to slash the military's revenue budget. Improving the lifestyle of thousands of families from rural backgrounds through secure employment and pensions is what this government is opposed to. It rarely looks into reducing public expenditure on its grandiose publicity schemes but is always in the forefront launching ideas hurting the common man. 

The Modi governments obsession with cutting costs without deliberating on its long term impact on institutional structures, built over decades, is the governments unique feature.   

The problem is that the right-wing government is wedded to the neoliberal ideology. It sees privatisation as the panacea for all ills afflicting the economy. The central government is ideologically against the idea of social security for the working classes. Therefore, it finds the army pensions burdensome. 

A soldier who serves for 17 years to earn his pension is a part and parcel of the military institution. Not just the soldier but his entire family benefits from the army way of life. Army provides excellent schooling facilities to the children of jawans. The long-term benefit of such endeavours is that scores of children from within the armed forces community are joining the armed forces as officers and other professions, contributing immensely to the country and society. This upward mobility is possible only because the institution of the army nurtures community living based on care and concern for its men. 

The short-term contract soldiers that the government proposes to introduce would never be able to establish the bond with the army and this in the long run would adversely impact the viability of the institution. But how does one expect the ruling elite in the country, driven by right-wing conservative thinking to even imagine preserving public institutions.

All that they believe in is diverting huge chunks of public money into the coffers of crony capitalists. 

The ToD proposals’ major motive is privatising the support arms of the Indian military. Army supply, ordnance, EME and medical corps have already been subjected to privatisation.

Take for example, the Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) model for Army Base Workshops (ABW), managed and run by Army Ordnance Corps, which perform the crucial functions of repair and maintenance of Indian armys battle tanks, Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs), Armoured Recovery Vehicles (ARVs); and Guns and Snow Vehicles.  

According to the Frontline magazine, Most military experts say the GOCO model is akin to handing over army base workshops along with their vast land in prime locations, plant, tools and machinery to the private sector for free.”

Experts have also expressed the concern that the ToD model is dangerous because it opens the floodgates for the misuse of half-baked veterans for greater militarisation and communalisation of society. According to Sushant Singh, a fellow at Centre for Policy Research, During Partition in 1947, a curious pattern emerged in the districts with larger concentrations of combat veterans from the Second World War. In these districts veterans were heavily involved in campaigns to persuade members of the other religious communities to leave, in organising the mass flight of their own community in areas where they were outnumbered, and in encouraging co-religionists to move into a district where their dominant position seemed tenuous.”  Singh further adds that this points to worrying implications for the governments newly proposed plan for the Tour of Duty system in army recruitment.”

The ToD model also suits the Modi governments penchant for muscular foreign policy.  Scholarly studies have established a correlation between societal militarisation and violent foreign policy behaviour of the government through manipulation or creation of a perceived external threat by national elites. These wild brainwaves that emanate from the PMO from time to time have a very low atmanirbhar quotient. These new proposals basically flow from the American military industrial complex that has perfected the art of extracting Pentagon's capital as well as revenue budget for huge profits. It is high time that the government stops hurting the armed forces in the name of military transformation and modernisation, a euphemism for privatising national asset.