As per a recent news report, the Chief has ordered a study to look at increasing the availability of officers in units. With shortage of officers reaching alarming levels of almost one fifth of the sanctioned strength, the concern and urgency is understandable. Rising cases of discord, assault and affray in units are disturbing manifestations of this shortage. The handful of officers available in a unit at any given time are unable to maintain the desired degree of interaction with their men, resulting in alienation and communication gaps. The fact that decision makers at the highest level are seized of the problem and keen to take steps to resolve it is heartening. But, going by the inputs from the newspaper report, the manner in which the issue is being addressed does not inspire much confidence about any substantial outcome.
It was Einstein who reportedly defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”. The study apparently has been asked to look at increasing the availability of officers at units through clubbing of courses or condensing of training capsules. This is an exercise that has been carried out several times earlier, and resulted in shortening the duration of many courses, including the Junior Command course, and altogether doing away with many other ‘non-essential’ courses.
Tinkering with the already pared down inventory of courses of instruction that young officers undergo is likely to make only a minor impact on the availability of officers in units. Nevertheless, a study entrusted with such a term of reference would feel obliged to recommend some changes to existing courses. The increasing complexity of modern equipment and weapon systems, combined with the requirement to train officers to undertake operations along the entire spectrum of conflict, means that we should be looking at increasing rather than restricting their training opportunities. Compensating the reduced face to face or hands-on learning time through use of technology and distance learning, which are the predictable recommendations of the study, would be cosmetic measures without the same efficacy. A marginal increase in the availability of officers in units at the cost of their professional development would be a retrograde step to say the least.
The well intentioned efforts to deal with the challenges posed by shortage of officers need to be channelized towards more meaningful measures. The starting point needs to be accepting the fact that the availability of officers in units is not going to increase substantially in the foreseeable future- even if all the academies function at full capacity for the coming decade. The focus therefore needs to be on finding out steps that can be taken to make sure that the existing depleted strength of officers present in units gets to spend enough time with their men. This means ruthless cutting down of activities and commitments that keep them away – apart from courses of instruction.
A beginning can be made by either completely doing away with involvement with AWWA at unit and formation levels, or outsourcing its activities. Reducing the bandobast during VIP visits (and similar events like visits by the Higher Command course) is another step. A realistic, truthful survey of how young officers from units from a cross section of locations spend their time over the period of a month would clearly identify many activities that keep them away from the men they command – activities which can easily be done away with. Identifying such time wasters would be beyond the purview of a study headed by the MS and conducted by the MS Branch. Ideally, an external research agency should be commissioned to carry out such a study and give their unbiased inputs.
Adopting this approach would entail making changes that may take formation commanders and staff out of their comfort zones. It may also mean that many opportunities for ‘projection’ may have to be sacrificed. But unless we look at taking some uncomfortable measures as these, the problem is not going to go away. It would be just another study, possibly a rehash of several earlier ones pulled out from dusty lockers, synthesized and touched up. It would recommend cosmetic measures which would be implemented half heatedly for a while. Then the dramatis personae would retire, leaving the problem intact for another incumbent to deal with by ordering another study.