CDS and DMA – Penny Wise Pound Foolish?

Appointment of CDS and setting up of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) under him within the Ministry of Defence is a long overdue, ground breaking reform undertaken by the Modi government. The need for such an institution to provide single point military advice to the government had been repeatedly talked about since independence, specially in the aftermaths of the 1962 and Kargil wars. The government must therefore be lauded for having implemented it, overcoming whatever obstacles the bureaucracy (civil and military) must have cited to previous governments to block the move. It is imperative that its early performance and outcomes justify the long gestation and labour pains endured for the birth of this nascent organisation, or else its very existence and utility can once again be called into question. However, recent decisions announced by the DMA seem to indicate a warped prioritisation of issues it is concerning itself about and undue haste in taking irrational decisions without deliberations about their impact. The latest amongst these is the decision to substantially cut down the pensionary entitlement of officers who opt for Pre-mature Retirement (PMR).  

To fully fathom the absurdity of this proposal, we need to understand a little more about the cadre management challenges peculiar to officers in the armed forces. Operational imperatives dictate a pyramidical hierarchy amongst the rank of officers. Challenges in performance of junior leadership roles necessitate employment of larger number of young officers vis a vis other organisations like civil services, police and Para Military Forces (PMF), where these subordinate roles can be adequately performed by promotees with an older age profile or subordinate cadres. However, there are no such alternatives to young officers leading troops into battle – a practice who’s efficacy in winning battles has been proven time and again, from 2/Lt Arun Khetrapal in 1971 to Maj Vikram Batra in 1999. Hence we need to induct a large number of young officers at the entry level. But due to organisational structure, there aren’t enough positions in ranks of Colonel and above to accommodate them. Barely 50% of a batch of officers who get commissioned make it to the first selection grade rank of Colonel. The rest, at about 16 – 17 years of service and 36-37 years of age, become ‘superseded’ or ‘Non-Empanelled’ (NE). It must be understood that this is not an indication of their lack of competence, but merely an organisational constraint of limited number of vacancies. This pyramid gets even steeper for promotions beyond Colonel.

“Management” of NE officers is a key challenge faced by the Military Secretary’s Branch, the HR mangers of the Army, and a number of studies have been carried out on this. There are a limited number of meaningful appointments that can leverage the full potential of the NE officers, and most of the times they end up doing mundane administrative duties often under officers who were once junior to them. Absence of meaningful assignments and lack of promotional avenues makes keeping them engaged, motivated and productive extremely difficult. There have been several proposals for parallel absorption of some of these in PMF or civil administration, but none have yielded results, possibly due to resistance from affected cadres. Aware of this gloomy prospect, a large number of NE officers opt to take PMR around 20 years of service, once they are assured of pension. It is notable that a large number of officers who made such career transitions are doing extremely well on the civvy street. This is a win – win for the individuals and the organisation, as there are fewer of NE officers left to “manage” and individuals who leave are free to fulfil their aspirations of professional growth elsewhere.

The new proposal by DMA reduces the pensionary entitlement of such officers by half. Shri Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff and Secretary DMA is quoted as saying that the aim of the move is “reduction in pensions of personnel taking premature retirement” and to deter the “technically-qualified personnel in armed force services who have an excellent opportunity outside seek early retirement with pension.” One seriously hopes that Shri Rawat has been wrongly quoted in the linked article by his country cousin Manjeet Negi a journalist with a Hindi news channel because if not, it casts serious doubt about the competence of decision making apparatus within the DMA. Let’s examine each of the reasons cited above to substantiate this apprehension. 

Let’s first demolish the first reason – reduction in pensions of persons taking PMR. If Lt Col A takes PMR today with 20 years of service and approximate age of 41 years, at a salary of Rs 100, he will get a basic pension of Rs 50 for the rest of his life. If he doesn’t opt for PMR, he will continue to get a salary of Rs 100 for another 16 years till he superannuates at 57 years of age. Add to this his allowances (rations, accommodation, transport, LTC, Composite Allowance etc), and his yearly increment. A back of the envelope calculation indicates his basic salary when he retires 16 years later will be Rs 256. He would thus be entitled to a basic pension of Rs 128 per month for the rest of his life. So the additional cost to the state is roughly 2.6 times for the duration he is drawing salary plus allowances and 2.14 times thereafter. WHERE IS THE SAVING?

The second reason – to deter the technically-qualified personnel in armed force services who have an excellent opportunity outside seek early retirement with pension. At the first instance, it sound outright vindictive. You are forcibly stopping someone who has an “excellent opportunity outside”, even though you can’t offer similar career progression within the organisation. Let’s be charitable and assume this is not sheer vindictiveness, but organisational interest. Is there a need to reduce the pension entitlement across the board to retain key talent? The answer is no, because PMR is not given as a matter of course, but is subject to approval by Army HQ. So if the services of specific qualified individuals are considered valuable, they can be refused PMR while majority of others who will be reduced to mundane duties for next 16 years can be allowed to leave with dignity plus their entitled pension and fulfil their professional aspirations elsewhere.         SPECIALLY BECAUSE THIS RESULTS IN AN OVERALL SAVING TO THE STATE as explained above.

The proposals of the DMA are predicated on two basic assumptions – officers seeking PMR are driven solely by financial motives, and that the implementation of proposals will result in saving to the state. Both are flawed, since the miniscule number of technically qualified talent with “excellent opportunities outside” will still leave because the “excellent opportunities” will provide compensation that will more than compensate for the reduced pension. The second assumption has already been disproved above, as the corresponding increase in government expenditure on salaries in the short term, and a much heftier pension bill in the long term will result in an increase rather than decrease in overall government spend on implementing these proposals.

Another aspect that the government needs to consider seriously is the wide ranging angst that such proposals cause amongst the rank and file of the armed forces as well as the veteran community. Since the present government has an overwhelming support of this demography, irreparable political damage is being caused to the ruling party by the hasty and ill advised decisions by the CDS.

The obvious flaws in the proposal gives rise to questions about competence of the present set up at the DMA to render sound advice to the government. At a time when trouble is brewing on our Eastern border with an eyeball to eyeball confrontation with Chinese forces in Ladakh, and severe pressing challenges facing the armed forces, it is questionable why the DMA is occupying itself with issues of questionable benefit. Such follies give rise to fear about the present set up ending up undermining the very institution of CDS and DMA due to lack of competence and narrow vision amongst people selected to man the vital organisation at its nascency.