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  India   All India  17 Oct 2017  Keeping up morale of forces is Sitharaman’s top priority

Keeping up morale of forces is Sitharaman’s top priority

Published : Oct 17, 2017, 12:31 am IST
Updated : Oct 17, 2017, 12:31 am IST

Implementation of cadre review of JCOs and ORs resulting in 1,45,5137 additional promotional vacancies shall be the top priority.

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman acknowledging a row of Chinese soldiers from across the fence who were taking pictures of her reaching Nathu La. (Photo: PTI)
 Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman acknowledging a row of Chinese soldiers from across the fence who were taking pictures of her reaching Nathu La. (Photo: PTI)

Addressing the Army Chief and all Army commanders during the Army Commanders’ Conference at Manekshaw Centre, Delhi Cantt on October 10, 2017, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke at length on various issues.

Referring to her visits to the forward areas and meeting with troops as eye-opening, Ms Sitharaman conveyed admiration of the professionalism of the Indian Army during events like the Doklam standoff, response to natural disasters and keeping the situation of insurgency in the Northeastern states fairly under control.

Assuring focus on capacity and capability development, she promised close monitoring of improvement in strategic infrastructure, long-pending force-modification requests and welfare of serving and retired personnel and their families. The defence minister also informed the gathering that she has requested the home minister for provisioning of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) equipment to allow the Indian Army to use it during natural disasters.

Listing her top priorities, she said integration of the armed forces is essential, particularly in the domain of training, communication, logistics and cyber warfare/security to prepare for any future conflict.

She called upon the Indian Army to continue leveraging its strength in diplomatic defence cooperation with neighbouring countries as also support for Make in India efforts and nation-building, during all times.

The minister reiterated that while the top priority of the government will be to keep up the morale of the forces, a serious anomaly, which will greatly affect the morale of personnel of all three services, has recently cropped up and will need to be meaningfully addressed by her.

On October 13, Lt. Gen. Vijay Singh, DG, staff duties, in a press conference at South Block said: “It has been decided that there would be a concerted heft towards road construction activities in these sectors in the areas of northern border. To that end four passes to Niti, Lipulekh, Thang La and Tsangchok La have been decided to be connected by 2020 on priority. The roadmap for intra-sector connectivity with central sector and inter-sector connectivity with neighboring areas has been deliberated upon. Also organisational changes of some of the formations have been examined for capability enhancement. It has also been decided to allot additional funds to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) for Northern Command related development of road and infrastructure.”

Presently, the complete system of government-e-market (GeM) has not stabilised and certain procedural issues have come to the fore resulting in delays. Necessary government sanction has been proposed to be obtained to allow procurement through existing system, till March 31, 2018 when the GeM as a system is likely to stabilise.

Implementation of cadre review of JCOs and ORs resulting in 1,45,5137 additional promotional vacancies shall be the top priority.

There is a need to modernise military stations at par with smart city plan, and for this additional funds are needed so that essential external services can be revamped. A cost of `8.5 crore per military station has been envisaged. This plan has been wholesomely deliberated for pan-Army implementation.

There is a need to enhance manpower authorisation of Ex-Sevicemen’s Contributory Health Scheme facilities as also their infrastructure and size specifications.

A major morale issue which has emerged, about which Maj. Gen. Harsha Kakar (retd) had written in a daily newspaper on October 10, 2017, is about serious rising discontent within the armed forces on reports of likely degradation in their status vis-à-vis other Central services. There are fears of it being downgraded to Group B, rather than remaining as the Group A service it presently is. In the past, successive governments, under the influence of a powerful bureaucracy, have been lowering the status of the armed forces and the forces have silently endured it. The Equivalence Committee created by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar is yet to give its verdict on parity in ranks between the armed forces and civilian Central government employees.

The Equivalence Committee was set up after the military objected to the issue of a letter on October 18, 2016 by the ministry of defence (MoD), wherein it brought military officers serving in service HQs down by a notch. The issue of the letter was an internal unilateral action without even seeking concurrence of the ministry of home affairs, which maintains the warrant of precedence. The service HQs protested, compelling the MoD to act. In addition, the Cabinet recently created additional vacancies for the armed forces headquarters (AFHQ) civil service by allocating seven posts of principal director and 36 posts of director. Hence, they would need to create additional slots or grab some in service HQs, causing further imbalance. This increase could possibly be one of the reasons behind the proposed downgrading.

There are also reports that attempts are being made to ensure that the armed forces are not granted the non-functional upgradation (NFU), allocated to other Central services. The NFU is being scuttled by the bureaucracy despite the fact that the service HQs have been raising it regularly through the official channels, compelling a few to approach the Supreme Court for justice. The battle is presently in its final stages. The only way the bureaucracy can scuttle the case is by downgrading the military from Grade A to a Grade B service. Such an action, if taken, would impact the civil-military relations adversely, which the government must step in to prevent. This explains the importance of the Equivalence Committee report.

Of all her visits, to the border or to attend events related to all the three services since assuming charge as defence minister, the one considered most significant is Ms Sitharaman’s tour to Sikkim’s Nathu La area on the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) where she interacted with the Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and also the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel.

The Nathu La visit is significant as it comes after just over a month since Indian and Chinese troops disengaged following the tense and tenacious 73 days standoff at Doklam. Whereas the standoff period was marked by some unprecedented verbal threats and bluster by the Chinese through their state-controlled media, the Indian reaction was a good mix of the Army reacting with firmness with tremendous restraint on the ground despite great provocation involving jostling/grappling/wrestling by Chinese troops and New Delhi displaying maturity by way of a studied silence, not blinking politico-diplomatically, while insisting that both sides should step back to pre-Doklam positions and the road construction be discontinued. The standoff ended accordingly, peacefully and importantly, preceding the Brics meet. And then followed a positive diplomatic message from Beijing of “beginning a new page”.

The other fact about the defence minister’s visit to Nathu La is that it came after completion of 50 years of bullet-less border-management of the LAC.

In September 1967, when the Indian Army began erecting a barbed wire fence at Nathu La and Cho La to prevent/avoid the daily squabbling by PLA over what it perceived as over-stepping of the LAC by Indian troops, the PLA greatly upped the ante by not only small-arms fire but artillery bombardment as well resulting in many fatal casualties of Indian officers and soldiers. When the then Nathu La Brigade Commander made an official request for responding in kind — with artillery — it went up the channel to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, also holding the defence portfolio, who accorded sanction without any delay. Thereafter began a swift retaliation by the Indian Army at Nathu La and Cho La, resulting in killing of about 400 PLA personnel and destruction of several bunkers and a convoy of Chinese vehicles.

Since then though there have been frequent incursions/transgressions by the PLA, all of them, including Doklam, have got resolved through negotiations, without the need of pulling the trigger.

While Beijing’s post-Doklam diplomacy and Ms Sitharaman’s beau geste are both unprecedented, though certainly not unwelcome, there is no guarantee of China maintaining a long incident-free future on the LAC.

So, the Army Chief’s opening statement in the recent conference stands  to be prepared for all contingencies on all borders.

Anil Bhat, a retired Army officer, is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi

Tags: defence minister nirmala sitharaman, doklam standoff, indian army