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Last month, I read a re­port about over 2,500 tourists stranded in a snow­storm at Sikkim’s Nathu La be­ing res­cued by a lo­cal In­dian Army unit. They pro­vided them with hot food, first aid and warm cloth­ing. But what hap­pened next is why I con­sider it to be one of the coun­try’s finest in­sti­tu­tions—the army­men va­cated their bar­racks for the tourists to sleep in.

As the in­ci­dent demon­strates, the army’s sense of chivalry and duty to­wards its cit­i­zens is sec­ond to none. What it lacks, how­ever, is ev­ery­thing else, from mod­ern he­li­copters, sur­face to air mis­siles to as­sault ri­fles and even proper boots. The shop­ping list runs into tril­lions of ru­pees and many items have been pend­ing for decades. Writ­ing about the 1962 Indo­China war, Time mag­a­zine said the In­dian Army ‘lacks ev­ery­thing but courage’. Even some­thing as ba­sic as a mon­u­ment to that courage, a war me­mo­rial at the In­dia Gate, is be­ing un­veiled this month, over half a cen­tury after it was first pro­posed.

Some of the equip­ment short­falls the army cur­rently faces can be at­trib­uted to its num­bers. At 1.2 mil­lion men and women, the army has more than dou­bled in size since 1962—mainly to guard over 4,000 kilo­me­tres of dis­puted bound­aries with Pak­istan and China. Ris­ing man­power costs mean that these num­bers are un­sus­tain­able—the army has to spend close to over 80 per cent of its bud­get on run­ning costs, which in­clude salaries and pen­sions. It has lit­tle money left for much­needed equip­ment.

Our cover story, Rawat’s Rad­i­cal Plan, writ­ten by Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­i­tor San­deep Un­nithan, has an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with the cur­rent army chief, Gen­eral Bipin Rawat, and out­lines his de­ci­sion to bite the bul­let and pos­si­bly shed over 100,000 per­son­nel. We won’t be the first. China’s army, the world’s largest, plans to halve its man­power to just 1 mil­lion and has al­ready shed 300,000 men.

While the rev­enue sav­ing from such a re­or­gan­i­sa­tion is yet to be pro­jected, back­ofthe­en­ve­lope cal­cu­la­tions sug­gest the army would save only about Rs 6,000 crore in rev­enue ex­pen­di­ture if it cut back on 50,000 sol­diers. This is just 4 per cent of its rev­enue bud­get, a mere drop in the ocean. The de­fence min­istry is look­ing at how to fur­ther re­duce waste­ful ex­pen­di­ture. It will, how­ever, re­quire far more rad­i­cal think­ing than has hith­erto been shown. Sev­eral ex­am­ples of waste stare at you in the face in the de­fence min­istry and the armed forces. The min­istry holds over 17 lakh acres of land on which also stand some 62 no­ti­fied can­ton­ments. These can­ton­ments are a colo­nial ves­tige, built on the out­skirts of ur­ban cen­tres. Since cities and towns have grown be­yond their for­mal bound­aries, can­ton­ments have ended up oc­cu­py­ing prime land in ur­ban cen­tres, of­ten with well­ap­pointed clubs and golf cour­ses at­tached to them. The can­ton­ments should be re­lo­cated, the land auc­tioned off for com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial pur­poses and the pro­ceeds used to ful­fil mil­i­tary needs. Sim­i­larly, the armed forces pos­sess valu­able spec­trum for mo­bile tele­phony, the sur­plus of which can be mon­e­tised. The forces also have an army of sa­hayaks or or­der­lies—who num­ber 40,000 men, a few reckon—at­tached to ju­nior com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers and of­fi­cers even in peace­time lo­ca­tions. Such waste­ful de­ploy­ment of trained com­bat sol­diers brings into ques­tion the ra­tio­nale of hav­ing a 1.2 mil­lion­strong army.

The world over, all mil­i­tary re­form is driven from the top, by the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship. But in In­dia, this fo­cus from the po­lit­i­cal ex­ec­u­tive is sadly lack­ing. Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have paid lip ser­vice to in­te­grat­ing the three ser­vices and done lit­tle to im­ple­ment it. This lead­er­ship drift has en­cour­aged the three forces to plan to fight their wars sep­a­rately in­stead of jointly.

So while one can be scep­ti­cal of the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt at change, any ef­fort at re­form and re­struc­tur­ing must be wel­comed. What we do need to ask is whether the re­form will just be in­cre­men­tal or struc­tural. The armed forces, in fact, have lit­tle al­ter­na­tive but to re­form be­cause the gov­ern­ment has in­di­cated that any sub­stan­tial jump in de­fence spend­ing is un­likely. The only op­tion is to do what ev­ery large mil­i­tary in the world has done in the past two decades—down­size and mod­ernise. The era of ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and con­ver­gence has en­abled other armies to in­crease fire­power and re­duce man­power. Equally, new tech­nolo­gies and equip­ment have also changed the whole con­cept of war­fare.

Our sol­diers need cut­ting­edge equip­ment and the na­tion needs the best bang for its mil­i­tary buck. It’s time to stop play­ing pol­i­tics with the de­fence of our coun­try and give our brave sol­diers what they de­serve.

(Aroon Purie)

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