Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has hit the ground running.
Even as he attempts to bring speed and transparency to the arms procurement process, he has rightly identified the welfare of troops as one of his top most priorities. Over the weekend, he told reporters in Goa that in his view "the man behind the machine is more important". He was perhaps responding to recent reports that there have been 449 suicides across the three services since 2011. "This is a man management issue which needs to be resolved in different ways, including counselling, quick redressal mechanism and more tribunals to hear the cases," the Defence Minister reportedly said.
Last week, Parrikar shared these details with parliament: that the Indian Army had reported the highest number - 362 suicides and 10 incidents of fratricide - between 2011 and 2014. In the Air Force, there were 76 suicides and in the Navy 11, in the same period. Taken collectively, these numbers do appear large but they are in keeping with the average number of suicides over the past decade. Except for 2007 and 2008 when suicides in the Army were 142 and 150 respectively, on an average, about 100 jawans have taken their own life every year since 2003.
Given that India has an 11-lakh strong army, these numbers may not be huge but for a force that prides itself on its standards of training and discipline, it is certainly a matter of concern, if not alarm. One can also point out the fact that of late, in the American army, the rate of suicide was one-a-day. That's hardly a consolation.
So is the Indian Army feeling the heat of being in perpetual operations? Are our soldiers' stress levels peaking dangerously?
If you ask the top brass, most tend to brush aside the incidents as aberrations.
But there is indeed a problem, and it is an outcome of a combination of factors: erosion in the status of soldiers in society, prolonged deployment in lengthy and thankless counter-insurgency jobs, a crippling shortage of officers' in combat units and, ironically, easier communication between families and soldiers - which makes it harder to be away from home for long stretches since soldiers now know exactly what they're missing.
There is no denying the fact that come summer, winter or rain, soldiers continue their daily patrols along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Every day and night, at least 1,000 foot patrols spread out in Jammu and Kashmir to try and corner terrorists. The job is risky and can even get monotonous. A bullet can come from anywhere any time. So one has to always be alert. But the chase is mostly futile. Nine out of ten times, the patrols return empty-handed.
After a quarter century of counter-terrorism in Kashmir, the army has got used to the apparent hardship of uninterrupted operations. The fear of the enemy is nominal, claims each man that I have talked to. "We have no tension in this respect (counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency), we had joined the army precisely for this kind of work," is the constant refrain from soldiers.
Operating in a tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans, but that is only one of the factors.
The main worry are the problems back home - land disputes, tensions within the family; then there's rising aspirations, a lack of good pay and allowances, and also the falling standards of supervision from officers.
Company commanders who lead field units in counter-insurgency situations also believe that tensions at home transmit themselves much quicker today thanks to the ubiquitous mobile phone.
Since almost 80 per cent of India's foot soldiers come from rural and semi-urban areas, most of them have strong links with the land. For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. Very often land gets encroached in his native village, or there is a dispute over even the smallest of property. "There is always a tension. The police don't listen to us. My parents feel helpless, I become tense every time I go back home," I remember a soldier telling me in the Kashmir Valley.
One more common thread among soldiers from Rajasthan to UP, from Tamil Nadu to Haryana, was how little respect they seem to command today in a society which devalues their work. Very often, insensitive civil administrations create tensions.
Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. The feeling of frustration can bring in helplessness, which in turn leads to suicides and fratricide; it creates an impression that no one listens to the army. It is the system that sends the man in uniform into a depression.
An acute shortage of officers at the cutting-edge level is a big factor contributing to an increasing gap between soldiers and officers. Against an authorised strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best 8 or 9 officers available to a Commanding Officer these days.
Very often, young officers with less than two years of service are commanding companies! Even in the battalion headquarters, one officer ends up doing the job of three, given the shortage. There is no time to interact with soldiers. In the old days, a game of football or hockey was the best way to get to know each other. Not any longer.
Moreover, soldiers no longer accept a wrong or unjustified command blindly. The old attitudes among some of the COs (Commanding Officers), of lording over ORs (Other Ranks) and expecting them not to protest/revolt must change.
If Manohar Parrikar is serious about the welfare of troops, he needs to start with sensitising the civil administration at the lowest level. Fresh recruits into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) need to be oriented about the issues soldiers often face in the civil environment. He also needs to direct the Defence Ministry to withdraw litigation initiated against our disabled soldiers related to the subject of their benefits at the earliest, and ensure that officers serving in the Ministry of Defence in general, and Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare in particular, are sensitized towards the needs and requirements of the military community and realize that it is their first obligation to serve soldiers, veterans and their families with due respect and dignity which they deserve.
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