India's armed forces have more than 2.5 million veterans, most of whom are well-trained, motivated and highly-skilled citizens, eager to contribute further to nation-building. This number is further buttressed by almost 60,000 soldiers annually, with the majority joining as veterans between the age of 35 and 45 years. However, most of them are stuck in a phased-out retirement or in jobs which may not use their skill-sets appropriately. On post-retirement jobs, there is limited support - a survey of over 84% of all retired army officers highlighted that they had not benefited from existing facilities in resettlement; (Singh, 1985). Similarly, a study highlighted that 82% of all air force veterans did not receive any assistance from key institutions in resettlement (Maharajan & Subramani, 2014).
For most servicemen, retirement is typically early, with the term "retirement" itself considered a misnomer. Most servicemen instead have to consider an adjustment, a change of careers. Such midlife transition to a civilian life is an act of resocialisation, leaving a place that is an epitome of security and joining a workforce that is inherently uncertain about its future is a stressful act. They often have to make a rapid series of critical decisions about housing, the education of their children, financial matters and potential future employment. When most veterans retire, they are typically in their early 30s or 40s, while having major responsibilities towards their family, all while facing a withdrawal of the privileges and facilities provided earlier, leaving them reliant on their pension. Civilian life can often result in the retiree spending more time at home, causing adjustment problems. While the One Rank One Pension debate is still ongoing, resettlement deserve closer societal attention.
It is not that there is no institutional concern for the veterans. Zilla Sainik Boards, functioning under the Kendriya Sainik Boards, are established across most districts and function as grassroots-level touch-points for ex-servicemen, helping them undertake primary and secondary employment registrations. The Canteen Stores Department continues to extend canteen services to ex-servicemen and their families, enabling them to gain access to subsidised food, household appliances and consumables on a monthly basis. Local service formations of the armed forces extend administrative services to ex-servicemen, while the Armed Forces Wives Welfare Association (AFWWA) provides a variety of financial and non-financial assistance to the wives and children of ex-servicemen. Veterans also gain access to the Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme, allowing them to avail of cashless medical facilities through the ECHS system.
Placement cells, particularly in the Air Force (which are rated low on satisfaction level), and government employment exchanges also seek to help provide access to opportunities. There are a range of reservation policies in public sector entities like banks, which Armed Forces personnel can avail of - however, only 16-18% of such opportunities are actually benefitted from (Pradeep Sofat, IDSA, 2015). This inaction is partially due to a lack of knowledge about such opportunities, but also an inability to clear the relevant qualifying tests. There is also lateral absorption in uniformed forces, with veterans contributing to 100% of the Defence Service Corps. Ideally, the government should seek to expand opportunities, particularly in central security forces, for veterans. Meanwhile, in the private sector, military personnel are typically hired only in security related roles. While a corporate environment will often hold a veteran in high esteem, there is reluctance to hire them given competition from more qualified aspirants. Increasing opportunities for veterans is a primary concern - government exchanges should ideally process job opportunities for them on a priority basis. The government should also consider automatic re-employment of defence personnel in the public sector upon release. At the same time, entrepreneurship should be encouraged - it has been noted that given proper guidance and on-ground support, many ex-servicemen have become successful entrepreneurs (Maharajan, Subramani, 2014).
Reskilling military personnel thus becomes a primary concern. The Directorate General of Resettlement (DGR) is nominally charged with preparing veterans for a second career - it focuses on planning a transition while organising a variety of courses in reputed institutes. However, many of these courses, while of high quality, are not market relevant and do not equip soldiers for a civilian transition. Due to family commitments, and post-retirement planning, such courses are not highly subscribed. The DGR could ideally work closely with industry to define certifications and courses that are relevant, while timing these courses in conjunction with the industry hiring cycle. Such training should be conducted under the supervision of industry personnel, given them time to evaluate veteran candidates. These courses need to be repackaged, fitting specific job profiles on offer and potentially leading to an employment guarantee by a cohort of industrial partners. The system also needs to integrate government programmes with the annual availability of such skilled veterans.
Strategic partnerships with government ministries and programmes, including "Make in India" and "Skill India", would go a long way in ensuring skill development amongst veterans, along with fostering entrepreneurship. Consider how the UK does it - the British Government has pledged its support for ensuring resettlement in Armed Forces Covenant (2011), seeking to end any disadvantage that serving in the Armed Forces may have caused a veteran, including getting access to a mortgage, healthcare or social housing, while helping them gain a job. In India, government agencies responsible for resettlement lack significant empowerment and are often unable to provide services to veterans on location (Singh, 2005).
Ideally, veterans should not be left to fend for themselves post retirement. For them, release from the military forces is loss of identity, recognition and income, all while being forced to compare their sudden decline in status with civilian peers. The government, in partnership with the private sector, should be responsible for ensuring their complete integration into a civilian society (Kishore, 1991). Without effective resettlement, maintaining the morale of serving members will be a harder task, and furthermore discourage talented youth from joining the armed forces. Consider also the enormous loss to the nation from the underutilisation of the talents of a disciplined force of veterans - they should simply not be spending their time justifying their capabilities and qualifications for securing a job. While civilian bureaucrats can often gain plum postings even after retiring at the age of 60, defence personnel seem to be mostly ignored. We spend a large amount of public money on recruiting and training military forces; perhaps we can spend a bit more in ensuring they leave the armed forces with dignity.
(Feroze Varun Gandhi is a member of the BJP and a two-time member of parliament.)
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