Do Indian youth really hate the idea of joining the Defense Services?
Conscription has been in the news, having been triggered by an innocent remark by General Deepak Kapoor, the Chief of Army Staff in response to a query by a journalist. He had said that the government “may have to take a view” on conscription in the future “if things don’t improve”. He had also said that 1.13-million strong Indian Army had not reached that crisis stage yet. However, the way the issue was initially reported gave the impression that General Kapoor had suggested the idea of conscription. Clarifications were later issued by the General but in the meanwhile it created quite a furore.
There are several aspects to this debate. One is a theoretical question as to whether India would ever be able to launch a successful conscription program. And if India isn’t able to do so, how will the shortfall of officers be ever made up? Thirdly, one cannot help but wonder if the hype that young Indians are against joining the Defense Services is true. Before I discuss these issues, just a brief overview of what the world does with regard to conscription.
Some of the countries where there is no conscription are Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Maldives, Monaco, New Zealand, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, U.K. USA. Some of these countries (like the USA during the Vietnam war) have recruited in times of need.
And countries which have conscription are Brazil, Germany, Finland, Iran, Israel, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Switzerland, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Libya, China.
This list makes it clear that the size of a country (population) doesn’t matter and nor does it seem to matter if the country is rich or poor, a democracy or a dictatorship. Conscription does reduce the manpower bill considerably as the government gets young cheap labour. Hire youngsters at 18 whether they like it or not, pay them a pittance and say goodbye to them at 21! Yet, there are dictatorships which do not have conscription like Jordan, Qatar,Swaziland and Saudi Arabia. Each country has it’s own unique reason for forcing it’s citizens to enlist…but I don’t want to go into that here.
Conscription will never work in India
Talking about India, forcing people to enlist won’t work. It hasn’t worked well even in countries which have a long history of conscription. There has been resistance to conscription in almost all countries. What draft resisters do is:
…either apply for classification and assignment to civilian alternative service or noncombatant service within the military as conscientious objectors, or to evade the draft by fleeing to a neutral country. A small proportion, like Muhammad Ali, chose to resist the draft by publicly and politically fighting conscription. Some people resist at the point of registration for the draft.
In India the idea of conscription is alien and will be unpopular. Our political parties will oppose it to gain votes. Unless there is a dire emergency, it will never work.
Do young Indians detest the idea of joining the Army?
There is far too much hype (news reports, talk shows) about the reason why educated young Indians are not joining the Army and the reason given is that youngsters feel that life in the Army is not just terrible (frequent transfers, rough life in forward areas, separations from families and poor pay packets) but there is little scope for growth. I think that’s a lot of spiel as there is a shortage of educated people in every single field. India is short of a lot of people. Period. Whether it’s designers, policemen, doctors or educated professionals in fields like Education, Biotechnology and Research to IT, Health, Textile and Aviation…India is gasping for people.
Interestingly, in some of these fields there is a shortage of 60-80 percent but in the Army there is a shortfall of about 25 percent (in the officer cadre) and this could perhaps show that people are entering the Army. The problem is that India doesn’t have enough educated people! If there wasn’t such a shortage earlier, it was because there weren’t so many career options. People either became doctors/engineers or joined the government services. Considering that there are so many more careers competing for attention, I think the Army isn’t doing too badly at all.
A shortage of professional colleges could be driving youngsters to the Army
It is not easy to get into the top educational institutions in India because of the competition and this leaves an unsatisfied lot of youngsters. They have limited choices if they cannot go abroad for further studies. They may not want to join a second or third rung educational institute. The IAS and the IFS are lucrative but again very tough to get into. Entering the Defense Services isn’t a cakewalk either, but it’s easier. A bright, physically fit youngster has a better chance of getting into the National Defense Academy rather than into IIT.
And the Services can train you to be a pilot, a doctor or an engineer – for free. For bright people who cannot afford high fees, the services are a great option.
I personally know people who have joined the forces for all of the above reasons.
The Army doesn’t pay badly at all
There’s another myth going around, that the Services pay badly. The truth is that the private sector does not pay everybody high salaries. In the private sector salaries can be lower than in the services, particularly at lower levels. In the services you get free housing, free medical treatment and a pension, which is not the case in the private sector. Then there are fringe benefits like club memberships and community living. Plus you get to travel. I heard people like Javed Akhtar (on an NDTV talk show) talk about how poorly paid service officers are. Who in the world was he comparing them to? Bollywood stars? Script writers? Or graduates from IIM’s or the IIT’s?
Sure, the services should pay better…but to imagine that the Army or Navy can ever compete with the cream of industry, the IT sector or Bollywood is a fantasy. Finally, those who join the services will be those who have stars in their eyes and adventure in their blood. They may at times do it because they don’t see any other option, but mostly they will do it because they want to.
The shortage of people in the services is likely to continue for some years to come though, until we get our education mess sorted out. Until we get quality education to the masses.
(Photographs: Gen Deepak Kapoor from Tribune India, National Defense Academy from punerealestate.com, soldiers from bharat-rakshak.com, the men on the street is credited to me)