New Delhi: India’s army, the world’s fourth largest, faces a dire shortage of officers because the booming private sector is recruiting the best talent, and may have to consider conscription, its chief says.
Just 86 officer recruits enlisted in the current academic session of the British-built Indian military academy, which had vacancies for 250, officials said.
Meanwhile, 62 of 148 college graduates who passed a separate military entrance test for officers opted out and sought jobs in the private sector.
The recruitment issue has become an urgent priority for the volunteer army after 3,000 mid-level commanders recently sought early retirement on top of an existing shortage of 11,200 officers.
The army needs a total of 46,615 officers.
Another worry “for the forces is that most of those applying are not the right material,” General Deepak Kapoor, army chief, said.
The private sector, which has been luring away India’s best talent by offering hefty wages and generous perks, has left the military with poor pickings, commanders say.
“The government and the services cannot compete in matters of salary and perks with the corporate world,” Kapoor told reporters last week in New Delhi.
“Our deficiencies should not be met by lowering the quality standards” of the world’s largest voluntary army, he added.
India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan and a bloody border skirmish with China since its 1947 independence, has never turned to compulsory recruitment but Kapoor warned such a move could be an option.
“Compulsory military service could be one of the avenues before the government sometime in the future, but it’s not the stage for such a step now,” the army chief added.
But others say conscription is not the answer.
“Conscription to fill the shortage will lead to indiscipline, waywardness and desertions,” warned retired lieutenant general Afsir Karim.
Thanks to India’s billion-plus population and high unemployment, the 1.23-million-strong army has no shortages in the lower ranks.
But the National Defence Academy, India’s largest army training ground, which enlists high school graduates and turns them into officers for the navy, air force and also the army, is struggling.
Just 190 students signed up this month against the academy’s sanctioned strength of 300 for this academic session, defence ministry records show.
Stress, low pay, slow promotions and the military’s tough lifestyle are a turn-off for young people, said former army chief Ved Prakash Malik.
After entering the army, an entry level officer must wait up to 10 years before donning the flashes of a lieutenant-colonel. But even at that level the monthly basic salary does not exceed Rs12,000.
“I’ve not even finished my four-year term at the business school and we’re already receiving offers of more than Rs65,000 a month and company cars,” said Apratim Ghosh, one of the many who opted out of a military career.
“This is thanks to the enormous opportunities available,” he added.
“The army also must remove promotional bottlenecks and train those who choose the military as a career so that they are confident of landing a job on the civvy street after retirement,” said retired senior officer Karim.
“It’s not a good feeling to retire at 52 with two children in school and no savings,” a serving brigadier said, asking to remain unnamed.
According to the defence ministry’s Directorate of Resettlement, a third of the 3,000 officers who retire annually enlist in top Indian business schools.
And the corporate world welcomes retiring military recruits with open arms.
“Their background works in our favour and we are more than happy to welcome them,” Robin Lyod, vice-president of the Indian unit of US-based Lionbridge Technologies software solution providers, told the Times of India newspaper.