Mixed feelings is how I would rudimentarily describe the moment I read the news about the Defence Minister’s retort to the Defence Services for seeking to take action against those who complain to him directly.
On one hand came the realization that in no hierarchical organization would jumping the queue be taken very kindly since it does affect command and control in a way. But on the other side of the spectrum, my mind was divided as to what would then be the answer if a person is not heard by his or her own or if he or she is blocked from informing the authorities up the chain!
There can be no easy answers and thus the predicament in my mind persists.
In an ideal situation, hopping the chain is not apt. But then, as I say always, we do not live in an ideal world and there can be no mathematical or straitjacket solutions to such situations.
The reaction of many senior retired officers to the news above was that it would disturb the equilibrium of the defence services and encouraging personnel to directly approach the very top is not a healthy phenomenon. There can be no cavil with this proposition. But have we introspected as to why things have come to such a pass? That answer is not far to seek- that clearly the system of redressal of grievances is in shambles which is why unconventional or rather non-regulation methods are being employed by those who are not being heard or who perceive themselves as not being heard. There is no sounding board. There is no catharsis.
It is well known that non-statutory or statutory complaints, especially by the lower ranks, are not being decided in the prescribed time-period and at times linger on till inordinately long periods and by the time the relief becomes redundant in many cases. It may not be out of place to mention that the time limit prescribed for redressal of such grievances by the Government of India is 3 months and in the services the time limit prescribed for decisions on statutory complaints is 6 months, but even that is not adhered to in most cases. The military does not even encourage complaints, especially by the lower ranks, and most of the personnel keep groping in the dark about the ‘format’ of such complaints and many of these are returned by various intermediary authorities indulging in infructuous correspondence for not being in the ‘prescribed format’ or due to other hyper-technical reasons. Some of the personnel posted in remote locations are also consigned to the backboard of red-tape and left scampering for formats and all that wondrous jazz. Worse, the statistics would prove that relief is finally granted only in a minuscule number. Pulling strings and over-reliance on file notings, at times initiated by those who have been complained against, in case of all ranks, is also an open secret and no amount of denial could hide this reality.
In such a scenario, what do you expect? Frustration of course, which finally manifests itself in skipping the hierarchy. And once that happens, can such behaviour be truly blamed on the individuals when it emanates from our own deficiencies?
In a changing world and changing dynamics of public grievances and interactive formats, including social media, it would be futile to rely upon outdated practices or live in a time warp. While formal complaints cannot be initiated to one’s seniors in the hierarchy directly bypassing the proper channel, there is no strict bar on informal letters, including Demi Official communications, which are simply now being substituted by emails and informal electronic communications to seniors and hence may not exactly fall foul of regulations since these are not formal ‘complaints’ but mere written substitutes for face to face interaction. The way to avoid this is to brace up with the times we live in and make grievance redressal receptive, humane, objective and quicker. True, there are incorrigible elements and habitual complainants but genuine grievances cannot be subsumed by disputable ones. We also need to introspect as to why Demi Official letters are commonplace with officers but similar informal communications frowned upon when initiated by other ranks.
One of the cardinal references to the Committee of Experts constituted by the Raksha Mantri, of which I too was a Member, was strengthening of the system of redressal of grievances in the defence services. The issue, which has been engaging the attention of the Minister, weighed heavily on our minds also, especially on my senior colleagues, who with their progressive approach were totally attuned to the changing interface of modern life in the age of internet and social media, after which we had recommended a few changes in the existing dispensation. Some of these were providing a better system of personal interaction and opportunity of hearing, reducing red-tapism and hyper-technical approach in grievances redressal mechanism, initiating faster redressal and following existing Government of India guidelines for the same. Some of these have been enumerated in Paragraphs 3.3.2, 3.3.3, 4.2.2, 4.2.5, 4.2.7, 7.2 and 7.4 of the Report which now stands declassified. I would be failing in my duty if I do not mention that many senior officers of the Defence Services Headquarters were also concerned about mandating improvement in the existing mechanisms and were not oblivious to the contours of the subject.
Just as the head of an organization is supposed to be in the know of all that is happening under him, the Defence Minister is doing a good job in ensuring that systems work. He is not an outsider external to the chain of command; he is the political executive heading the Ministry of Defence. In my opinion, he is not micromanaging, he is not encouraging personnel to bypass the existing channels, but only functioning as a de facto ombudsman for ensuring that in the long run the systems are so well oiled that personnel get the desired decisions and redressal at the lowest possible level within the laid down time-limits. His methods may be unconventional, but for that, we should be thankful that he is taking active interest in the portfolio allotted to him and also that he cannot be evaded by the talent of wiliness and craftiness.
The discussion makes me want to recapitulate what the Delhi High Court stated in 2004 on the fine balance between discipline and fairness:
“...Discipline is highly desirable and is essential for achieving the purpose for which Armed Forces have been created and set up. However, in order to obtain discipline and obedience, it is essential that the personnel of the Armed Forces are dealt with an innate fairness and justice is meted out to the members of the Forces. This is necessary to not only ensure discipline but to motivate these brave soldiers who perform their duties in the service of the nation and who have to be motivated to lay down their lives to the cause of the nation. When guidelines have been laid down and procedures prescribed they should be applied to the letter lest the same shall result in demoralization in the lines and ranks of the forces which may lead to insubordination and indiscipline...”
Ideally hence, there should be no occasion to bypass the existing channels for redressal of grievances but it is ultimately for the system to ensure that the rank and file repose so much faith in it that they do not run helter-skelter. For sure our systems are time-tested, but then the times have changed and we need to match up and catch up. And till that happens, till our systems adjust with the times we live in, there are bound to be minor corrections and tribulations which we must take in our stride.