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Friday, June 15, 2018

Op-ed: Making Short Service Commission attractive in the military

My op-ed for DNA on the need to make Short Service Commission more attractive, introducing contributory pension, thereby lowering the pension bill and leading to better cadre & promotional management, and why the current initiatives may require bolder, tougher & more innovative decisions-

Making Short Service Commission 
attractive in the military

India Needs Short Service

Major Navdeep Singh

Military circles were abuzz with the news that the government was finally in the last stages of fine-tuning a ‘golden handshake’ for Short Service Commissioned Officers (SSCOs) of the Defence Services in order to make the scheme more attractive and also to reduce Permanent Commissioned Officers thereby making the military a lean fighting machine and also bringing down the pension bill.

Nice aim, wrong route.

Always expected to be notified ‘very soon’, the proposal for a better payout for SSCOs has been doing the rounds since last many years in a dusty file sent into an orbit in the unwieldy space between the ministries of finance and defence. Notwithstanding the same, the proposal as also projected in the media, is quite imbalanced and shall be of no help in attracting talent or reducing shortages. The interesting aspect of the issue is that this topic has been discussed and deliberated by a Committee of Experts constituted in 2015 (Chapter 7.5) by the then Raksha Mantri, Mr Mahohar Parrikar, in great detail, of which this author too was a Member, but knowing the ways of the Defence Ministry, the top hierarchy and the political executive would have been kept in the dark about the recommendations pertaining specifically to SSCOs.

Firstly, Short Service Scheme, for the longest period in the past, was operated on a 5 + 5 + 4 years basis, that is, initial terms of engagement of 5 years and thereafter extendable till 14 years. In the year 2006, it was changed to 10 + 4 years, meaning thereby that SSCOs were mandatorily stuck in the military for 10 years without any assurance of post-release civil employment, without pension and without protection of seniority in case of joining civil service. The current scheme therefore is imbalanced, if not exploitative, since it leaves young men and women in the middle of nowhere at crossroads of life in the fairly senior rank of Major or Lieutenant Colonel, and many times unemployed at an age when familial commitments are at peak. The immediate action that is required is hence to revert to the time-tested 5 + 5 + 4 system or the 7 years terms of engagement recommended by the Seventh Central Pay Commission.

Secondly, instead of providing a higher amount of lumpsum payout as a ‘golden handshake’, the government should explore the possibility of introducing a handsome gratuity for SSCOs serving for over 5 years and Contributory Pension Scheme for those serving above 10 years or making them amenable to the New Pension Scheme (NPS) at par with civilian employees. This singular step would make the scheme most attractive amongst all other options, perhaps even more than Permanent Commission, and being contributory in nature, will keep the government’s pension bill in check. In fact, a contractual scheme with contributory pension could even be introduced for jawans willing to serve for fixed terms of engagement of 10 years if they do not want to enrol for longer prevalent terms under the existing defined pension and ‘One Rank One Pension’ scheme, which can continue for the ones opting for a permanent career in the military. While keeping the future pension bill controllable, such personnel would be free to pursue other vocations on their release from the military with a back-up for survival. This could be complemented with pre-retirement management, technical or skilling courses, on which the military is already working quite progressively, and which would equip personnel on contractual terms for life beyond the uniform.

Thirdly, the government must immediately take steps to restore the limited medical facilities wrongly snatched from SSCOs in the mid 2000s on the call of the military medical establishment. Accepting the recommendation of the Committee of Experts for rightfully restoring medical facilities, the then Raksha Mantri had directed action on the  same in August 2016, but till date the establishment is resisting the issuance of implementation instructions based on the directions of the Defence Minister. In fact, taking the clock further back, Mr AK Antony, in November 2009, had even announced in the Parliament the extension of the Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) to SSCOs, but nine years later, nothing has materialized.

Encouraging the Short Service Scheme or contractual terms in the military with a balanced contributory pension scheme is the call of the day. Besides making the military an attractive option for those who would only like to spend a few years in uniform and then carry on with the civvy street, it would also make the defence services leaner and meaner while reducing the overall pension bill of the future. It would also result in optimum cadre management and better promotional avenues and prospects for those who opt for a permanent career in the forces.

But the pertinent question, like always, is whether reformatory and innovative schemes will ever see the light of the day and whether the political executive and decision-makers would consult the right people- the stake-holders, the experts, former and current SSCOs facing the practical predicament of the existing scheme, or would the decision-making mechanism only rely upon the notings of some bored junior bureaucrats of the finance and defence ministries sitting in a prosaic section of those grand old buildings designed with the assistance of Herbert Baker in the 1910s.

Only time would tell.

The author is an Advocate in the Punjab & Haryana High Court and writes on law, public policy and military related issues.

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