For matters to have reached a stage where the three defence chiefs should collectively decide not to implement a government pay order is surely serious. Fortunately, things got sorted out after Defence Minister A K Antony made it clear to the chiefs that they could not unilaterally decide on whether or not to implement the Cabinet order on the Sixth Pay Commission and that, if need be, his ministry would issue the necessary order. The chiefs over-stepped a line in what they did, and it is not a good precedent to have set. But, equally, it must be asked whether the government drove them to such misdemeanour, and (even more importantly) whether their strong feelings accurately reflect the degree of unhappiness that exists on the issue in the officer corps. At the end of the day, what maintains the relationship between the civilian and the uniformed officer is mutual respect and a feeling that the government is not going to ride roughshod over the defence forces’ genuine concerns, merely because civilians have the final say (which of course they do).
The three chiefs had made their views on the Sixth Pay Commission known to the government months ago; some adjustments were indeed made to what the Commission had recommended, but key issues were not addressed (or addressed through rejection). As the chiefs pointed out, and as has been well-known for some time, it was getting more and more difficult to recruit people to the forces — as is evident from the gap between the number of officer cadets recruited this year and the stipulated strength. There is little doubt that the services as a career have to be made more attractive, if the country’s defence capability is not to be impaired. Therefore, through a combination of incentives, status recognition and generous hardship allowances, some way should have been found to address the issues raised. It is inexplicable how, despite the strong signals that had been sent, the government chose to notify the Sixth Pay Commission without paying too much attention to whether the forces’ genuine grievances had been addressed. Perhaps the all-powerful IAS that runs the government felt that the forces would simply lump it.
The crux of the defence forces’ grievances has to do with the manner in which they have been downgraded in relation to the civil services. A lieutenant colonel who drew Rs 800 more than his civilian counterpart now draws Rs 11,000 less. Similarly, other bands have been created which put even higher-level officers at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their civilian counterparts. The forces had been demanding an integrated pay scale till the rank of major general, in order to reduce the feeling of stagnation. This was accepted in the Fourth Pay Commission, removed in the fifth, and has now been restored in the sixth (while introducing a similar facility for other services), but the way in which the scale has been fixed ensures that civilian employees draw higher salaries. The wonder of it all, if you go by the calculations submitted by the defence forces, is that the total cost of what they ask for is under Rs 250 crore. It is obvious that the issue is not the money, but a needless act of oneupmanship by the civil services. The group of ministers that has been constituted will have to make up now for past government insensitivity.