Beyond fighting machines: How India can tap the full potential of its soldiers

Time to repay.
Time to repay.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Last week, I was at an army training establishment with some civilian friends. Among the demonstrations witnessed was a house-clearing drill conducted by soldiers under training for barely 24 weeks. The flawlessly executed drill was explained to the senior group of visiting leaders by a 19-year-old section commander, in a briefing worthy of any Ivy League business school. The corporate leaders admiringly complimented the young soldier, his instructors, and the training process of the Indian armed forces, agreeing that India was secure in the hands of its soldiers. Nobody asked whether the soldiers were secure in the hands of India.

This 19-year-old soldier would retire in his early 40s. At that age, he would have young children to nurture and old parents to support. His pension would barely make ends meet and after braving the ordeals of what is arguably the toughest career in the world, he would return to the civvy street to eke out a second life. India churns out roughly 60,000 soldiers every year in the same job market where one lakh younger job aspirants are being added every month!

An ex-serviceman’s typical job would be as a security guard working a 12-hour shift like most security personnel. Since such jobs are mostly in the cities, given the cost of living, he will live in deplorable conditions with no privacy and long commutes. In other words, the same life that he lived for two decades, away from his family. It is definitely not retirement for him.

Ironically, it doesn’t have to be so.

Every soldier has undergone thousands of hours of structured and experiential training. He has been taught to operate in teams and independently. He has handled technology decades ahead of it being mainstreamed. Our soldiers have operated radios, radars, sophisticated missile platforms, and imported equipment ranging from tanks, aircraft, submarines, and nuclear warheads with barely months of training. Entire regiments have converted successfully to Russian equipment whose controls, labels, and even the instruction manuals, were in Russian.

Our troops have laid communication networks, bridges, roads, helipads, airstrips, and rescue infrastructure in a matter of hours when professional agencies have failed. Under UN Peacekeeping missions, our battalions have resurrected nationhood in war-torn countries, down to the level of district administration. Our soldiers have operated the air traffic controls of civilian airports, manned the railways, the Indian postal service and restored essential services like transportation and water supply on countless occasions. Their societal and nation-building efforts during law and order situations or natural calamities need no mention.

Most importantly, they are trained in a disciplined, Spartan environment where even basic elements of privacy are denied. Up to 80% of a soldier’s career is spent between the barracks and bunkers, in the company of other troops, away from their families, many times in areas untouched by cellular communication. Battling the enemy and inclement weather. This shared trauma binds them into welded teams that can accomplish any mission, whether trained for it or not. That is how they execute many of the non-military tasks listed above.

Our corporates need to recognise this latent unleveraged value instead of using crack troops as glorified guards. They need to entrust them with functional and line responsibilities and invest in the learning curve before reaping exponential returns. We need to leverage their expertise in training, team development, and operational skills—not merely as members of support teams, but as business unit heads. It is ironic, that our country entrusts the armed forces with nuclear weapons and our sovereignty, but our corporates don’t trust them with business decisions.

The industry also needs to create “products” tailored for ex-servicemen. Shouldn’t a serviceman who has the proof of 25 years of payslips and bank statements, a character certificate from the sovereign, and a brotherhood of collaterals, pay a lower interest rate than the average loanee of a bank? Why can’t financial institutions lend a soft line of credit for ex-servicemen and train them in solopreneurship? Why can’t corporates adopt regiments and assist in the rehabilitation of their ex-servicemen? Here are some examples of CSR gestures that can alleviate great angst of soldiers.

Most major military hospitals are in metros where retired soldiers can get free treatment. But, most soldiers can’t avail this benefit because they don’t have a firm base in cities and thus, no place for their families to stay while they are being treated. Why can’t corporates dedicate a few of their guestrooms permanently for soldiers’ families?

Many of us know colleagues who choose to commute between cities rather than moving their families for the stability of their children’s education. Now imagine a child who has had to move schools every two years and lived in a “single parent” home for most of her life, as all children of servicemen do. Why can’t schools reserve seats for the wards of servicemen in meaningful scale rather than cosmetic numbers? This will also add immense value to the diversity of education for the rest of the class.

We must remember that it is our taxes that fuel India’s defence budget, 80% of which is spent on salaries and modernisation of the armed forces. That is a $40 billion academy churning out teams, individuals, and battle-hardened leaders who have decades of productive life ahead of them. It should be anathema to every sensible Indian to allow such latent capacity go underleveraged. The point is not simply rehabilitation of ex-servicemen by giving them a second career in the police, a laudable gesture by some states and paramilitary forces. Instead it is leveraging the social investment made in training the two million strong force, which goes waste after their retirement.

For the last 70 years, our soldiers kept India secure. It is perhaps time for every Indian to keep their end of the bargain, by leveraging the true potential of our armed forces.

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