An officer and a gentleman.
Sainik Schools are one of our best experiments with regimental learning. They have produced sterling candidates – both soldiers and citizens. In a time of growing shortage of officers in the armed forces, why are we so short of such schools?
Just 86 cadets joined the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun in 2008 against a course strength of 250. And, instead of 300 applicants, just 192 turned up at the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, at Pune. Defence Minister AK Antony has admitted that the shortage of officers in the Army is around 11,500. In the Navy, the shortage is 1606. The number of vacancies in the Air Force is 1342.
There is an element of irony to the figures of shortage of officers that has been put out by the Ministry of Defence for some years now. The irony is that the shortage has only widened after the deficit was acknowledged. And for those who still don’t get the import of these figures, put it this way: the army has only a little more than half of the officers it needs.
It took the last General of the Indian Army to put things in acute perspective when he hinted at conscription as one of the means to make up for the shortfall. As was expected, in a country that is quickly embarrassed by notions of patriotism, howls of protest from our well heeled intelligentsia and civil society greeted the good general for such a blasphemy – us, to have to serve our motherland in combat ! – what could be worse fate for a well educated citizen, they seemed to complain.
Be that as it may, the episode did serve to ferment a lot of debate on the reasons for this phenomenon and the methods that could be employed to stem the rot, so to say, or induce a greater interest in this youth-bulging nation to join the forces. Even as the debate for a solution rages and perambulates from proposing higher wages to shorter tenures and from faster promotions to better media promotion of the forces as a career choice, or setting up more short service commissions or enlarging the ambit of the NCC, what is being left out is what looks like a good idea going to seed. Outside of token financial help, nobody is looking towards the Sainik Schools as a solution.
This article argues for a revitalization of the Sainik Schools as a realistic, practical and efficacious solution to the paucity we are now faced with on the following grounds: The Sainik Schools are an established mechanism for feeding trained recruits to the forces. There is established success of the model. Their national spread serves to provide equal representation in the forces of various regions across the country. It costs relatively little to run them and they are a running model. They provide lasting all-round development of students since they take students from class VI onwards and condition them in a residential school format. They provide a passport to advancement to students from rural and backward areas which would otherwise take three generations to make the shift. They produce a higher caliber individual with a definite nationalist orientation. Sainik Schools alumni are greater achievers in almost every field, even outside the forces.
As thing stand, almost 15% of recruits in the National Defence Academy are from Sainik Schools. The trend of children of soldiers following their fathers into the professions is by all accounts on the wane, and with the urban phenomenon almost entirely at odds with the values and norms of soldierly life, the catchment for such recruits has naturally moved to the hinterland, where these schools are not just vehicles of upward social mobility but a passport to financial security. It is here that most Sainik Schools were envisioned and it here that they are playing a dramatic role in transforming the community including those who are serving their country in other capacities outside of the forces.
Sociologically and strategically, one student from the local Sainik School carries an ambassadorial influence of the values he has been taught, to the entire village or community he belongs to. He serves as an inspiration to the next generation and continues the tradition and links that these schools foster in such areas and continue to feed the defence forces. This essential and critical mechanism is being ignored at the expense of fallacious and wasteful spending on mainline media campaigns trying to convince urban lads in the English medium to give up their cushy lives and move to the treacherous landscapes of war. On the other hand, if merely a percentage of the student strength of such Sainik Schools move into officer ranks, the deficit will be more than compensated and an iterating mechanism will ensure that there would never be a shortfall in future.
There are opinions of every shade on such matters everywhere and even though the Comptroller Auditor General of India critically noted in one of its audits that less than 4% of the target set for induction of such recruits in the military colleges was met in the five years from 1989 to 1993, the fact is that with an overall strength of close to 13,000 students in 24 schools today, even as low a success rate as just 3% from Sainik Schools would more than make up the seats available at IMA or the NDA.
The Sainik Schools are more cost effective than other schools, private or funded by Government of the same caliber. The Comptroller Auditor General of India pointed out that the Central Government incurred an expenditure of approximately Rs 1.40 lakhs per student in seven years of schooling in the Sainik Schools. The annual overhead of 22 Sainik Schools in 2008 was reported to be in the region of Rs. 80 crores or effectively less than 0.1 percent of the defence budget [basis: FY 2007-2008 Budget Rs 96,000 crores – report by MP Anil Kumar]* This figure seems almost paltry in the context of the importance of such schools and is a modest sum considering each Sainik School is spread across a few hundred acres and has approximately 600 students. The Defence Ministry has reportedly said the schools were expected to be financially self-sufficient. These residential schools have no source of steady income apart from the student fee that ranges between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000 per child annually, depending on the campus.
It would be not just suicidal but patently catastrophic if the Sainik Schools were left to their own devices for shortage of funds or vision or both. The Standing Committee on Defence chaired by Congress MP Satpal Maharaj in its report has emphasized that the Sainik Schools were facing various problems which included financial support from the state governments. There is debate on whether central funds should replace state responsibility and vice versa. Whatever the way out – and this is no reason to delay a decision - it is clear that this government has a double responsibility to ensure the revitalization of the sainik schools by expanding the network and investing financially in them.
But there are more options available that just that : public private partnership in an area of such national importance is the first option that should be consulted. There is no dearth of funds, particularly in education. With the kind of subsidy the government provides these schools, at last another 24 could come up within a year if the sector was opened to private partnership.
Finally, a test of the fundamental duty of a member of parliament towards his constituency should be if he or she has been successful in establishing a Sainik School in his or her constituency. An MP receives Rs 2 Crores each year under the MPLAD scheme. What could be more productive, or essential or vital or developmental in nature than to invest this as seed money for the setting up of a Sainik School in the constituency. It is not a novel idea or unheard of. Noted journalist and MP Arun Shourie has pledged Rs. 11 crore from his MP Local Area Development Fund (MPLAD) to the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur for developing a separate and well-equipped building for Environmental Sciences and Environmental Engineering. The same could be done for Sainik Schools by all MPs by apportioning some funds for a Sainik School in their areas.
The thrust of this article or argument remains that the Sainik School model must be seen to be bigger than its presumed role and in the perspective of its aim as producing a citizen of high caliber. The Defence Ministry stated in December 1995 that a study group constituted in 1986 had recommended that the aim of Sainik Schools should be to impart education to children with a view to enabling them to take up a career in the Defence Services and also positions of responsibility in other spheres of public life.
The Sainik School is complimentary with nationhood and patriotism. It moulds the young into a citizen in the context of the state. Krishna Menon’s vision for the Sainik Schools is stated to have been the necessity to broad base recruitment in the country for military careers. But let us not underestimate the penetrative wisdom of the man, for in doing so he knew that a new cadre of nationalists would be carved.
And it worked. So while this is my tribute to a good idea, and the few good men it spawned, I look forward to responses from those of you who share this view, or sentiment.
Picture courtesy: D.Vijaykumar, Sainik School Bijapur, Karnataka, India