A couple of days back, leading dailies put out a story that the Indian Army has decided to drastically cut down its procurement from ordnance factories to meet make up for critical shortages, primarily in ammunition.
The cuts were to include procurement of clothing for the rank and file that the ordnance factories manufacture.
The story also moaned that it was actually the jawans who would take the real hit because apparently, a broke Army, goaded by the need to tighten its belt, had decided to sacrifice its spit and polish for the sake of operational preparedness.
I was accosted by a few friends about whether we are going to have an Army without a uniform, or is the Army going to field its men in shabby clothes. Incidentally, the uniform of a soldier is often considered as a barometer of his morale. When viewed in the context of the good old adage, "morale is a battle winning factor", the seemingly preposterous step taken by the Army appeared most enervating, especially to the staunch nationalists.
A bit of fact-finding dispels the probability of a phantom about to cast its benign shadow on our forces.
The Army has always been giving a cash allowance to its officers to procure their uniforms from the market. The only exception, decades back, was when one was posted to desert formations where khakis used to be the uniform.
On reporting to such formations, two pairs of khaki ordnance uniforms were given to the officer, after which they were to use the cash allowance for the purpose. It's however a different matter that the cash allowance was a joke, especially in the backdrop of the types of clothes an officer is required to possess.
These included the whites for physical training, olive greens for offices, camouflage dresses for outdoors, ceremonial outfits, mess uniform for summers and winters. In addition are the various types of belts, boots and caps. Though these were later rationalised, a large variety still exists and are essential too.
Ordnance factory produced clothes were issued to all ranks other than officers. At some stage a new concept evolved — the life cycle concept. According to the new concept, while the life of a beret could be 18 months that of the shirt and trousers could be 10, while the life of a pair of boots could be 60 and the socks 18 months. The figures quoted are arbitrary. However, the fact is that each item of the dress could have a different life keeping in view its likely wear and tear. A perfectly scientific approach, except that inventory management became a colossal problem and keeping a record of which item was due when for each individual, its timely procurement and issue, a huge headache that consumed the lives of a couple of men per battalion. Incidentally, automation was still a far cry, and hence all records were diligently maintained manually.
In fact, the cry in the Army for a simpler system of management has been long and shrill.
It's important to visit the stakeholders at the other end of the spectrum — the ordnance factories, which would be losing business in the bargain. The larger mandate of the ordnance factories is of course the manufacturing of critical war-like stores that the military requires. The manufacture of clothing, easily available in the Indian market otherwise, should hardly be the business of ordnance factories. In any case, they were outsourcing a substantial part of the Army's requirement.
Recently, orders were passed by the government for ordnance factories to stop manufacturing non-core items and focus only on critical ones. However, the business of supplying clothing to the armed forces is a profitable one, and with the private industry not part of it, it's been an assured cash flow.
Specialised clothing, like the variety required at extremely high altitudes like the Siachen Glacier, was earlier imported. Today, a fairly large number of Indian companies have stepped in and are the main source of supplies to the Army.
The 7th Pay Commission had recommended the introduction of cash allowance in lieu of uniform and the same provisions have been used by the Army to undertake the policy announced. What needs to be ensured is the adequacy of the allowance and standardisation of the uniform worn by military personnel.
With the Canteen Stores Department having been tasked to source the cloth, the aspect of standardisation would be taken care of largely. As far as tailoring is concerned, most cantonments have tailors since long who are aware of the pattern and could ensure uniformity.
What also needs to be factored in is the fact of wear and tear when units and formations are out on long exercises. An exercise in summers in the deserts for three months out under a blazing sun is enough to write off a pair of uniforms. Such circumstances will require being addressed and provisions for additional allowances built into the system.
Another advantage would be better fitting uniforms. Ordnance clothing has a range of standard sizes. Tailored fit would certainly ensure a better fit.
But ordnance factories would face a problem. They are used to supplying uniforms for too long without having to go through a competitive bidding process.
The new policy announcement allows these factories to also bid for supplying. However, they would need to be competitive enough to win an order.
With more than a million people in uniform, the Army will definitely make substantial savings. There is a resource crunch being faced, and such savings are definitely better utilised for critical procurement.