Supreme Court Decision On Women Officers: Need For Holistic Policy Planning

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India  on 17 Feb 2020, ruled for Government to grant permanent commission to women officers in the Army at par with their male counterparts, should they wish to continue with it, after completing their Short-Service Commission (SSC). The judgement has also stated that women officers be allowed career progression through availing command opportunities as their male counterparts.  Naturally the order has far-reaching implications for the Army, ones that mandate serious deliberations. At this juncture, it is inconsequential to debate on the progress of the women officers court cases that continued over a decade. The issue has been deliberated by studies at the apex levels and the Army Commanders collegiates. The Government position has had its time in the courts and in affidavits, and stands finally negated by the Apex Court judgement.

In fact the situation among the three Services is different – the Indian Air Force (IAF) is located in AF Stations/ bases where feasibilities are different, and there are also no incessant operations.  The Indian Navy has to manage deployments in high seas. Similarly the ten arms and services in which Permanent Commission (PC) exists, each have their own operating conditions and challenges. There are imaginations and apprehensions of all kinds being voiced, largely on  social media, although many of them have merit.  However, these cannot be dragged in discussions ad infinitum, it will only cause consternations.  Time now is to look forward and we have to undertake Indian Army and India- specific measures. It is incorrect to ape or compare with other armies experiences and policies, as these have little relationship with the Indian structures.  It is imperative to crystallise the thoughts in a manner that  the judgement is executable in exactitude with its attendant concerns.

The judgement must be taken as an opportunity to undertake many a career management reforms of officers that have hung fire over a long time.  The Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and its elaborate charter of responsibilities are also God-sent at this time to holistically plan and take decisions on these policies. Six issues that merit attention are:

  • The career progression of officers is well regulated and optimised for the first 15 odd years of service careers. The officers get empowered with initial attachment to a combat unit in an active environment, undergoing Young Officers Command courses – Junior and Senior, technical courses, passing the promotion examinations and also competing for nomination on the Defence Services Staff College. The imperativeness of a successful sub-unit command and the cumulated quantified value of the career thus far, become the measure for consideration for the first select rank of Colonel – the rank that brings with it the most important and critical command assignment, that of a Commanding Officer of a unit. Thus far this schema has facilitated grooming of the officers for the onerous challenges, and there is but no need for revamp even for the career progression of women officers.
  • The officers’ intake is nearly 1800 per year from varied modes, both permanent and short service, lopsided in favour of PC. The numbers of select rank Colonels is finite a little short of six thousand, as authorised by the Government on establishment. As a statistical measure, of the Lt Cols considered in the promotion board for select rank of Colonel, only about 30% are empanelled for promotion, depending  on the vacancies arising in each arm and service, independently.  Accordingly, the non-empanelled continue in various appointments as Lt Col, till 26 years of service to become a Colonel.  The imperative point is that, the promotability satisfaction among officers is way too low, and the gap to achieve a time-based Colonel is way too far. 
  • Short service commission (SSC) remains a very unattractive option for the youth of the country, when in their thirties, officers non-empanelled for permanent commission leave the Army. There does exist some possibility to be absorbed in jobs in the civil sector based on quota – like security officers in banks.  Despite two pay commissions strongly recommending measures to make the SSC attractive, providing qualifications to out-going officers and possibility of commensurate job placement, it has not seen the light of the day.  
  • Women officers currently serving in the Army in ten arms and services are in various service brackets. Many would have missed the age and service for achieving empowerment, imperative for command of a unit. The policy parameters for women officers of service brackets below and above 10 years will have to run differing paths. It is not feasible to allow women officers to be placed in a promotion board for selection to the  rank of Colonel without requisite qualifications and experience.  It is an issue of operational command that cannot be taken on emotively.
  • Intake and pre-commission training for male and female officers has to be planned. Fixing arbitrary numbers for intake will be objectionable. As explained earlier, the numbers of permanent commission (PC) officers, and the quota for SSC officers getting into PC must be notified in a manner that about 1000 to 1200 officers are placed annually for consideration for promotion of Colonel to achieve near 50% satisfaction. That dictates that PC at intake level should reduce to only about 750 annually. With prospective 1000 SSC officers at intake, only about 250 be allowed PC.
  • Postings of male and female officers should be balanced and equated in field-peace management. The Military Secretary’s Branch is well experienced in understanding the need to remain fair. Understandably the women officers will require a consideration at times of a spouse-posting or in management of families. For this, the well established and formalised mechanisms of compassionate posting board and policy on adverse career certifications should work. A limit to numbers of such compassionate postings in various phases of life can be worked

Indeed the issues above are not finite, and may have to be examined by a competent study that must have representation from women officers. The following pathways can be considered:

  • The entire schema rests on SSC entry being made attractive. This is an imperative.   Empowering officers not empanelled for PC, should be armed with a strong civilian qualification (like MBA or M Tech) and be provided with a reasonable golden handshake. The off-take must happen when the officer is of about 35 years of age, or ten years of service so that he or she can make a successful career outside. SSC hence should terminate at 10 years service maximum, with an off-take permitted at five years. With Government jobs scarce, this has to be in the civil sector, which can be nudged to accept a quota. Indeed having been in the thick of action, ex-servicemen status should be provided.
  • Only NDA and TES entries (that is at 10+2 stage of education) should remain as PC entries, with an intake of about 750 annually. The balance of entries like CDS (that is after graduation) should all be converted into SSC, and with the entry made attractive, can be increased to 1000 approximately. The SSC entry for male and female candidates should be as per SSB merit.  The board considering empanelment from SSC to PC at 8-9 years of service should consider the men and women officers alike, unmindful of the women officers option for command or staff stream.
  • There should be a staff stream exclusively for PC women officers, after 10 years of service. To be fair, and in the spirit of the Apex Court judgement , each women officer should be approached to exercise the options of seeking PC and of command. Contingent on option exercised, women officers should be empowered for consideration for command, or be considered for continuing in staff assignments only. The women officers opting for PC service should thereafter undertake mandatory courses, command of sub-units and promotion exams, to be eligible for consideration by promotion board eventually. For those currently above 10 years service it may be difficult to manage the same.
  • The women officers exclusive staff stream may not be considered for promotion board for select rank of Colonel, till eligible for time-scale Colonel. Those women officers opting for command of units, should be considered at par for postings, physical standards, empowerment and promotion boards, as contemporary male officers.
  • The time-scale Colonel must be brought to 23 years service, to eventually 21 years. This will have manifold advantages, though criteria can be worked out.
  • Pre-commission academies will have to be refashioned. Allotment of arms and services must be fair and as per enunciated policies and balanced.
  • Creation of infrastructure for accepting presence of women officers in units/ sub-units will be necessary.

The Supreme Court judgement has forced a directional change. This change can best be brought out by conjoined discussions and imaginative solutions. The time must also be taken as an opportunity to make far-reaching reforms in career management of officers. These are different times for the Indian Army, and with deep thoughts, it should develop into a model professional force.