Search Under Streetlights
Once upon a time there was a man, who, upon returning home from work, couldn’t enter his house because he lost the keys to his house somewhere enroute. It was late in the evening and the streetlights had been switched on. Determined to find the lost key, he walked to the brightest of streetlights and started searching. A neighbour, seeing the man asked him what he was searching for. On hearing about the loss, the neighbour joined him. Slowly, one by one, the entire neighbourhood was under the streetlight searching.
After all, it was a friendly neighbourhood.
Little while later, a boy asked the guy next, also engrossed in the search, “What are we searching for?”. The old man, many years of experience written large on his wrinkled face, replied with disdain that ignorance deserves, “Cheese”. Immediately the guy next, considering himself equally committed, exclaimed, “No, it’s peas”. “No, it’s his skis” said somebody. Another vehemently disagreed. “It’s his keys”. Soon ensued a debate, passionately opinionated, each one sticking to his ground since they were all earnestly searching. While many debated, few diligently continued to search for what they thought was lost. Though each one had enthusiastically joined the search, no one cared to check with the man, what he lost and where he could have lost it.
After all, the friendly neighbourhood knew what is best.
The keys, have still not been found. Meanwhile to help him enter the house, the neighbourhood brought down a wall of the house. But they rebuilt the wall, installing the same locked door with lock in place. Now they are considering breaking another wall.
After all, the neighbourhood is friendly and knows what is best.
As regards the key, it will never be found because the man who lost it never came by the lamp post. Moreover, the search for the lost key has been put on the back burner. Breaking and rebuilding is more important and gratifying.
This story plays out regularly in our personal and professional lives. Look around, we can find many such scripts playing out. Real life problems manifest in weird ways. Manifestations seldom reveal the roots, for roots remain buried deep. Since roots and fruits have no visible link, some experts choose to pursue symptomatic treatment, often to peril.
Indian Army provides two such examples, contemporary and classic.
Gen Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), created quite an excitement with his proposal to induct youngsters on a three-year tour of duty. With his proximity to decision centres he could easily have it promulgated too. The proposal is aimed at addressing ‘shortage of officers’ in the army. While many applauded his unparalleled initiative, veterans seem shell shocked.
Burden of Command
It would be an enthralling experience for young men to wear the olive greens and command a group willing to sacrifice their lives, just on a word of command. Those privy to the rigours of training understand what ‘burden of command’ means. Every officer is in command, irrespective of the size of command. Soldiers’ selfless obedience and compliance to orders is won not by the stars on the shoulders, but earned over time through equal or more selfless acts. The high casualty rate especially of young officers in the Kargil war bears testimony to how dear and close an officer holds his command. Such mettle evolves only through the grind of training and regimental life. It’s much different from the adrenaline rush people experience merely wearing combat fatigues or passionately mouthing dialogues on screen or forceful sloganeering.
A short training capsule for a tour of duty like the one proposed is nothing more than a Botox shot, high on expectations and pretty low in performance. In reality, it will turn out to be a highly visible adventure outing for a youngster or at best an opportunity to garner one more row in an otherwise mundane CV.
The Streetlight Act
In a country where citizens swear by the Army, there should be no dearth of men and women willing to become officers. Then, why is there a shortage of officers in the Army? Selection boards still receive candidates in plenty. Most of them are rejected. Obviously, despite all the adulations defence officers supposedly receive, there is something that makes Army a poor career choice amongst eligible youth.
Reasons are known to everybody. At least the CDS ought to be knowing it. Addressing this issue needs courage of conviction and power of persuasion. Even attempting to experiment this proposal is fraught with dangers of decimating one of the finest fighting machines of the contemporary world. It will cost the nation dear. It may be easy to search under the streetlamp but doing so knowing fully well that the keys lie somewhere else, history shall judge.
The Break and Build Laboratory
The Army Ordnance Corps, has perpetually been under organisational and functional restructuring in the last fifty years of its 245-years old history. Each one has primarily been an attempt to address ‘logistic inabilities’ with the field army. Despite many valiant attempts to arrest it, inabilities continue and continue to worsen.
Is it another case of perpetual search under the nearest streetlight?
Battle field experts shape opinions, influence decision makers and decide everything for Army. They are respectfully referred to as General Staff. It is their mandate to decide and direct. All of them, proud operations people, are seldom exposed to mundane supply chain dynamics. They regulate funding, decide upstream reservoir functions and controls downstream consumption. Ordnance warehouses exist and function as per their diktats.
Restructuring the Panacea
According to these experts, field level inability was a consequence of unwieldy ordnance organisational structures and inherent slack controls. Organisational restructuring, naturally could improve availability. Some ordnance organisations were wound up, few modified and others combined to form new ones. Since logistics loads were not reduced, many ordnance organisations became over stretched and overloaded. Despite many attempts at restructuring, inabilities continue unabated. Obviously, all that would have been searches under wrong streetlights. Undaunted, experimenting with restructuring continues.
Authority Accountability and Responsibility
The General staff supervises ordnance activities at the apex level. They promulgate policies and oversees all ordinance activities. Over time this organisation grew in size and stature. While authority to approve high-value procurement continues to be vested with this supervisory general staff organisation, accountability and responsibility especially for inadequacies rest with ordnance.
Sometime it occured to someone in ‘the friendly neighbourhood’ that galloping inability could be arrested by inducting clients in the procurement decision making vertical. Members from combat arms, with minimal exposure to logistics, were accordingly inducted and integrated at functional, directional and apex levels for ‘better’ decision making. Despite their overbearing omnipresence and overreach, inability refuses to dismount.
Visibility and Transparency Issues
It was felt that increased visibility of inventory and transparency of operations would improve the state of affairs. Automation was the answer. Keeping with times, the entire inventory was automated. Existing methods were loaded into computers. Latest platforms and technologies have been incorporated at immense costs. Combat units can now demand on computer and ordnance can issue on computers. But for all that to happen stores are required. Stores only trickle in at their will. Resultant inabilities, are recorded and maintained well on computers.
Field army inability is an extension of empty ordnance warehouses. Bulk of ordnance requirements are contracted with vendors through the supervisory oversight structure. Not one item of inventory will be left unprovisoned for. But irrespective of who contracts, institutional vendors are not held to honour commitments. Interestingly these vendors are government enterprises which remain fairly insulated from obligated penalties. It will be crazy for the right arm to demand punishment for the left arm.
With authority separated from responsibility and accountability and focus on trial and error organisational restructuring, there is little hope of redemption, at least in the near future. Efforts now on, are akin to bringing down the walls and rebuilding the system, with the same door, lock in place and keys lost. Though inabilities persist, there is solace in finding multiple searches progressing under different streetlights.
May be one day someone would install a streetlight over the lost key!
Ripples on the surface are visuals of disturbance elsewhere. Wisdom lies in identifying what caused the ripples. But it takes honesty of purpose and unlimited courage to get to the source. Till that happens, searches under streetlights will continue.
 Word ‘Army’ is being used to collectively represent the Indian defence forces comprising of Army, Navy and Air Force
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