The Canteen Stores Department (CSD) had been established in 1948 alongside the Navy canteen services. The reason for its creation was to provide military personnel with their basic needs, despite remoteness of their location. It initially commenced with a few items in its inventory, which has grown to over 4,000 presently. Its profit in the last financial year, earned from mainly military personnel was Rs 1,253 crores. It is under the overall supervision of the defence minister but run by army HQs.
It was created solely for military personnel, which was subsequently extended to civilians paid from defence estimates in 1966, against military advice. Despite serious objections by the military community, this facility was subsequently extended to retired civilian staff too, thus adding 650,000 entitled personnel.
Retired civilians had restrictions on some items of purchase for which they objected to the Defence Ministry (MoD). The MoD has been attempting to force service HQs to remove these restrictions, which they are resisting, as it would impact availability to genuine customers, the serving and veteran community, due to budgetary constraints. Restrictions pertain to costly items including cars etc. There are already limitations on procurement by military personnel, but if opened for all, it may become nigh impossible for military personnel to obtain these items or ensure long waits.
The General Manager and Chairman Board of Administration (GMBOA), responsible for the daily running of the entire CSD network was always a serving military officer of the rank of a Major General, appointed on contractual basis for three to four years. Last week, the MoD issued a notification appointing a Major General, posted in another appointment in Mumbai, on a temporary basis for a duration of six months or selection of a new GMBOA, whichever is earlier, as against a permanent appointment.
The MoD, ignoring service HQs had unilaterally amended the gazette notification containing recruitment rules for the GMBOA in 2017, opening doors for a Joint Secretary-ranked bureaucrat to be appointed. This unilateral action angered the military and Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, the then senior most chief, wrote to the defence minister, Arun Jaitley, on the subject. No action was taken.
In August this year, when the current air force head of the CSD moved on promotion, it became evident that the MoD was contemplating appointing their own. The three service chiefs jointly approached the defence minister in August, who temporarily stalled the action.
Hence, a temporary appointment was announced. Based on the meeting, service HQs subsequently forwarded an official communication to the MoD, objecting to the unilateral amendment. This communique has been languishing in the MoD, without being processed.
The bureaucracy appears to be planning to delay the case for six months, hoping for a change in defence minister or government, enabling them to push forth their agenda. The intention behind appointing a bureaucrat is to dilute CSD facilities by opening it to other central government organizations, making it almost redundant as also to amend rules on sharing profit earned by the CSD. Logically, if desired for others, a similar organization can be created, rather than dilute an existing one.
CSD profits have already been used to fund the Sanskriti school in Delhi, which was created for children of bureaucrats. Most of the profit is kept by the government, the small portion which is returned to the armed forces is utilised for creating facilities and providing financial assistance to veterans.
The bureaucracy is seeking to grab every institution of the military that it can, despite having no role in the running nor even being entitled to it. It is now an open conflict between the bureaucracy and the military on controlling military assets.
Evidently, the military is spending more time battling its own MoD and bureaucracy, which suddenly seems to have grown wings, rather than handling cross-border threats. At every stage, the bureaucracy seeks to delay, deny and prevent the armed forces from moving ahead. Surprisingly, this action appears to have the support of the defence minister, who permits it to act, either knowingly or unknowingly.
In addition, in a recent communique to Cantonment Executive Officers (CEOs) and Local Military Authorities (LMAs) responsible for the security and well being of cantonments, Minister Nirmala Sitharaman issued a clear warning. Open all roads ignoring security aspects or face the consequences. She ignored military security concerns. After her last directions, the army had already opened most roads keeping a few closed for security purposes.
She is evidently following the philosophy that the armed forces interest ‘come last, always and every time’, the exact opposite of what her role as the defence minister should have been. With such a head at the MoD, there is no wonder that the ministry is working in a coordinated manner to denude the armed forces of every institution they have, including those on which a majority of the forces depend. Military hospitals are being opened to ‘Modicare’ and the CSD being taken over by the bureaucracy. Cantonments are already open. What could be next??
Never in the history of the country have the armed forces been pushed to such depths that they are forced to fight for their rights and dues. The defence minister can threaten the armed forces, as she did in the cantonment case, only because they are disciplined and respectful. But she cannot direct her own ministry not to cross limits in denuding the status and institutions of the armed forces.
Is this the status and standing of the armed forces that PM Modi promised in his Rewari rally of 2013? Are his directions to her to break every military institution, degrade its status and lower its prestige? If these are not his directions, then she needs to be firmer with her MoD than the military. She must ensure that her bureaucracy does not cross limits. She should remember that as military institutions fall, anger against the government would only rise.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.