345 Suicides in 3 Years: Why Are Our Armed Forces So Stressed?
While a BSF officer died by suicide in April, seven soldiers were killed in two incidents of fratricide in March.
An officer of the Border Security Force (BSF) shot himself with his own weapon on 21 April in Tripura. The month of March had seen the loss of seven soldiers of the force in two separate incidents of fratricide in Amritsar and Behrampur.
While only enquiries can determine the immediate causes of these incidents, policymakers need to urgently address the elephant in the room – the high levels of stress amongst troops, the operational-level leadership of the Central Armed Forces (CAF), and a general sense of dissatisfaction among personnel with the prevailing working conditions.
According to government data, there were 25 incidents of fratricide in the CAF between 2019 and 2021 and 345 suicides in the three years from 2017 to 2019; almost 47,000 personnel sought voluntary retirement or resigned in the four years from 2016 to 2020.
The attrition figures are tantamount to over 5 per cent of the total strength of these forces over and above the normal 3 per cent wastage every year. Such a high rate of attrition should be a cause of concern.
Long Work Hours, Extended Withdrawals
The most important reason for high stress is long hours of duty, which sometimes extend to almost 15 to 16 hours a day. The situation gets aggravated by the frequent and prolonged withdrawal of troops for non-core functions. During elections to state assemblies in 2021 and 2022, almost a third of the Border Guarding forces were withdrawn from borders for nearly three months.
Another cause of stress is the lack of adequate and continuous sleep because of extended hours of duty. Several studies have explained the adverse effects of lack of sleep – even for a night – on the physical and mental health of people. It is, then, no surprise that the troops of the CAF suffer from high stress as they have to face disrupted sleep throughout their deployment.
Utilising security forces for essential duties, such as elections, is understandable. However, the woes are worsened with the simultaneous commitment to non-essential activities, too, such as celebrations for the 50th year of the independence of Bangladesh in 2021. The celebrations included marathons, cycle safaris and cultural events, which saw the deployment of a large number of remaining troops. Therefore, perhaps, effectively not more than 50 per cent of troops were available for actual duties. The obsession of commanders with the grandeur of these ceremonial events puts a heavy burden on resources, besides draining the energy of troops. The above deployments are in addition to the heavy attachments with higher headquarters.
The extended withdrawal adversely impacts the training cycle, personnel management and supervision by commanders. The career advancement of troops is linked with the completion of mandatory training programsme; promotions, in many cases, get delayed because the troops thus heavily committed cannot be spared to undergo the mandatory skill up-gradation programmes.
Delayed promotions and the ab-initio paucity of avenues for career progression further add to stress levels.
Such heavy commitments also hinder troops from availing of even the authorised quota of leaves. The well-intentioned proposal of facilitating 100 days’ stay with families is thus impractical unless measures are taken to rationalise the staffing pattern, type and duration of additional duties.
When Pursuit of Flawlessness Becomes Dangerous
Another factor is the expectation of zero errors in duty. The senior leadership, not aware of the ground reality of these forces, fails to realise that factors such as terrain, weather, crime pattern and shortage of troops make achieving flawlessness an uphill task. The domination systems remain manpower-intensive with outdated technology. The full potential of intelligence efforts as a force multiplier aimed at reducing the burden on troops has not been realised. Better technology and intelligence efforts will go a long way in reducing the stress and strain on troops.
The lackadaisical handling of incidents like the one in which the brave Assistant Commandant Vibhor of elite COBRA of CRPF lost both his legs in an IED blast on 25 February further leave the troops with a sense of apprehension and add to their stress levels.
The increasing disconnect between senior leaders and cutting-edge operational leadership affects the morale down the line. Often, the higher leadership tends to resort to ad hoc-ism instead of taking a long-term view. For example, regimentation was done away with in CRPF, ITBP and SSB in the early last decade, despite its importance in creating esprit de corps, harmony and understanding between troops and commanders. Efforts are on to drop it in the BSF, too, the only force whose operational leaders could convince the government to reverse its order.
Another similar decision relates to the addition of one more company to the units of these forces in the early 2000s. The intention was perhaps savings to the exchequer by not raising additional headquarter elements. This has resulted in an increase in the span of command both in terms of manpower management and also in terms of the area of operation to be supervised, by as much as 30%, for the Unit Commandant.
The overstretched Commandant of the unit, thus heavily burdened with administrative as well as operational responsibilities, is left with little time to know the troops and learn about their characteristics, capabilities and limitations.
Additionally, the move has further impacted the already meagre avenues for career advancement, which, in turn, is a cause of high attrition.
A Growing Disconnect Between Senior Officers and Troops
The well-established system of grievance redressal appears to have taken a hit with senior supervisory officers hesitant to face troops because of a lack of insight about these forces. Interaction with junior operational commanders has also diminished; junior leaders are themselves in despair because of a lack of career advancement opportunities as well as the denial of rightful dues, pay and allowances. The quantum of litigation in these forces is enough to illustrate the latter point.
The trickle-down effect of diminishing morale amongst junior officers adds to the stress, leading to such incidents. The concept of nuclear families and the necessity of maintaining two, or at times three, establishments keep the constabulary worried about the education of their children and finances. The government, on its part, has sanctioned House Rent Allowance for troops for keeping their families away from their place of duty, thus helping their financial hardship to some extent. However, this facility has not been extended to officers who also face similar problems. These roadblocks need serious review.
Enquiries indicate that on many occasions, people have died by suicide soon after having spoken to their family. Thus, family and personal problems, combined with the professional challenges discussed above, often lead security personnel to take the extreme step.
India Can't Be Safe If Its Troops are Stressed
A task force appointed by the government a few months ago to look into cases of suicide in the CAF has been asked to study the causes of fratricide, too. However, it would have been better if the task force comprised retired officers or the cadres of these forces who are familiar with the hardships the troops face.
The Central Armed Forces have an important role in the security matrix of India. High morale amongst troops will ensure that India remains safe and secure. The recommendations of the task force must hence be analysed and implemented promptly. The government should also consider incorporating senior retired and serving cadre officers into the task force in order to formulate more comprehensive measures for improving the troops’ mental health.
(Sanjiv Krishan Sood (Retd) has served as the Additional Director General of the BSF and was also with the SPG. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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