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Why do we treat our soldiers like this?

‘We owe our existence to the men in uniform, and we owe it to them to cleanse the armed forces by driving away every bit of corruption that eats into it,’ argues Sudhir Bisht.

IMAGE: Border Security Force jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav whose video sparked off a national debate on the conditions in the armed forces.

I write this column with some trepidation as it is considered sacrilegious to question the integrity of any organ of the Indian armed forces — military and paramilitary services.

Is it not blasphemous of me to write about the corruption in the Indian armed forces just because BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav posted a video that says his unit has been serving him and his mates food that is very little and of poor quality?

I write this column because if I stop writing due to the fear of being labelled anti-armed forces, then I will cease to be a writer.

I believe that NOT questioning the wrongdoing in the armed forces is being anti-military. Not the other way round.

Let me start by saying that I wish that Yadav had not posted the video.

How I wish that Yadav had not felt the need to post the video.

How I wish his BSF commandant had taken note of his complaints and Yadav’s grievance had been addressed quickly and justly at the battalion level.

On the other hand, it is good that this video came into the public space for it has given us an opportunity to see if all’s well in our armed forces, especially in its supplies wings.

I must admit here that Yadav’s video has nothing to do directly with the Indian Army. I know the jawan belongs to the Border Security Force that reports to the ministry of home affairs.

However, the fact is that the BSF in many parts of Kashmir works under the army’s supervision and I want to take this opportunity to draw the attention of readers to the shortcomings that afflict the supplies side of the Indian Army.

The situation at the BSF’s logistics arm may be in very bad shape, but I want to point out that it is not as if all is hunky-dory in the army.

As a writer it is my business to send out a warning when the danger isn’t so imminent. Hence this piece, which is based on first-hand experience.

I was transferred from Allahabad to Jammu in 1992 upon getting promoted from operations officer to assistant manager-sales. I then worked for the biggest oil company in India and in Jammu, my main non-retail customer was the Indian Army.

My company had a near one hundred percent market share when it came to the top bulk customers/end users of petroleum products.

The Indian Army, the Border Roads Organisation, the Indian Railways, the Central Reserve Police Force, the BSF were our captive customers.

I was the youngest officer in the company’s divisional office and was a keen learner. I realised very quickly that in my sales area (Jammu), the retail business didn’t count for much if one hadn’t earned one’s spurs in the petroleum sales trade.

The key to success was all about maintaining excellent relations with all the units of the Indian Army where my corporation supplied POL (petrol, oil and lubricants) products.

My immediate boss and his boss kindly introduced me to the Army Services Corps echelons at the Northern Command headquarters at Udhampur.

They explained to me that one of the key roles that I needed to play involved coordinating between our depot and the Northern Command headquarters during the annual winter stocking (AWS) period.

AWS referred to those 120 days when my depot colleagues were tasked with the challenge of achieving targeted stockpile of POL products in army stores in the Ladakh and Kashmir divisions, which had its road access cut off for most part of the year due to snow.

IMAGE: A screengrab from the video posted by the BSF jawan on YouTube.

Even though I wasn’t responsible for the sales function of Ladakh and Kashmir valley divisions I always felt a special pride in keeping an eye on the winter stocking movements.

I was always ready with updates on the number of tank-trucks that were dispatched on a daily and cumulative basis to the far-flung depots.

Just as there was a massive exercise to store POL products, there was an even bigger exercise to store food items for Ladakh and the Kashmir valley by the army.

I visited the Northern Command headquarters several times and found great hustle and bustle there. Men in uniform and civilian suppliers were busy working in unison to achieve the common objective of stocking supplies of essential products in the limited period of 120 to 140 days.

I used to visit the army’s POL units, especially in Jammu division in sectors like Akhnoor, Rajouri, Poonch, Sambha and many others.

There were depots where there were storage tanks and dispensing pumps. These depots were visited by many vehicles from smaller formations that came to collect their regular fuel quota.

I found that at many a unit, the dispensing pump meters were malfunctioning and the fuel used to be measured by the drum.

I distinctly remember that the receivers of the petroleum products always, almost always, used to haggle with the guy who was the issuer of the product.

The common refrain used to be, ‘Please fill up my jerry can/drum till this line… Why are you short filling?’

I was somewhat disturbed by the utter lack of transparency among the army units on the transaction of POL products.

Why couldn’t the officer in charge of POL products at the battalion or platoon formation level ensure a better way of measuring the quantity of fuel dispensed?

I stopped thinking about it after it dawned on me that if it was one unit of the army that was short-changing the other unit, the gains remained within the overall kitty of the Indian Army.

But what I thought wasn’t really right. There was more to it than met the eye.

It took me several visits to realise that all wasn’t as smooth as it appeared. I must point out here that my company had nothing to do with what transpired among the various army units.

Our job was to ensure that the POL supplies reached the designated storage points on time and in full measure.

It was when I started spending time at our depot that I realised that all was not so clean within the army’s supplies wing.

There were many truck drivers who were very happy to go to certain army units to drop off the fuel. I used to wonder why and started investigating in right earnest.

I began by asking the truck drivers. “It is for the bottle of rum, sirji!” an old driver said, laughing. Later in the evening, I caught hold of the old man and as we sat down with a bottle of Old Monk at a local dhaba, he said, “Kakka (young boy), you are a very educated man. Someone was telling me that you are an engineer. What did you study in college?”

Chachaji, I studied management,” I replied.

“If you studied management then did you ever ask yourself a question?”

“Which question, Chachaji?”

“The question that how do two districts, Poonch and Rajouri, survive with just one petrol station? And that station sells only 1,000 litres of petrol and diesel in a day.”

“Do you know that there is not even one exclusive dealer for kerosene in Poonch district? The kerosene distributor from Rajouri fulfills the kerosene needs of Poonch district too. You management de puttar, you don’t know who supplies all the petroleum products to the people in Rajouri and Poonch districts!”

“It is our Indian Army. Without the army, the people would starve,” he laughed.

I immediately understood what he was hinting at. I never visited Poonch district since I didn’t have any fuel station or kerosene dealer there.

When I started visiting the interiors of Rajouri and Poonch districts. I found a number of shops had tiny underground dumps to store diesel and petrol.

All of them drew their supplies, illegally, from the army units.

The modus operandi was simple.

The truck carrying POL from the oil company depot to the army unit would divert a part of the fuel to these private dumps.

The money collected would then be split between the army unit and the civilian truck driver at the expense of the Indian Army.

In return the army dump would supply short to the other units that came to draw its fuel quota.

I later discovered that the story was the same for food supplies, for meat supplies and for vegetable supplies.

The only saving grace was that the percentage of stealing wasn’t alarming. The pilferage happened slowly but certainly.

Was the corruption localised? Did it go up from the unit level to the command level? I don’t think so, although ‘I don’t know’ would be a better answer.

It is quite possible that the stealing may have grown out of proportion now.

I sympathise with BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav. He must have been at the last mile of a very rotten local line of logistics where someone stole half the ration truck and passed on the losses to his 29th Battalion in Poonch.

I propound with full force at my command that there is a need to check corruption in the army.

I too love the Indian Army and I know that most officers and jawans are incorruptible.

They are our heroes and I know that we breathe freely because of our army, BSF and CRPF.

We owe our existence to these men in uniform, but we owe it to them to cleanse the Indian defence services by driving away every bit of corruption that eats into it.

At a time when a former air chief is being interrogated for accepting kickbacks and a BSF jawan is crying for want of adequate food, we need to investigate some of the arms of the armed Forces that carry such blemishes.

Ordnance depots that get gutted in fires need more auditing and post-mortems.

The canteen stores department is another division that may need more scrutiny.

Military Engineering Services is another key division from where whispers of systematised corruption keep emanating.

While I am sure that corruption may impact only a tiny fraction of the armed forces, I call for its total elimination to save these great institutions.

Jai Hind!

Sudhir Bisht, author and columnist, tweets at @sudhir_bisht

Source: Rediff