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Commission Blues

IAF technical staff on duty

The 1997 Fifth Pay Commission and the plethora of follow-up orders opened a Pandora's box of problems for the Indian Air Force. Indiscipline, litigation, court-martials and cashiering. Never in its 65-year history, had the Indian Airforce confronted such a mutiny, which, writers in the Indian media argued, had the potential to spill-over onto the rest of the Services. After the nearly month-long agitation that rocked air force stations, and the appointment of a grievance-hearing committee, the problems only aggravated. One officer was court-martialled for the agitation and another's case went to trial. The Indian Government expressed its displeasure over the handling of the situation by the IAF top brass. These were some of the IAF's darkest months.

The problem had its genesis in April 1995 when the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee submitted a memorandum to the commission seeking a monthly flying allowance of Rs 7,000 for all pilots, Rs 2,000 more to fighter pilots, and a technical pay of Rs 3,000 to engineers. Fliers up to group captain would get Rs 1,200, those above group captain Rs 900, and airmen and air crew Rs 900 as allowances. And so in addition to a flying pay, it suggested that medically fit and active fighter pilots be given a fighter flying allowance in view of the higher degree of risk. Flying fighter planes involves considerable risks as does flying helicopter and transport aircraft, especially in high altitudes and hazardous areas. The mortality rate of pilots is 80 per cent of all fatalities in the IAF, the average age at the time of fatality being a little over 32 years. The IAF had lost 477 fighter aircraft and 135 pilots in accidents since 1973. The risks of flying, coupled with low pay, had discouraged talented young men from joining the fighter stream. This had led to a severe shortage of fighter pilots.

However, the commission recommended only a monthly flying allowance of Rs 3,000 for fighter pilots, Rs 2,400 for other pilots and technical officers up to the rank of group captain, and Rs 1,800 for airmen and air crew. It was against granting the allowance to officers above group captain since they did not fly. Test pilots were to get Rs 800 more than fighter pilots. The engineers, who keep the planes fit for flying, flew off the handle. As murmurs began to be heard from air force stations across the country, the air headquarters once again proposed that the engineers be paid Rs 3,000 as technical pay. But the other two services, particularly the army, objected. The army has far more engineers than the IAF but the infantry officers, who face the enemy's bullet, were not going to like it if the sappers were paid more than they.

Finally, the joint chiefs went back to the government with their old demand, for risk-related allowance and doubling the technical pay for engineers. The government accepted it in October 1997 while granting Rs 7,000 to fighter pilots and Rs 2,400 to transport pilots. The transport and helicopter pilots, who fly regular supplies to troops in Siachen and Arunachal, protested saying they faced graver risks than the fighter fliers. Fighter pilots, they pointed out, faced only technical risks of the plane in peace time. Non-fighter pilots face problems of the Himalayan heights, high-altitude, make-shift airfields, and shells from northeastern guerrillas and Pakistani troops in Siachen. As they went on a virtual go-slow, even supplies to Siachen were affected. Hard lobbying was done mostly through newspaper columns and ex-servicemen's associations.

The service headquarters again approached the government. In the third week of November 1997. The defence ministry notified a flying allowance of Rs 7,000 up to group captain, Rs 5,133 for air commodore, Rs 4,200 for airmen and air crew, an additional fighter flying allowance of Rs 2,000 and a test pilot allowance of Rs 2,300. The same enhancements were extended to flying branches of the army and the navy. The service headquarters had erred again. While pacifying the non-fighter pilots, it overlooked the engineers and technical staff whose technical pay was only raised from Rs 113-375 to Rs 300-Rs 750. There were again protests all over. Anonymous faxes flew around, and officers and wives marched to a newspaper office in Chandigarh, stopped the air officer commanding-in-chief at Bangalore, erected roadblocks at Hindon, held a dharna at Jamnagar, and created a law and order problem in Bhuj. It was the worst show in 50 years.

The November agitation brought into focus the problems between 'pampered' pilots and 'neglected' technical officers and worse still, threatened to break the fraternal bond between men who wear the same ranks. The month-long 'agitation' by the IAF technical officers was waged mostly by their wives. The officers had at least one genuine grievance: the pilots got a hefty hike, up to Rs 9,000 a month, while they got very little. In a service where rank is holier than post or nature of duty, a flying wing commander would get Rs 7,000 more than a non-flying wing commander. Said a Squadron Leader Engineer, ``Now a rookie pilot who has joined yesterday will be getting more money than a Group Captain Engineer who has served for over 22 years. Fights are breaking out in the messes, with pilots boasting that they will now buy a Cielo.'' "The Air Force can be completely crippled if the engineers put their mind to it," he threatened. Engineer Officers, the largest chunk of the officer cadre in the Air Force(they number about 2,800 - there are 2,200 pilots in all), are in charge of crucial areas like aircraft maintenance, missiles, and radars. The engineers maintain that discrimination against them is not confined to salaries. They have a host of grievances regarding promotions and responsibilities. They find little substance in the contention that air force pilots deserve a higher salary because airline pilots get paid in lakhs.

First of all, the air force is not a commercial organisation like Air India or Indian Airlines. Besides, unlike commercial pilots who spend lakhs on training, military pilots join the National Defence Academy as undergraduates and are trained as pilots at state expense. The state spends Rs 6 crore on training one fighter pilot, Rs 2.5 core on one transport pilot, and Rs 1.5 crore on one helicopter pilot. On the other hand, the engineers acquire their skills on their own spending lakhs in engineering colleges. So, they argue, they deserve comparable salaries. They note that station commands are only given to the fliers, including command of air defence missile batteries which can be commanded equally well by non-fliers. And flying officers are considered for their first promotion three years ahead of others. In the army the engineers command all their establishments and have equal avenues for promotion. Despite being a highly technical service, the air force has given less importance to technical staff than the army or the navy. Moreover, at least a third of the pilots are employed in non-flying duties at the headquarters, missile squadrons, radar units, etc., and still get the flying allowance.

IAF sources said that there were other issues involved. They point out to a study by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, authored by Dr S N Srivastava and P M Gopinathan, said the engineering and technical officers in the IAF are not 'treated well,' and they are 'the favourite whipping boys' of the IAF brass. Noting that most of the IAF policies are made by and for fighter pilots, the study stated that the airforce's 'policy makers have to realise that the genesis of safety in the air has its moorings in ground maintenance.' 'There is a strong need to change the traditional attitude of ''I operate and you only maintain" in the IAF,' concludes the study. While most of the grievances may have beeen genuine, but what went against the technical staff was the way they conducted the 'agitation'. Apart from the ex-servicemen's associations, they used the Internet to spread the message around the globe. The 'agitation' was glad news in Pakistan, where the media described it as a revolt.

Former Air Chief S.K Sareen

Finding that things were going out of hand, the headquarters set up a committee headed by Air Marshal Janakiraman, senior maintenance and staff officer of the Nagpur-based maintenance command. Meanwhile Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen informed the ministry that the situation was under control. Far from it, Janakiraman himself was stopped at one station. Finally the service headquarters surrendered, requesting the ministry to take charge. Air Chief Marshal Sareen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, appeared subdued at a forget-it-all press conference called by Mulayam Singh. Of course, Sareen alone could not be blamed for the fiasco since many recommendations had been made by his predecessors. 'The mistake was collective,' said an air marshal. Warning of strict action against those who had crossed the line of discipline, the minister said genuine grievances would be redressed. They may be. But the bitter taste left by the crass commercial conduct during the 'agitation' lingered. As a ministry official said, 'the blame also lied with the weak government which succumbed to agitations by civilian employees.' With the general elections round the corner in 1998, it was unlikely that the caretaker Gujral government would take any major policy initiative to resolve the smouldering crisis.

The ministry constituted a committee on Christmas eve 1997, headed by the defence secretary, with the three vice-chiefs and the defence services financial adviser as members. The committee was asked to submit its report in 12 weeks. The service chiefs could not be on the committee since the secretary is ranked below them. The committee, it is learnt, has discovered newer problems, unheard during the November agitation. Airmen have begun to complain that they have been short-changed by officers in their own stream. The struggle for the technical branch was basically waged by the men with only a sprinkling of officers. Alleging that their officers did not allow them to air their grievances before the committee, some of the men have now gone to court. In other words, those who waged the struggle together are now divided.

Engineering officers were aggrieved that their technical pay was far below the flying allowance drawn by their winged counterparts. It was a question of disparity in allowances. But the men's grievance is more basic, disparity in basic pay itself with their civilian counterparts. The technical men claim that they are the "real backbone of the service" carrying out the entire range of maintenance activities like civil aircraft maintenance engineers, but get a lower basic pay. The maintenance staff in the air force consists of both graduate engineers(officers) and diploma engineers(technical airmen). The men not only carry out first, second, third and fourth line servicing of planes, but also certify the craft's airworthiness before and after each sortie. Their pay scales vary from Rs 1,150 to Rs 3,240. In the civil world this certificate can be issued only by licensed engineers of the directorate-general of civil aviation who draw Rs 25,000 and above.

The men complain that they neither get technical or flying pay as officers do nor are their pay scales equivalent to those in the civil stream. "A sergeant with around 15 years' service was having a pay scale of 1460-25-1860. The fifth pay commission has given him the scale of 4670-85-5495 whereas in the civil he gets 5500-175-9000. Thus the airman loses Rs 900 in his basic pay itself," pointed out a junior commissioned officer. Sadly for the men, the committee's terms of reference do not include a relook at basic pay. Another grievance is that the whole agitation was conducted in such a way that attention was focused only on technical officers' grievances which related to allowances and not to pay. Most of the submissions received by the committee were from the officers. "We were short-changed," said an airman . "The officers pushed us into the agitation. It was mostly airmen's wives and not officers' wives, who conducted dharnas and blocked roads. But the officers managed the whole thing in such a way that it appeared that only they had grievances. It was they who spoke to the media, prepared submission to the committee and abused the internet to internationalise the issue."

What had actually happened? When test and fighter pilots were given a hefty flying allowance(citing that they faced high risks), transport pilots complained that they fly almost every day to high-risk areas like Siachen and the northeast braving Pakistani and guerrilla guns. When the transporters' claim also began to be considered favourably, technical officers complained that they are the ones who often work round the clock(the pilot's job is over after a sortie) and keep the planes airworthy. Now the men have come round saying that the officers have been misleading everybody and that they are the ones who do the actual work of maintenance. The whole issue of risk-related allowance, airmen say, has been wrongly focused by officers. "Every transport pilot takes five technical hands on board. Technical officers rarely go on these missions. So we face the same risk as the transport pilot," is their argument. The men also complain that they are given no insurance cover on these missions unlike pilots.

In the case of officers the fifth pay commission award was considered fair, but distortions crept in after the service brass tinkered with it, granting a hefty packet to pilots. In the case of the men, the grievances are as old as the fourth pay commission. The men have traditionally been classified into four groups, among whom technicians are group-1. The fourth pay commission granted a Rs 50 increment and steady increase in career profile to diploma-holders in the civil sector(junior engineers), and only Rs 20 to those in the air force. This resulted in a basic pay difference of Rs 300. At the next fixation of pay, this resulted in a larger anomaly as the next basic would be fixed at Rs 300 less than the civilian junior engineer's. The difference came to be further enhanced by the fifth commission which recommended an increment of Rs 150 to the civilian and an entry-level basic pay of Rs 5,000 against the airman's Rs 3,675. And both have the same diploma. Even the nomenclature is considered unfair. The civilian with a diploma is called junior engineer which reflects officer status whereas the serviceman is a non-officer. The airmen also argue that their work, which includes weapon-loading on aircraft, is much more risky than that of their civil counterparts.

The exigencies of service also have created anomalies. A technical airman has to complete specialisation courses within the service; so he can expect to rise to the rank of a junior warrant officer in 18.6 years. Other airmen(musicians, clerks, educational instructors and so on) do not have to undergo these specialisation courses and can expect the same rank in 16.5 years. Now, all that a smart career-minded technician has to do is to drop out from his specialisation course. He would then become a clerk or educational instructor and become a junior warrant officer in two years less than he would have in the technical stream!

If officers have been complaining about disparity between fliers and technical officers, the men also have the same complaint. Air crew airmen enjoy risk coverage and travel allowance, whereas technical airmen, who also have to fly out for temporary duties, do not. The government's argument in not granting qualification allowance to technical airmen is that they have been trained by the state. But they point out that pilots are also trained by the state. The problem is that technical airmen comprise about four-fifth of the strength of the air force. "We are the suffering silent majority who actually maintain the air force. But the service brass seem to look only into the problems of the fighter pilots first, transport pilots then and technical officers after that. We are never in the picture," said an aggrieved airman.

The IAF top brass finally cracked the whip. Wing Commander K.R. Nagesh, an electronics engineer and the most prominent rebel in the force, was arrested and placed under custody for dereliction of duty on January 22, 1998. His crime: he led the IAF's engineering and technical cadres in an unprecedented protest strike in December. For the first time in the history of the Indian Air Force, a wing commander faced a court martial for protesting against pay disparities. Nagesh fought back, he approached the Delhi high court with a writ petition challenging the IAF's 'system of disciplinary action' which, he said, amounted to abject human rights violation. After 16 days being held in custody at the IAF's Palam air force base in New Delhi, Nagesh was released on February 7. IAF spokesperson Squadron Leader R.K. Dhingra said that the authorities were forced to take extreme action after a near mutiny by ground duty officers -- engineers and technical cadres -- badly hit several air force bases across the country. Dhingra said there is nothing new in the system of disciplinary action and court of inquiry against Nagesh. "We have recorded evidence against Nagesh. Now a competent authority within the IAF will decide what action should be taken against him,'' he said. The IAF official argued that the action should not be seen as ''an excess from the air force wing.'' ''The IAF is a disciplined organisation and we have to live with it,'' he added.

Defence Minister George Fernandes

By April 1998 the dispute had simmered down. In Nov-Dec 1998, the Indian armed forces had carried out one of their biggest military exercises in the western desert. When George Fernandes took over as Defence Minister, there were expectations that he would initiate major reforms in the armed forces. However, after initially giving the impression that he would be a "hands-on" Defence Minister, he became the pointman in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government's efforts to survive in office. The punishing schedule he had been following, most of it devoted to political fire-fighting, obviously has not left him with much time to run the Ministry of Defence(MoD).(The complaint against his immediate predecessor, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was that he was more preoccupied with Uttar Pradesh and national politics than with the running of the Ministry.) The Defence Ministry has initiated the much-needed reforms in the defence sector. Pokhran-II "marked a new chapter, taking India into the select group of nuclear weapon states", while the creation of the National Security Council(NSC) was indicative of the "priority" attached by the Government to "issues of national security".

One of the first acts of the Defence Minister after taking over office was to revive the Defence Minister's Committee after a gap of more than 20 years, the statement said. Chaired by the Minister, the Committee, consisting of the three service chiefs, meets once a month. According to the Defence Ministry, this has paved the way for quick decision-making and enabled the service chiefs to take part in the decision-making process more effectively. It went on to say that after Fernandes took over, the weekly meetings between the service chiefs and senior officials in the Government have been regularised. These meetings are meant to take a broad overview of national security. Addressing the combined conference of armed force commanders on October 26, 1998 Fernandes said that the nature of modern weapon systems was "increasingly transcending single service boundaries" and that "increasingly, the fighting capabilities of the future will use the assets of the three services under integrated direction and command". Besides, he said that the "leading powers" had already introduced these changes. He said that although there was an urgent need for a national defence review, it would not be completed in a hurry and that it would be "a long-term effort". He wanted the armed forces to set up a rapid reaction force that would be "able to reach any corner if a threat arises". He said that such a force would have to be a "tri-service" one.

However, the honeymoon between the Defence Chiefs and the Ministry did not last long as Air Force chief S.K. Sareen got dragged into unseemly controversies. There were reports that the Home Ministry were keeping a tab on him. The three service chiefs even met the Prime Minister together to protest against the surveillance reportedly instituted by the Intelligence Bureau on the Air Force chief. Shortly afterwards came the spectacle of a large number of senior officers going to court on being allegedly overlooked for key appointments. The imbroglio grabbed the nation's attention and threatened to snowball into a major controversy with serious implications for both the civilian and defence establishments. It had the potential to cause dangerous repercussions for India's armed forces, their morale and for national security, for the parliamentary form of government and democracy.

Defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam is of the view that the Defence Ministry is guilty of conducting business the way it wants to, without taking into consideration the other people involved. "You cannot appoint somebody as the chief of an armed force and then start tinkering with his command," he said. Further, he gave examples of blunders committed in the past by the civilian bureaucracy. Air Marshal P.C. Lal was prematurely retired by V.K. Krishna Menon, the then Defence Minister. However, he was later recalled and he went on to become one of the most successful chiefs of the IAF. Sam Maneckshaw was also once put before a court of inquiry before he became Army Chief and subsequently Field Marshal. Subrahmanyam is of the opinion that the Defence Minister must learn to manage the forces. In this context, he said that Y.B. Chavan had been a good Defence Minister. Chavan made it a point to see the three armed force chiefs every morning. Air Vice-Marshal(retd) Kapil Kak, now a senior fellow in the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, said that what was happening now was a result of keeping the armed forces "outside the loop". He is, however, against treating the defence sector as a "holy cow". Kak does not agree that senior-level appointments are the sole prerogative of the chiefs of the armed forces, since the Government has evolved a system of checks and balances.

Another civil servant said that in the last four years, the armed forces had "pretended to have a monopoly on wisdom" and alleged that their leadership misused "uniform visibility". "A war cannot be left to the generals alone," he said. "War by other means is also very important. Diplomacy, economics and politics are equally important." According to him, the BJP is also responsible for the current problems plaguing the armed forces. While it was in the Opposition, it courted the armed forces. However, now it is unable to control them. In fact, he said, a few departments of the armed forces had already ceased to be under civilian control. He alleged that the Army had set up a "psy-war" group which was more interested in propagating the views of the top brass than that of the civilian masters. The consensus was that the Defence Ministry needed to be radically overhauled and a modus vivendi be struck between the MoD and the armed forces in the interests of parliamentary democracy. Another view that was being articulated in civilian and military circles was that the only solution to the impasse was the resignation of the major actors in the unseemly drama - the Defence Minister and the Defence Secretary. While addressing the Rajya Sabha in the third week of December 1998, George Fernandes admitted that there was "some discontent" relating to the promotion of officers were pending with the Ministry. He added that 34 cases relating to postings and promotions were also pending in various courts.

Current Air Chief A.Y Tipnis

When A.Y Tipnis took over as Air Chief Marshall on 31 December 1998, the dispute over pay discrepancies and other matters were almost resolved. Although some discontentment persisted, the Indian Airforce was back to its job of protecting the nations skies. The Indian armed forces heroic performance during the Kargil conflict in 1999, shed any doubts people had about their ability to defend Indian territory.