THREE THINGS I’D LIKE TO CHANGE IF I WERE TO JOIN THE ARMED FORCES AGAIN – PART I

The Three Things that I would like to change, if I were to join armed forces again are:

1. Bureaucratic Red-Tapism.

2. Cronyism.

3. Hyper Protocol Consciousness.

In this Part I, I shall deal with BRT or Babugiri. On commissioning of a ship, we hoist, on the main mast, a pennant or pendant called the Commissioning Pennant or Pendant. When the ship is decommissioned, it hoists a Decommissioning Pennant whose length is proportional to the number of years of service the ship has done. I wish, at the time of decommissioning, they’d hoist the Bureaucratic Red-Tape too that the ship had to suffer. This goes on becoming longer and longer with every year spent in service. On second thought, I think the only reason the BRT is not hoisted at decommissioning of a ship is because it doesn’t cease there. Like Tennyson’s Brook, it goes on forever.

An Indian Naval Ship being decommissioned displays the Decommissioning Pennant (Pic courtesy: www.thehindu.com)
An Indian Naval Ship being decommissioned displays the Decommissioning Pennant (Pic courtesy: www.thehindu.com)

Here is an anecdote I remember. I was Commander Work-up in Warship Work-up Organisation in Vizag. During those days WWO wasn’t an independent entity under FOST but was considered as an appendage to the Fleet Staff. Hence, I was privileged to attend meetings of Commanding Officers chaired by the Fleet Commander. Commander NS Rawat (Chhotu Rawat) joined the Eastern Fleet as CO of the newly commissioned corvette INS Khanjar. For one of these meets he had given an agenda point that the number of written records and returns that a ship had to render was abnormally high. This not only kept the ship’s staff from attending to their operational tasks but also, small ships like corvettes had very limited secretarial staff and with just one Writer (a navy term for secretarial staff) on board it was well-nigh impossible to produce the plethora of records and returns on every conceivable subject.

This point, like all points for which the authorities don’t have ready answers to, was hotly debated for the next one hour. Highly sharp naval operational minds churned the grey matter from one side of the brain to the other and lo and behold they had the solution ready. Rawat was told to send an analysis in four parts: Part I containing those Returns and Records that were considered necessary; Part II containing those Returns and Records that could be done away with; Part III containing those Returns and Records that, with little modification, could be subsumed in Part I; and finally Part IV containing those Records and Returns that didn’t exist earlier but had now become necessary. “And” the Fleet Commander added with satisfaction at having dexterously solved a complex problem, “You better send this in sextuplicate so that five Fleet Staff officers can simultaneously peruse the document and arrive at a quick decision.”

I looked at Chhotu Rawat’s face. Very soon he’d had enough and he left the Navy. That class of ships were given to the Navy’s most outstanding officers to command and he was the commissioning CO at that. Here is another real tale from HQ ENC (no marks to me for creativity and innovation) In a Half Yearly Command Staff Meeting, I, as Director of Tactical Trainer in Vizag gave an agenda point that ships and units were always on the receiving end of Bureaucratic Red-Tapism and that NMS (New Management System that gave financial powers to officers at various hierarchical levels) had virtually failed. NMS was the Navy’s effort to take over Management of its own finances from the bureaucrats in the government. My point was that NMS only replaced one set of bureaucrats with another. First of all, it required guts (on my part) to give this as an agenda point. The staff officers at HQENC by-passed it but it was selected by C-in-C personally. The decision given was that if an issue/sanction was given within one month it would be referred to as a Green issue (parallel to Green Customs channel at the airports). However, if it was more than three months old, it would be referred to as Red issue. For the in-between period, it would be called an Amber issue. Did this cut down BRT and increase efficiency? You betcha! A few months later, I received an urgent letter from HQENC to this effect: “Your Return of Red, Amber, Green issues at HQENC for the month of March 1998 still awaited. Request expedite”.

Armed forces all over the world detest bureaucracy. However, there is nothing like a bureaucrat in white uniform. Outwardly, he/she would like us to believe that that he/she wants to put great distances between he/she and babus; but, some of them behave worse than babus “just to be on safe side”. Many such white uniformed babus become sticklers to regulations and rules and they know every rule in the world that can deny you what you have asked for. Many a times, you may not have asked for anything to improve quality of life; but, indeed, in your estimate it would be an operational and critical requirement. Its criticality and operational emergency, however, starts resting as soon as it reaches the sanctioning or recommending authority.

(Pic courtesy: articles.thetimesofindia.indiatimes.com)
(Pic courtesy: articles.thetimesofindia.indiatimes.com)

The highest forum in which such things are discussed is the Quarterly Command Staff Meeting wherein the C-in-C is face to face with all operational heads and Commanding Officers. In babugiri there is no other meeting that beats its approach. For a point to come up in the QCM, it would have started at the ship’s level about three to six months in advance. After that the concerned staff officer at HQ would have selected only that point for which he has some sort of answer. Once, CO of a Missile Boat in Mumbai put up a point that unlike big ships, Missile Boats don’t have any transport given to them (their COs are too junior (LtCdr only) to deserve transport. However, in harbour, many times they have to take their machinery parts, pumps and motors to dockyard centres for repairs. Hence, could the dockyard lighter be requisitioned by them to facilitate this?

The entire Command staff had (serious and well-thought of) views on this. CO of MB was asked such highly pertinent questions as to how many times in the last two years did he actually require such lighter? The poor chap didn’t have this data. He kept saying “very often” but, the Command staff desired exact number to be able to take (intelligent) decision. Finally, the decision given was, “CSO (P&A) to study the problem together with ND (MB) and come up with recommendations in the next QCM.

The CO of missile boat must have been thrilled that his ship would start receiving the services of the dockyard lighter before the next general elections or the next five-year plan.

If a defect occurs on a ship which affects its operational role, it has to report this defect as OPDEF (Operational Defect). This procedure was started a few decades back so that adequate pressure could be brought on the shore authorities to urgently attend to such defects, either in the Fleet Maintenance Unit or in the Naval Dockyard. However, this opened a Pandora’s box. In the morning meetings, C-in-C would keep on seeing such OPDEFs but after days and weeks nothing done. So, the smarter ships’ COs found a smart way out to get over CinC seeing these on regular basis and thereby earning the wrath of Command staff officers. They simply would negotiate with HQ and Dockyard so that such OPDEFs wherein nothing could be done weren’t reported. With this curious shortcut, if a ship had to be sailed on an operational mission, the CSO (Ops) or COO would frantically start phoning ships to find their real status. Eventually, they came up with a new term (bureaucrats or babus are good at devising great sounding new terms). Hold your breath; this new term is called STA or Ship Tied Alongside or in other word: By-God-OPDEF. However, soon people found newer means to cheat on this too.

I have given you BRT only in operational matters so far. Can you imagine the BRT in administrative and Logistic matters? Smart COs, through their “excellent liaison and inter personal relations” manage to get the moon for their ships. Others become good at writing letters and replies and have a great future as blog writers after leaving the Navy.

What about the gargantuan bureaucratic organisation that we have in the Navy called the Controller of Defence Accounts? Once again, I am steering clear from babugiri in our own transfer and temporary duty claims and I am giving you one of the several operational examples that I have.

In the year 1995-6, after my tenure as Commander Viraat, I was appointed to Viraat Project Team to oversee the Short Refit of Viraat at CSL, Kochi. We, in VPT were very conscious of the need for Viraat to complete its SR in time. For this we had to run around making PERT charts, critical paths, alternates and so on. One of the items of SR was the overhauling of one of the three Turbo Alternators. Whereas for most of the other overhauls, spares were to be contracted by the Yard, ie, CSL; for the TAs, the spares were to be ‘Navy Supply’. Navy was to contract some of these from the Pune based firm Alfa Laval. They refused to ship these to Kochi until, as per the contract, they would receive 90 percent of the payment post factory inspection. The ball lay in CDA (Navy)’s court. I spoke to the concerned Account Officers at CDA and then made a Fax to Alfa Laval: HAVE SPOKEN TO CDA. THEY PROMISES TO RELEASE PAYMENTS. KINDLY SHIP THE VALVES AT MY ASSURANCE.

Next day, I received the following Fax from them, “GRATEFUL TO YOU FOR YOUR PROMISE. IT IS FOR YOUR INFORMATION THAT DESPITE SIMILAR PROMISES IN THE PAST, PAYMENTS NOT RECEIVED FOR OUR FOLLOWING BILLS”. This list ran into two pages of Bills of the past four years.

Before I finish, I want to give you three good examples too; two of my own and one of Commander Ponappa (a Logistic Officer who was different). I discontinued most ship’s returns and records when I took over as Flotilla Commander in Vizag. I encouraged Commanding Officers (in numbers, I had more ships under me than the Fleet Commander) to report things only by exception; otherwise, I would take for granted that everything was ops. In Vizag, as Command Communication Officer I authorised all officers to book calls on Naval Trunks when I found out that the usability and efficiency of leased telephone lines from P&T were merely 20 to 30 percent. Commander Ponappa became SLOGO in HQWNC. He had set up for himself personal standards for according sanctions. Once I went to him to get a sanction for I&M (Incidental and Miscellaneous) Grant. I handed over an advance copy of our request to him and told him formal copy would arrive by mail. He took action on that itself and by the time I left his office, he handed over the typed and signed sanction to me.

For the most of the Navy, such examples are very rare. Enormous time and energy is dissipated on such babugiri. People are given awards and honours depending upon how fast they have been able to get sanctions and approvals on “personal liaison and inter personal relations”. Yet, ask any Navy officer; he lets you know that he hates BRT or babugiri and that it is this babugiri that has kept our country from becoming a great power. However, the truth is that as soon as he reaches a position of authority, he is as bad, if not more, as a babu on the civvie street.

This is first of the three things that I would like to change if I were to join armed forces again. The other two follow.

© 2014, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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3 Comments

    1. Thank you Bala. And yet we in the armed forces believe that babus are really very bad when they are on the other side. We don’t look at the bureaucrats in uniform!

  1. Right Initiative for the betterment of I N . It is a very informative write -up. Enjoyed reading which refreshed n brought to mind the working of various units in close coardination so beautifully. Wrong anythig has to be removed.
    Besides …..glad to know about you having been …… Flotilla Commander and Command Communication Officrr both at Visakhapatnam.

    In 1984, Comcen V was my first unit