Zara aankh mein bhar lo paani

Posted on: January 23, 2017

fwThe government has made a slogan of the brave Indian jawan to settle political arguments. It has also left the same jawan ill-provided and restive. Sonia Sarkar reports

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

“An army marches on its stomach.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte

On paper, it sounds like a feast. Milk and eggs for breakfast. Four days a week, non-vegetarian dishes – chicken, mutton or fish – are to be served.

Border Security Force (BSF) jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav would scoff at that. “We sleep hungry,” he says in a video that has gone viral, pointing to the burnt paranthas and watery daal that he has just been served at a border post.

Jawans or soldiers have never been in the news as much as now. They make the emblazoned mascot for the Narendra Modi government, invoked over issues as wide ranging as demonetisation and student agitations. But a hollow, ill-fed mascot, the ranks of jawans would complain.

The jawan mantra has often been chanted. Tired of standing in ATM queues? Think of the jawans who stand on the borders. Kicking up a fuss over students’ rights? Think of the jawans. Shivering in the cold without power? Think of the jawans. “It’s when you (jawans) guard the border, people sleep without fear,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi extolled them last Diwali.

But Yadav’s video has put the arc lights on how the jawans themselves sleep – on an empty stomach. “Finally, someone had the courage to speak up,” a BSF jawan in Srinagar says. “Does the government want us to fight on an empty stomach?”

The government has taken some steps – the commandant and the second-in-command of the 29th Battalion, where Yadav is posted, have been moved to Tripura pending a probe into his allegations.

But the video has kicked up a cacophony of complaints. Jawans speak of low quality food, inadequate clothing, pay disparities and harassment by seniors. And the grouse is not just from paramilitary forces such as the BSF and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), they also come from the army.

Last week, CRPF constable Jeet Singh went public demanding parity in pay and other benefits for the central armed police forces with the army. In another social media message, an army jawan alleged harassment by superiors for writing about soldiers’ problems.

Clearly, for the government, which has been holding up the gut-wrenching symbol of the veer jawan, there is trouble afoot.

“It’s unfortunate the way the government is projecting the soldier as a symbol of nationalism. The government should have dealt with their problems first,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.

Jawans have been at the wrong end of supplies and treatment for long. They seldom protested. But now that they are being daily lionised to serve the purposes of the government, they are speaking out. Access to social media sites has made it easier. “The PM has been advertising Digital India. So what’s wrong if soldiers use this platform to express their concerns?” a CRPF sub-inspector asks.

What troubles paramilitary jawans the most is the disparity in pay with counterparts in the army. But while parity seems like a distant dream, they are highlighting more pressing needs such as proper food and attire.

Adequate nutrition is essential to keep the soldier’s morale high, points out a 2008 paper authored by researchers at the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) and Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS).

A BSF jawan needs 3,850 calories a day, and a CRPF jawan, 2,900, states the government. In both the forces, mess committees comprising constables, sub-inspectors and fourth-class staffers decide the menu. The monthly ration allowance for the former is Rs 2,905 and for the latter, Rs 2,868.60.

But jawans complain of corruption that deprives them of their share of food. A retired CRPF jawan states that constables are often “forced” by their seniors to buy rations from designated shops, which offer 5-7 per cent of their profits to the seniors. “Even if these shops sell low quality daal or rice or artificially coloured spices, jawans have to buy from them,” he grumbles.

A senior BSF officer admits that there are cases of food being siphoned off canteens and sold to locals for money. “In Kashmir, some personnel may exchange a sack of rice with the bakarwals (cattle-rearing nomads) for a sheep,” he says.

The BSF sends tinned food to its jawans in places too remote for fresh supplies. The watery daal in Yadav’s video was part of tinned rations, supplied by the army because Yadav is posted on the Line of Control.

Satwant Atwal, IG, BSF headquarters, states that an enquiry will look at “any systemic aberrations” and suggest corrective intervention. “The welfare of the troops is of the highest priority,” she says. The forces do have redress mechanisms for jawans – such as complaining to their seniors.

But this is not the first time that food supplied to jawans is being questioned. In 2011, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said dry rations were consumed by army troops well past their expiry date. Over 74 per cent of fresh fruits and vegetables issued to units by supply depots also failed prescribed norms, it said. In 2007, high-calorie food items meant for soldiers in Siachen were seized from shops in Leh; irregularities were found in the procurement of meat in Ladakh.

The DFRL-DIPAS team writes that in the camps they visited, they found most jawans were dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of food. This was highlighted during the Kargil battle, too. “…they sent us puris and sabzi. At those heights puris and sabzi freeze to stone, you can’t eat any of it,” The Telegraph had quoted a young army officer at Drass as saying during the 1999 conflict.

Moreover, jawans are at times not adequately geared for harsh weather conditions. “When they move from moderate weather conditions to severe cold conditions, arranging special clothing such as snow boots, woollen socks and jackets is a problem. But we somehow manage,” says a BSF assistant commandant.


Security experts say that there is very little sense of ownership among the chiefs of the paramilitary forces because they are not the direct recruits. These officers come from the Indian Police Service, even if they have never been into any operational role before. Jawans feel that their chiefs never understand the real problems because they don’t know what it is to serve at the front.

Questions sent by The Telegraph to Kiren Rijiju, minister for home affairs, went unanswered. The army headquarters did respond. “The method chosen by the jawan to air perceived grievance was in violation of laid down rules and regulations and military discipline. A very effective and responsive grievance redress mechanism exists in the army, which, it is evident, the concerned jawan ignored to invoke. Specific complaints made by him are however being investigated,” said the army PRO, Col Rohan Anand.



But the issues are, of course, known. In a 2008 report, the Comptroller and the Auditor General had referred to problems relating to procurement of special clothing, mentioning the use of partly torn and recycled special clothing for winter. In 2007, high quality trousers, jackets and parachutes meant for the army at Siachen were found in Leh shops. The Telegraph had reported that soldiers deployed on the Kargil front were seen arriving at the frosty wind-blown heights in “canvas shoes and cotton jackets”.

Inadequate arrangements often lead to tragedy. In 2014, eight BSF personnel were found unconscious in the Paloura base camp because they had inhaled carbon monoxide caused by lighting a kangri in a closed room to keep warm.

Harassment by seniors is another common grievance. An army jawan is on a hunger strike in Madhya Pradesh in protest against the “menial jobs” he is forced to do for his seniors. An Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) constable has similar complaints. “I have even washed officers’ undergarments. Those who refuse to do such jobs are denied leave by the seniors,” he says.

Leave is a problem because most paramilitary forces are understaffed. “The CRPF, which is now filling 24,000 vacancies, is a reserved force, which should be deployed only when there is an exigency. But 80 per cent of our jawans are always deployed,” a CRPF officer points out.

Long working hours, living in harsh conditions and harassment by seniors can lead to fragging – killing of seniors or colleagues – or suicides. “Most jawans have rural backgrounds and join the force because of the social respect attached to the uniform. Their morale is affected on a daily basis when they are deprived of their basic rights,” says retired ITBP inspector Rajender Yadav. “Those who cannot cope commit suicide.”

Despite the rising discontent, the foot soldiers carry on. “When my jawan complains that he is doing everything for the country but the government doesn’t care for him, I tell him: ‘Desh ke liye kar rahe ho ‘,” a BSF officer says. Ask what you can do for the country, but not what the country can do for you.

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph | Sunday, January 22, 2017 |


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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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