The Axiom that an army marches on its stomach is as relevant today as when Napolean Bonaparte first made this comment — even if now that stomach rides in airplanes, ships, tanks, submarines, and jeeps in every terrain and climate of the country and abroad. In these democratic times, the army takes regular feedback from troops on rations. The results are not happy: only one percent of the respondents grade the food as excellent. Many troops are also not happy with the amount of food they get.
The problem of feeding an armed force engaged in combat, whether in alien territory or on home ground, has occupied the attention of military leaders since the beginning of organised warfare. Leaders learnt that the ability of men to fight was related to the way they were fed and that the answer to the feeding problem often determined victory or defeat.
In a study (PAC Report on chain management in the armed forces 2008) carried out on the quality of supplies in one particular Command of the army, it was found that various items were issued based on repeated extensions given by the concerned Composite Food Laboratory. These were issued even after the expiry of original Estimated Storage Life (ESL). While the DGS&T instructions prohibit any extensions beyond three months of the ESL, wheat flour, sugar, rice, tea, pulses edible oil, etc, were consumed even 6-28 months after the expiry of the original ESL.
The procurement procedure for fresh items of ration was highly non-competitive and fraught with the risk of cartels. Despite the valid registration of 110-222 vendors in the three selected Commands, procurement in 46 percent of the cases was done on the basis of two quotations. In 36 percent cases, contracts were concluded on the basis of a single quotation only. A large number of vendors registered, contrasting with only one or two vendors purchasing tender documents points strongly towards the serious problem of cartelisation.
In Delhi, only one vendor purchased the tender documents and supplied meat worth Rs 5 crore annually. Similarly in Chandimandir, only one contractor responded and bagged the contract for supply of meat with annual order values of Rs 2.34 crore.
A Board of Officers constituted by the Station Commander determines the Average Local Market Rate (ALMR). Prior to opening of tenders, Reasonable Rates (RR) are worked out by a panel of officers for each item and station. In audit, it was seen that the accepted rates were way below the ALMR. The difference ranged from 25-55 percent.
The feedback reporting system of the Army showed that in 68 percent cases the quality of rations was graded as ‘satisfactory’ and below.
Till 1984, only the enlisted soldier up to the rank of a Subedar Major was entitled to these rations. After this date, officers up to the level of brigadier have been entitled to the same and subsequently right up to the level of Chiefs and Army Commanders and their equivalents in the Navy and the Air Force. It was thought that by doing so, the quality and quantity would improve. However nothing of the sort happened because as per the cag report tabled in the Parliament (August 2010 with follow-up action by the Army in January 2011, July 2011 and January 2012), our jawans are fed substandard stuff.
How does this happen? It has to be admitted that the task of providing good food is a challenging one. Since rations are often carried over long distances, they have to be as non-perishable as possible. In the days before the Raj, they collected grain for bread and animals for meat; when on the march, they depended largely on supplies purchased or simply taken from civilian populations. Bread, flour, and wheat were also issued to the units for the soldiers to eat. Records indicate that while some of these supplies were purchased on the open market, others were requisitioned from apparently unwilling sellers.
THE EARLIEST rations of were all-inclusive in purpose. Known as the garrison ration, it served the unit, the small group, and the individual. Moreover, it was intended to serve them in organised messes, in isolated groups, and in individual situations of combat and survival.
In independent India, the Army Service Corps (ASC, the successor of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps), is entrusted with the responsibility of providing rations to the Indian armed forces. The items are divided into two categories, namely, dry and fresh. The Indian armed forces also have a host of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). The shelf life of the ration is 12 months. India has adopted retort processing technology for combat rations. These are provided to the armed forces at an annual cost of Rs 1,440 crore. The ASC and Army Purchase Organisation (APO) manage the supply chain of rations through Army Supply Depots.
The existing procedure for provisioning of dry rations has, however, failed to assess the requirement realistically. The failure was mainly due to systemic deficiencies due to which different quantities were worked out at different echelons applying different parameters. Opening stock balances adopted at different levels for demand projections differed substantially.
Many of the national federations and PSUs contracted to supply dal and tea failed to supply them. These were then procured locally and the army incurred an extra expenditure of Rs 30.06 crore to meet the shortage.
Apart from being unwieldy the existing practice of procuring atta by grinding of wheat purchased from FCI is uneconomical in comparison to the cost of branded atta readily available in the market. The army was incurring an estimated additional expenditure of Rs 25 crore annually, besides maintaining a detachment of personnel at each mill, to continue this old-fashioned system.
So supply of rations is clearly one of the areas in which misuse of government funds must be probed. Till then, I bow with due respect in front of ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen for showing patience, in marching on stomachs rumbling due to hunger or third-rate food.
Kaul, a retired officer, is the author of Better Dead Than Disabled.