India loses around 1,600 military personnel every year. And the single biggest killers are road accidents and suicides, much more than counter-insurgency operations or firing duels with Pakistan along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.
Latest figures collated by TOI show that road accidents claim the lives of over 350 soldiers, sailors and airmen every year, while another 120 personnel take the extreme step of committing suicide. Other big causes are training accidents and various health reasons, which itself is a big worry for the forces that are supposed to be fighting fit.
India does have the dubious distinction of recording the highest number of road deaths in the world, as also one of the highest suicide rates, but the same being reflected in the highly-disciplined and trained environs of the armed forces is alarming for many.
The Army, Navy and Indian Air Force (IAF) have lost over 6,500 personnel just since 2014. The highest toll, of course, is found in the 11.73-lakh strong Army, which dwarfs the IAF and Navy in terms of sheer manpower.
“Physical casualties” are more than 12 times the number of “battle casualties” in the Army. If the force recorded 112 fatal battle casualties in border skirmishes, shelling, counter-insurgency operations and operational accidents in “notified areas” in 2016, it lost over 1,480 soldiers due to physical casualties.
This year, the battle casualties in Army have just about crossed 80 till now, while the physical casualties have already touched 1,060.
Sources say Army chief General Bipin Rawat last month expressed concern about his force losing “nearly two battalions (each battalion has 700-800 soldiers) worth of personnel every year” due to physical casualties. “He has stressed the urgent need to address this issue… new measures are being put in place, while the older ones are being fine-tuned,” said an officer.
Road accidents remain a big worry. A series of directives have been issued for proper training of drivers, regular monitoring and medical fitness tests, and strict punishing of errant or negligent behaviour.
“Night driving, if not operationally required, is also being discouraged. But the Army is also huge in terms of manpower, with massive vehicular movement in difficult terrains around the country every day,” said a senior officer.
Stress-related deaths like suicides and fratricide (to kill a fellow soldier or superior) also take a huge toll. Over 330 soldiers, including nine officers and 19 junior commissioned officers, have committed suicide since 2014. There have also been a dozen cases of fratricide in the time frame.
Suicide cases in the armed forces have showed no signs of reducing despite all the so-called measures being undertaken to reduce stress among soldiers, airmen and sailors deployed in far-flung areas away from their families, as earlier reported by TOI.
Soldiers undergo mental stress for not being able to take care of the problems being faced by their families back home, which could range from property disputes and harassment by anti-social elements to financial and marital problems.
Prolonged deployment in counter-insurgency operations in J&K and north-east also takes a toll on the physical and mental endurance of soldiers. All this is also compounded by relatively poor salaries, denial of leave, lack of basic amenities and ineffectual leadership.
Measures being implemented to stem this trend range from provision of mental counselling and improvement in living and working conditions to provision of additional family accommodation, a liberalized leave policy and strengthening of grievance redress mechanisms.