…and strengthens the case for reforming the Indian armed forces.
First it was the Army Welfare Housing Organisation [AWHO], which the army conveniently declared as a private body outside the ambit of the RTI. The next in line was Army Welfare Education Society [AWES], which met the same fate. Now comes the real big one — Army Wives Welfare Association [AWWA], which has got the army tied in knots trying to avoid answering genuine questions being raised by an ex-officer through the RTI act.
In the RTI application, Chaudhary had sought information from Western Command about the legal status of AWWA, source of funding, organizational structure, number of officers and other ranks attached with it, reason for giving office space in the high security zones of western command headquarters, grants given to widows and orphaned children of Army in the last five years and the AWWA president using Army aircraft and Army vehicles.
…Offices of AWWA are scattered across Army cantonments in India and its headquarters is in South Block, Delhi like the Army headquarters. It is, on the face of it, a registered society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.
Giving a new twist to the ongoing debate over functioning and funding of AWWA, the Army has in a five-page reply, filed on behalf of the chief of staff, Western Command, said it has nothing to do with funds for the association either.
The reply, a copy of which is with TOI, is to be submitted before the CIC next Monday (November 24). It comes over a year after the Army declined to provide information on where money for AWWA came from, taking recourse in the plea that as the body was not funded by the government it did not fall under the RTI purview.
“As regards funding, we reiterate with all emphasis that Western Command (or Army) does not fund AWWA in any manner,” states the reply even as documents procured by TOI on Wednesday revealed that AWWA was funded by a total of 18 HQ brigades in 2004 and by 16 HQ brigades and divisions in 2007.
Record reveals that all AWWA offices are run with the financial assistance from various units. Even the officer in-charge of the schools run by AWWA are serving Army officers of the rank of Lt. Col. An interestingly point: If the Army doesn’t pump in money for AWWA, it’s a miracle who runs the sprawling network as there is no subscription fee for membership.
Moreover, all vehicles used by AWWA in their day-to-day functioning belong to the Army and the wives’ association even finds a mention in the Army’s official website.[TOI]
A cursory look at the Contact Us page of the AWWA website gives away the story of it being officially unrelated to the army. It has a Colonel as a Staff Officer to the President AWWA at Delhi, an office in the South Block, two army telephone numbers and two government paid civil numbers listed on the webpage itself. An official publication of the Indian Army — Baat-Cheet magazine, issued by the ADGPI — devotes a full page to the activities of AWWA every month. They have also been holding AWWA awards function at Delhi (on lines of the investiture ceremony for their husbands). These functions are covered by official press releases issued by the Army Headquarters. A similar story would perhaps be true for the sister bodies in the IAF and IN — AFWWA and NWWA.
More serious questions about use of service aircrafts and helicopters by wives of senior officers have been raised by the CAG. [Update -- CAG had pointed out an unauthorised expenditure of Rs 75 crore by spouses of Air force and Army chiefs who are presidents of AWWA and AFWWA. The CAG report also indicted the Army for irregularities in hiring of light vehicles and their misuse for AWWA.] The services have used the alibi of these ladies being AWWA functionaries to fudge the issue, and these observations have not been resolved yet. Perhaps there are families of soldiers staying inside bunkers at far-off places in the North East and on the LoC, that only the wives of senior officers are aware of.
One of the justifications put forth by many service officers is that AWWA is an exemplary NGO and is doing yeoman service to the wives and families of soldiers. Let us take that argument to its logical conclusion. Would the services give similar facilities to any other NGO who were to work for the families of soldiers? More importantly, if AWWA is a professional NGO, then let the organisation be run professionally. There should be no honorary appointments — merely by virtue of being the wife of a senior officer — but professionals, MBAs and CAs should be hired to run the venture. There should be a transparency of accounts [income and expenditure statements] and an annual detailed report submitted to a nominated Board of Governors.
[Update -- AWWA got the initial corpus from the Ministry of Defence and is funded from different heads like canteen profits and various grants of the Ministry of Defence earmarked for the welfare of defence personnel. Thus it falls under the definition of Public Authority, as provided under Section 2h(d) of the RTI Act, which includes an NGO substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the government.]
Most interestingly, the army has got so ruffled by the RTI plea that it has actually requested the applicant to withdraw the RTI appeal. It begs only one question — why? Perhaps there is something to hide, seems to be the most obvious answer. Or the whispers in the corridors, that suggest a more powerful parallel hierarchy being run by the wives of senior officers in the defence services, might have an element of truth in them.
In fact, the Army has gone on to plead with Major (retd) Guneet Chaudhary to withdraw the petition since “he too has donned the Olive Green and he is well aware of the yeoman’s service done by AWWA for jawans. We leave it to his wisdom and discretion whether he should continue to insist on or persist with the issue which was closer to his heart at one point of time and in any case is a non-issue when it comes to questioning it. He may seek to withdraw his appeal and put a full stop on the issue”.
This exemplifies the state of denial and the prevailing feudal culture in the Indian defence services. Honesty and transparency be damned. The army brass will brook no uncomfortable questions, especially if they reveal the illegal activities of their wives. If this is the treatment meted out to a retired officer, imagine the victimisation a serving officer would have to undergo for raising similar questions. This blogger had earlier spoken about this approach of the services –
What are the questions that the military top brass encourages to raise or to suppress? The questions that the average soldier asks reveal best about the character and culture of the military.
It needs political will on the part of the government to initiate a reform and restructuring process for the Indian armed forces. The debate over the SCPC has already raised many other issues about the status and role of the defence services. In the absence of an honest introspection by the military brass, a holistic review is the only solution. This blogger has christened the starting point of this process as the Indian Blue Ribbon Commission. The name of the instrument may well be different, but the need for reforming and restructuring the defence services has never been greater or more urgent.