According to a news report titled ‘Armed Forces personnel may soon wear khadi uniform’, quoting a release by Press Trust of India dated 4 August 2017, the Khadi Villages Industries Commission (KVIC) had requested the forces to consider using Khadi uniforms for security personnel, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has sent specifications of uniforms for security personnel, MoS (Defence) Subhash Bhamre said in a written reply in Lok Sabha, that read, “Required specifications of uniform, along with samples, have been sent to KVIC.” The manner in which MoD has responded and the fact that it was discussed in Lok Sabha indicates that the MoD is amenable to the defence forces switching to wearing uniforms made from Khadi cloth. The news out of the blues has raised many questions but are we going in for a change for the sake of just making a change without analyzing the issue?
Indigenization surely cannot be the basis of switching to Khadi because unlike many countries, India does not import cloth for uniforms of soldiers of Armed Forces. So it is not a question of money going out of the country. The textile industry of India is well advanced with globally competent fabrics. It is but natural that KVIC would like to capture a large organization like the Armed Forces; 1.4 million manpower with multiple uniforms required for individual soldiers. The gain would be in thousands of crores with initial supply and the continuing cycles of re-supply considering the life cycle of such uniforms. Sure, Vinai Kumar Saxena, Chairman, Khadi Villages Industries Commission (KVIC) of India must keep promoting the use of khadi to the maximum extent, and through his initiative khadi uniforms have reportedly already been introduced in many organizations including Air India, but has MoD analyzed what are the physical working conditions of individuals in these organizations compared to what the soldiers in the military are required to undertake? Can we really paint these varied conditions with the same brush?
But why did the MoD respond like a post office? It is not known whether inputs from the Armed Forces were sought but inputs suggest they were not. It is highly doubtful that if the Armed Forces were not consulted, that they would acquiesced to such suggestion. MoS (Defence) Subhash Bhamre would do well to ask his same bureaucrats to put up to him the history of evolution of uniforms in our Armed Forces since Independence, and how these have reached the present stage. That itself should be an eye opener. In initial years, the soldiers were wearing cotton uniforms. The switch was made to terrycot uniforms because the maintenance of cotton uniforms was extremely difficult and their crumpled state was conspicuous, especially in ceremonials. The Khadi uniform will be worse. But that is only one aspect; try putting a soldier in Khadi uniform through a battlefield obstacle course including crawling under a low wire entanglement and you may not be able to count the tatters of his uniform at the other end. No doubt sitting in air-conditioned offices in South Block it is difficult for the bureaucracy to visualize what the soldier undergoes physically on daily basis, but application of simple knowledge should tell you that Khadi cloth can in no way match the resilience of terrycot cloth in military uniforms in meeting the requirement and rigours of soldiering. A terrycot pocket would also carry much more weight compared to a Khadi pocket, and a soldier has to carry plenty weight.
The Armed Forces require uniforms of differing materials in different climatic conditions, and the Army has already been seeking help of the private industry to improve the quality and design of uniforms. Sure Khadi cloth is breathable but we need to look much beyond. We are in an era where modern armies are experimenting in ‘E-Textiles’ and wearable technologies. Nanotechnology has made fabrics smarter. Conductive yarns mean the fabrics that we wear and sit and sleep on can communicate with our devices; high performance fibres (a regular thread with a metallic alloy) can create touch and gesture sensitive patches on items of clothing – controlling embedded electronics are easily disguised. ‘E-textiles’ can provide uniforms with a single, central power source that allows soldiers to recharge one battery instead of many and cut the number of cables required in their kit.
In 2012, BBC reported development of conductive yarns by a British Firm ‘Intelligent Textiles’, that takes power and data to where required, with redundancy, so that if the fabric gets cut, damaged or torn, there is still a way of re-routing the data. It removes the hindrance of the many wires and cables required in military equipment that adds weight, can tangle and snag. For field trials scheduled in May 2012, the fabric was integrated into the vest, the shirt, the helmet, the backpack, and into the glove and weapons platform. The ring-main circuit allows powering data where required. Power can be sent to even the helmet without it being tethered. Also being developed was a ‘fabric keyboard’ for use with a portable computer integrated with the uniform. By 2014-2015, these lightweight uniforms were to see more widespread use. In September 2015, it was reported that Intelligent Textiles had already landed a multimillion-pound deal with the US Department of Defense (DoD) and was working with the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) to bring its potentially life-saving technology to British soldiers. Intelligent Textiles is currently working with BAE Systems to integrate other next-generation equipment into military uniforms.
Above is the type of research in military uniforms that our Armed Forces need. The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) appears incapable of such research in its present avatar unless the Ordnance Factories are privatized. Britain incidentally has ‘The Centre for Defence Enterprise’ to provide a new process for harnessing innovative ideas with potential defence or security applications, which calls for research proposals from academia and companies for ideas that are high-risk but which may also have great benefits. That is the type of research in future military uniforms that India requires, with or without the KVIC integrated into the project. A mere switch to Khadi would be highly retrograde.