Agnipath scheme has its reasons, but government should have initiated it as a pilot project
To begin with, there should have been a pilot project which could have been assessed and then implemented across the board
The erstwhile Tour of Duty renamed Agnipath recruitment scheme, was announced in a press conference by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, accompanied by service chiefs, on 14 June. Under this scheme, recruitment would be undertaken for a four-year period, post which all would be disembodied and from which 25 per cent may be rehired, this time on a permanent basis. While some claim it is the brainchild of the Department of Military Affairs in the Ministry of Defence, the reality is that this has been conceived, planned and pushed by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The forces have, for the past few months, been struggling to counter terms and conditions being imposed on them.
Ultimately, a compromise would have been reached and the scheme is now under implementation. To add pressure onto the forces, the government banned recruitment for the past two years, on the pretext of Covid-19, while retirements of approximately 60,000 personnel per year continued unabated. Stopping recruitment was also a method of cutting down the strength of the forces without involving them, as also blackmailing them into accepting the Agnipath scheme to recommence recruitment. That it was finally presented and approved by the prime minister clarifies who pushed it down the throats of the services.
The press conference appeared to be an event to sell a concept which has been billed as a possible disaster, solely because it was the vision of an individual, the leader. The Army alone recruited over 80,000 in 2019-20 and 53,000 in 2018-19 and these were for 15 years or more and pensionable. Annual intake averages to be above 50,000. The number of Agniveers to be recruited, 40,000-50,000, would be just for 4 years. Is it an increase in job vacancies or a reduction?
There was confusion when answering questions on whether recruitment would be open to all or mainly ITI qualified. Service chiefs beat around the bush when questioned on problems of technical trades, many of which take years to perfect. Giving fancy names or different accruements, while in service, does not alter the uncertainty that the youth would face after four years of blissful life.
The intention of the government, in recent years, has been to curtail the rising pension and salary budget of the armed forces. Unlike other Central government agencies, where all employees, since 2004, have been on the National Pension Scheme, and pay, in part, for their own pensions, the forces remain as hitherto fore. The reason is that members of the armed forces retire early, mostly under the age of 40, as compared to their counterparts who serve till 60. This is to ensure a youthful profile of the forces. This is not specific to India but a global norm.
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Those released would receive a lump sum, contributed by themselves and the government in equal measure. There are claims that the government would grant them a certificate as also assistance in further employment. Will it be able to assist, and would the certificate be acceptable? Ideal would have been to place them into CAPFs (Central Armed Police Forces) and state police forces, but this appears unlikely as no commitments have been received. Inputs state that savings of thousands of crores would accrue in pay and pensions under this scheme.
The scheme has other advantages, in addition to just financial. First, there would be a youthful profile in the forces, with the majority being young soldiers, the need of the hour. Second, those released would be disciplined and maintain some connection with Army establishments. Third, youth desirous of experiencing military life would have this opportunity. Fourth, impact on operations based on short tenure soldiers cannot be judged as these, unlike conscripted soldiers in other countries including China, are volunteers and would work equally hard to prove their mettle.
Similarly, impact on regimentation and unit bonding, which are essential battle winning factors, would be known after some time. The briefing stated that the future would be all-India, all-class units, doing away with traditional fixed class regiments. Currently, 75 per cent of the Army is all-India, all-class. Incidentally, the Army had experimented moving towards this direction in the mid-eighties and finally gave it up as a bad joke and reverted back to the old system of fixed class. Will it be effective now?
There are major disadvantages also. The Navy, Air Force and some Army corps possess largely technical manpower. Training for them cannot be conducted in six months. Most knowledge is gained by on-the-job training. Many would be just understanding their roles and tasks before they are compelled to seek other avenues. This implies that these organisations would be expending larger parts of their budgets only in training or be forced to accept poor output, which at times could be critical and lead to accidents.
Training period being reduced implies that the individual is only given basic military training and dispatched. Professional training is where he has to serve the rest of his contract. Has this shortcut been resorted to only to meet the needs of 3 to 3.5 years of unit service? Is it suitable? Time would tell.
The maximum disadvantage is to the individual recruited. A youth inducted from a rural background witnesses a lifestyle vastly different from what he has lived. His beliefs, desires and perceptions would change multi-fold in those four years. He would have led a regimented life, protected from the evils of society, while witnessing comforts even in the harshest of climates and terrain. After four years, he is dumped back, with a few lakhs and left to fend for himself. His dreams come crashing down as he is compelled to restart life from scratch. How long would he be able to survive on funds received and memories of his Army life?
The government has made tall claims on assisting the individual in his future employment. It has thus far failed to assist those who retired after 15 years. Not a single ministry nor state has taken in quotas allocated to them. None is accountable to any agency on numbers absorbed. CAPFs and State Armed Police Forces are ideal avenues for Agniveers, but the Home Ministry refuses to accept them into CAPFs. State governments recruit on allocated quotas based on directions of the Supreme Court, which the Army does not. They have their own criteria, which is different from the Army. How many would be absorbed? The industry has expressed support and that’s it.
Ultimately, the individual will have to fend for himself. Handling a weapon and having worn a uniform implies he can end up as a security guard in a private security agency, which is what most veterans are doing. The certificate issued by the service has no value in the civil street. Hence, such a scheme needs to be thought through before being implemented, something which appears to be missing.
If skilling, as stated in the briefing, is to be given to those discharged, it would imply a lesser service in their units. Is this acceptable? Finally, will the courts, after a few years, reverse government directions and pass orders that they should be either permanently absorbed or given all benefits accruing to those serving full tenures. It has done so with women officers and short service officers. What then? Would it be another scheme gone awry?
There are more questions than answers. Ideally, there should have been a pilot project which could have been assessed and then implemented across the board. However, instead Agnipath has been pushed down the throats of the forces. Time will tell if the armed forces and Agniveers are able to gain from it. However, as of now, it is an attempt at hard sell. Finally, the government must understand that expenditure on national security is an investment and not a drain on the government exchequer as they claim it to be.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.
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