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‘Agnipath’ scheme for military has good intentions. But Modi govt should conduct trials first

The Agnipath, or TOD scheme, like the Russian conscript model, looks attractive for India's burgeoning pension payout. But it has its own challenges.

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From the ongoing Ukraine war, some reminders are knocking on the doors of India’s statecraft and in particular, its defence reforms. Admittedly, the context of the war is different, and therefore, extrapolation would be an erroneous approach. However, since all wars imply the use of violence for political purposes, there is some scope that reveals lessons to inform the trajectory of India’s military reforms. For sure, in the course of time, the Ukraine war will be studied both globally and in India. We examine two issues relevant to the Indian context and immaterial to the future course of the Ukraine war — displacement of the civilian population and the management of military manpower. An examination of both these aspects would provide some useful insights into shaping and wielding India’s military power.

Displacement of civilian population

The attention that Western media has given to the displacement of Ukraine’s civilian population has revealed the nature, scope, and scale of the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Russia’s invasion. Such catastrophes are endemic to most wars of territorial aggression that force changes in a region’s geopolitics. The higher the population density of the contested areas, the greater the scale of suffering for civilians. Seeking refuge by moving to areas that are expected to provide safety, security, food, and habitat is a natural fallout.

In the Indian context, civil wars in neighbouring countries have the potential for causing large masses to seek refuge in India. East Pakistan in 1971 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) uprising in the late 1980s caused an influx of refugees that resulted in wars. With the trajectory of internal strife in Pakistan perpetually threatening to upend its cohesion, there is a possibility, even if remote, that a civil war could unleash another refugee crisis. In such an eventuality, there is hardly any place for Pakistanis to move except eastwards. The Arabian Sea in the south-west, Afghanistan in the west, and the mountainous terrain in the north hold very little promise of succour.

To those Indians who wish and hope for the implosion of Pakistan as a nation-state, their wishes might turn out to be self-defeating. Pakistan has a population of 229.50 million, and even if one per cent of that population seeks refuge in India, the probability of lighting up India’s communal pot is real. Fueled by regional and global religious extremist forces, India’s social cohesion can be threatened and may eventually cause irreparable damage to it. The threat may seem remote, but that should not be allowed to conceal its lethal nature.

Also read: Army’s proposed ‘Tour of Duty’ recruitment model could be expanded to Navy and IAF too

Managing military manpower

India’s contested land borders are already stretching its scarce resources. Among them are the costs of maintaining high-quality, full-time professional Armed Forces based on a voluntary recruitment model. In the Ukraine war, one of the obvious issues that have surfaced is the poor performance of Russian conscripts, whose terms were reduced from 24 months to 12 in 2008. The active-duty military is composed of nearly 25 per cent conscripts. Their poor professional quality and motivation were evident, and Ukraine even utilised the images of Russian prisoners of war conscripts being allowed to speak to their parents as a weapon in its information warfare.

The performance of Russia’s conscript model has some relevance to the current move of introducing the Tour of Duty (TOD) or the Agnipath scheme in India’s Armed Forces. The scheme covers the recruitment of soldiers and not of officers. The three-year tenure, with the provision of pension substituted with a payout, is combined with priority recruitment in the Central Armed Police Forces(CAPF) and some government jobs. The primary driver of the scheme is an attempt to reduce the burgeoning pension payout. The other payoffs cited are of strengthening the connection between society and the military, instilling nationalism among the youth, reducing age profile, and providing an opportunity for the youth to fulfil their aspiration of serving in the Armed Forces.

The TOD path may be paved with good intentions. But to reduce the burgeoning pension outgo problem, the three Services will have to identify a sufficient number of trades that require less time for skilling and whether the three-year turnover adversely impacts military effectiveness. With increased emphasis on replacing manpower with machines, more time will be required for skilling than before. Even an infantry soldier has to be technologically savvy to use a plethora of weapons and communication devices. The moot point is that the three Services would find it extremely difficult to identify trades that can be slotted for the TOD. Without sufficient numbers, the primary aim of reducing pension outgo will not be met.

If the Services do manage to identify sufficient slots, the large turnover resulting from a three-year TOD can have a major impact on military effectiveness. Apart from continuously losing skilled manpower, the problem is one of motivation. Persons opting for the TOD scheme would be drawn from the expanding pool of India’s unemployed and underemployed. A three-year TOD would mostly attract those who are desperately looking for a job. Although recruitment in other agencies has been talked about, the insecurity associated with the lack of guaranteed employment after three years can adversely impact motivation levels. Priority recruitment in other government agencies may hold promise on paper. But in practice, it is easier said than done due to the resistance to such induction by other government agencies that would perceive it as an encroachment on their vacancies. The issue is further connected to seniority and promotion issues.

Instead of the TOD scheme, the Narendra Modi government could consider the Human Capital Investment Model for India’s national security system as explained in this Takshashila Discussion Document. The solution proposed envisages an inverse lateral movement of armed forces personnel into the national security system. Inverse, because original agencies like the CAPF do the recruiting and send them to the Armed Forces for five to seven years, after which they return to their parent agency. The Armed Forces are relieved of their pension outgo and military effectiveness is sustained. The parent agency benefits from the enhanced skills and experience. More importantly, the model can be scaled up substantially and linked to common skill sets in various segments of the government.

The TOD scheme should first undergo trials before finding military acceptance. There could be a political push to implement the scheme without trials. But due to obvious concerns about the impact on operational effectiveness, the military leadership must insist otherwise.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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