Agnipath scheme or a four-year short-term contractual engagement for soldiers without pensions and related liabilities was announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in the company of the three Service Chiefs and the officiating head of the Department of Military Affairs on 14 June. The Agnipath scene has been in the making for two years and has seen considerable refinement after in-house deliberations and a raging public debate led by the veterans.
The basic intent of the scheme is to reduce the burgeoning pension bill for better management of the defence budget and provide a youthful profile to the armed forces. Politically it is also being seen as an employment generation scheme that clashes with the original intent. The veterans, and to an extent, the adulating public, have been very critical and have perceived the scheme to be impinging on the time-tested caste/religion/region-based regimental system and unit/sub-unit cohesion, which is the primary motivator in battle.
In my view, the die has been cast and a far-reaching political decision has been taken for a radical reform with respect to manpower management and the ever-increasing pension bill. This reform will have a cascading effect on the composition, culture and character of the armed forces. The focus now should be on its refinement for transparent, objective and non-exploitative execution.
Despite the overwhelming “resistance to change” from within and outside, I support the reform albeit with modifications which I recommend in my analysis.
Unfortunately, the scheme is a standalone reformative decision delinked from the holistic transformation of the armed forces that must follow the time-tested sequence of a strategic review, conceptualisation of a formal national security strategy, defence policy and a time-bound and politically monitored execution plan. None of the above prerequisite policies has been formalised. Since the armed forces are being transformed for the wars of the 21st century, it would be prudent to follow this system.
The scheme also needs to be linked to other manpower management-related reforms based on optimisation/reduction of manpower and restructuring/reorganisation. The saving grace is that this reform has been formally owned and approved by the Narendra Modi government and is therefore likely to fructify soon.
Transforming Agnipath into an opportunity
Short-term engagement for officers/soldiers is a time-tested method of managing manpower and reducing the pension budget of the armed forces and the Indian military is no stranger to it. It followed the 7-10 years active/colour service and 8-5 years reserve service system up to 1976. It also practised an exploitative “serve-as-long-as-required” model during the Second World War when the strength of the armed forces increased from 2 lakh to 25 lakh. The soldiers fought and won on most fronts but went home in 1946 with a token gratuity and no pension on demobilisation. In 1947-48, 1962, and 1966 emergency/short service commission of 5 years without pension was introduced to offset a shortage of officers.
A successful short-term engagement scheme requires adherence to two fundamentals. First, it must be financially and benefit-wise attractive both in service and post-retirement. Second, it must not appear to be exploitative in a welfare state. In its present form, the Agnipath scheme falls short on both these counts.
With rampant unemployment and a youth bulge, there will be no dearth of volunteers for the Agnipath scheme. In fact, the armed forces could further refine the selection system to recruit the best on merit. There is a case for enhancing the minimum education qualification to 10+2. A second merit-driven selection procedure for 25 per cent of the Agniveers for permanent absorption will further improve the quality of permanent soldiers. Thus, the Agnipath scheme provides an opportunity for a quantum jump in the merit/quality of personnel below officer rank. It will also usher in a more youthful profile.
The starting pay package of Rs 30,000 with fixed annual increments and a substantial death/disability package is reasonable, but the denial of Dearness Allowance seems to be unfair. The severance package under the Seva Nidhi scheme of 11.71 lakh without income tax and with 50 per cent of the amount contributed by the government, is barely adequate and only likely to meet minimum expectations. We should not begrudge a bigger package of 20 lakhs as it is a one-time expenditure.
Keeping the tenure as four years and denying gratuity (which is as per current policy is authorised after 5 years of service) will remain a sore point as also the denial of ex-servicemen status for benefits/privileges along with a health scheme. Post-retirement incentives to the Agniveers remain a grey area and the issue needs to be addressed. Compared to the terms and conditions of the Central Armed Police Forces, where one can serve up to the age of 58, the Agnipath has turned out to be unattractive. The best talent is likely to be garnered by the million-strong CAPFs. Currently, the scheme has no provision for lateral absorption in the CAPF. However, the Home Minister was quick to announce preferred enrolment.
The government and the armed forces must keep an open mind on refining the scheme to make it more attractive. In my view, a minimum tour of duty of five years, including the training period, to enable earning of gratuity and extendable by another five years on the same terms on a voluntary basis is a more viable option. The scheme could also be covered by a contributory pension scheme as an alternative or in addition to the severance package. Agniveers must be given preference for all government jobs with the protection of seniority, college/university admissions and bank loans. Pass a law for affirmative action by private employers and corporates.
It seems that the Agnipath scheme in future will be the only mode of recruitment for the armed forces. Thus, in 10-15 years, the entire armed forces will consist of Agniveers or Agniveer regular soldiers. The selection process therefore must under no circumstances be diluted. Being a radical reform, it would be prudent initially to restrict the intake to 30-50 per cent and continue with regular intake for the balance of 50-70 per cent with more stringent selection. As the scheme matures it can be modified.
Impact on cohesion
Unit/sub-unit cohesion is the primary motivator in combat. The Indian Army has followed the regimental system for building unit cohesion for over 225 years. To safeguard their rule, the British promoted the concept of “martial races” and the regimental system was based on caste/religion/region. Thus, by default, cohesion also got linked to the same. This system is not in consonance with our Constitution and is also anti-merit due to reservations by default.
By making the Agnipath an all-India, all-class and merit-driven recruitment scheme, the Modi government and the armed forces have brought about a radical change in our approach to regimentation. The new system will continue with the regimental system, where you serve for your entire service life but it will not be driven by caste, religion or region.
Institutional cohesion is built over a long period of living, training and experiencing the rigours of field/operational/high altitude/counter-insurgency tenures together. In the absence of caste/religion/region, building up unit cohesion will be a challenge, to begin with. This radical change in the approach to regimentation has faced maximum criticism. What was treated as a ‘way of life’ for 225 years is being transformed. In my view, it is a change for the better.
A word of caution
I cannot help but point out that bringing all the new inductees into the armed forces under a contributory pension scheme from a specific future date would also have had the same effect on the pension bill as the Agnipath scheme. In my view, politically, Agnipath is also seen as an employment generation scheme. This is the reason why the ‘contributory pension scheme’ option was given up. This is also the reason why a mix of regular enrolment and Agnipath has been avoided as also a voluntary extension of four to five years without a pension liability.
Giving opportunities to the youth to fulfil nationalistic aspirations by joining the armed forces for a short tenure and post-release contributing to the society with discipline and motivation, are romantic ideas divorced from the reality of human aspirations. Unemployed youth with military training spell ominous portents for the nation. The government and the armed forces must give utmost importance to the post-release rehabilitation of the Agniveers.
By all standards, the Agnipath scheme is a radical reform. In absence of a trial/experimental phase that would have ironed out most problems, it would be prudent for the Modi government and the armed forces to keep an open mind for further refinement as the scheme fructifies.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)