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Army’s ‘Agnipath’ plan is ambitious but has flaws. Here’s how it can be made more attractive

A minimum tour of duty of five years, including training period, extendable voluntarily by another five years will meet the armed focers' needs.

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For a fortnight, the media, quoting anonymous government and military sources, has been agog with the news of the imminent formal announcement of a new recruitment scheme — Agnipath Pravesh Yojna — for the armed forces. Under the Agnipath (literally path of fire) soldiers to be known as Agniveers (literally fire warriors) will be recruited for a three-year tour of duty without any pension entitlement but with the promise of yet to be specified ‘assistance’ in getting post-discharge employment. Battle or ‘attributed to military service’ casualties will be treated at par with regular soldiers. A fixed percentage from such intake will be absorbed as regular soldiers on merit.

The primary motivation for this scheme is the reduction of the burgeoning pension bill of the armed forces. Additional advantages cited are reducing the age profile of the armed forces; improving career prospects of regular soldiers; strengthening the society with military connect; instilling sterling military character qualities and nationalism among the youth; and providing an opportunity for the youth to fulfil their aspiration of serving in the Armed Forces.

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. Agnipath Parvesh Yojna is certainly a far-reaching reform. However, from what is available in public domain, it has a number of conceptual flaws — related to motivation of the youth for enrolment, length of tenure, training period, operational/organisational needs of the armed forces and postdischarge benefits — for it to be a viable option.

I critically evaluate the proposed Agnipath Parvesh Yojna and suggest a refined model.

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

Conceptual shortcomings

The start point for any reform should be a strategic review to formulate a National Security Strategy for future conflicts, which dictates the size, structures and organisations of the armed forces. In absence of a formal National Security Strategy, our approach is restricted to reform the existing large armed forces catering for full-scale decisive wars of the last century and not what they will  be after the much talked about transformation. Moreover, the scheme needs to be linked to other manpower management  related reforms based on optimisation/reduction of manpower and restructuring/reorganisation.

With rampant unemployment in India, there is no dearth of volunteers to join the military, unlike the developed world where it is not a preferred career. The prime motivation is a stable, respectable job, risk coverage and life-long pensionary benefits for the individual, his spouse and children below 25 years. I have yet to come across an officer/soldier for whom patriotism/nationalism was the primary motive for joining the armed forces. Exceptions only prove the rule. The Army’s current thinking that ‘unemployment in our country is a reality, however, there is a resurgence of nationalism and patriotism’, is seriously flawed. Even in combat/battle, it is sub unit/unit cohesion that motivates soldiers to fight.

Any short-term engagement has to be made very attractive to cater for individual needs in order to ensure quality intake.  Even today, most volunteers are those who cannot pursue higher education due to lack of merit, inclination or means. Unless the government formalises attractive benefits in terms of a merit-driven permanent absorption for 25-30 per cent intake, substantial severance package, contributory pension scheme, preference for college admission and in all fields of government employment, including absorption in Central Armed Police Forces with seniority protection, Agnipath will only attract those having no other option. To think of nationalism as a motivator is fraught with danger and will only result in enlarging political/religious militias albeit with military training. Instilling discipline and nationalism, and meeting nationalistic aspirations are best done through the National Cadet Corps and the Territorial Army.

Unit/sub-unit cohesion is the primary motivator in combat. Institutional cohesion is built over a long period of living, training and experiencing rigours of field/operational/high altitude/counter-insurgency tenures together. This period becomes much shorter in sustained counterinsurgency operations/war. Rashtriya Rifles where soldiers from all arms serve for two to three years is a classic example. However, the soldiers serving in Rashtriya Rifles are already motivated soldiers. A three-year period is too short to build cohesion. Poor performance of Russian conscripts in the Ukraine war only proves the point.

Average basic military training is 15 weeks. Depending on the arm and service, further specialist training requires additional six months to one year. Infantry soldiers train for additional 21 weeks for higher combat skills. There is scope to reduce this training marginally. It is unlikely that technically trained individuals for specific trades will opt for this scheme. Even if we take an average of one year training period including leave, Agnipath will end up becoming a four year or two-year tour of duty.

It has also been speculated that even the current flawed rudimentary entrance examination without any psychological or emotional quotient tests may be done away with, except the medical examination, to make the scheme more attractive. Given that even now the volunteers are predominantly those who have no other attractive option to pursue, the quality of intake will further deteriorate making it unfit for a modern army.

Also read: Merit must be the benchmark for armed forces’ hiring, not Recruitable Male Population Index

Repository of knowledge

In my view, the armed forces have not critically evaluated their own past experience. Up to 1976, we had a colour/active service (7-10 years) and reserve service (5-8 years) scheme. Seven years was considered optimum for building unit cohesion and keeping the army young. During reserve service, a soldier received a nominal stipend, but was given full pay when attending refresher training of two months once in two years. Reservist soldiers were given preference for civilian jobs.

At the end of 15 years, the soldier was granted a reservist pension, which was much lower than a regular soldier’s pension. Our own policies citing “retention of trained manpower” and “welfare” ended it and introduced the mandatory minimum service of 15 years (now 17 years) to earn pension. This was a very effective scheme and could be modified for current needs with a contributory pension scheme. In the US, where there is shortage of volunteers, a similar model is followed with minimum eight-year service — four years active service and four years reserve service. However, a soldier can continue to be on active service with a four-year extension to complete 20 years of pensionable service. However, only 20 per cent soldiers complete 20 years.

An exploitative model is from the Second World War. Indian Army strength went up from two lakh in 1939 to 25 lakh by 1945 and was down to 3.5 lakh by 1948. Cohesion was built during sustained combat. The terms and conditions were exploitative — to serve as long as required by the government. Most went home with a token gratuity liable after five years of service with no pension. Without guarantee of a second job, the Agnipath scheme also looks exploitative and out of tune with times.

For officers, we have the experience of the Short Service Commission with effect from 1966. The mandated service was five years without any pension. 25-30 per cent were granted permanent commission on merit. Those who were not granted regular commission were released from service with gratuity, granted ex-servicemen status and given preference/concessions for government employment with protection of seniority. Citing “retention of trained manpower” and “welfare”, the government/Army tweaked the policy to first grant extension of five years and then made it a 10-year scheme extendable up to 14 years.

Also read: Modi govt & armed forces should cut personnel by another 10%, not recruit to fill ‘deficit’

The way forward

There should be no doubt that short-term engagement is the best method of managing the manpower and reduction of the pension bill. This reform must be in sync with holistic reforms flowing out of the National Security Strategy, to transform the armed forces, particularly with respect to optimisation/reduction of manpower and restructuring/ reorganisation.

In my view, a minimum tour of duty of five years both for officers and soldiers, including training period. The scheme must be covered by a contributory pension scheme, handsome gratuity, lateral absorption in CAPF, ex-servicemen status and preference for all government jobs with protection of seniority, college/university admission and bank loans. Pass a law for affirmative action by private employers and corporates. 25-30 per cent soldiers must be retained in service through a transparent, meritorious system. Voluntary extension of five years must be allowed. This scheme must cater for 50 per cent of the strength of the armed forces.

Educational qualification must be raised to 10+2 and a more stringent all-India merit-driven entrance examination with psychological tests must be introduced. State-wise quota based on two per cent of the recruitable population must be scrapped. If this reform paves the way for all India mix units/regiments instead of religion/caste/region-based regiments, then so be it.

To ensure virtual guarantee of a second job, amalgamate the recruitment of our million-strong Central Armed Police Forces and the armed forces with a common merit-driven entrance test. Personnel from CAPF can do a five year or even shorter tour of duty in the armed forces and revert to parent organisations for a longer pensionable service. Similarly, soldiers from the armed forces can be side-stepped permanently for longer service in the CAPF. There is much hullabaloo about organisations resisting such a lateral movement. What then is a strong government for? Reforms do not ride on emotions but are driven by national security.

The Agnipath Parvesh Yojna in its present form does not meet organisational and individual needs. However, short-term engagement is the only pragmatic way forward to arrest the rising pension bill. Government/military must modify the scheme, take advantage of the default shortage of 200,000 soldiers by end 2022 and take a giant stride for transformation of the armed forces.

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 Anurag Chaubey)

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