Protests by young military aspirants have erupted in several parts of the country against the Narendra Modi government’s drastic revamp of the military recruitment process via the Agnipath scheme. Veterans, even those who are known to have a pro-government stand, have come out in scathing criticism of the scheme.
Was flabergasted by the Agniveer scheme. I thought initially it was a trial being done on a pilot basis. this is an across the board change to convert Indian armed forces to a short tenure quasi- conscript forceLike the Chinese. ForGods sakePLEASE DONT do it
— Maj Gen (Dr)GD Bakshi SM,VSM(retd) (@GeneralBakshi) June 14, 2022
Schemes like Agnipath, that shake up the entire system upside down, should first undergo a test bed before being implemented.
However, Agnipath is not a bad scheme on the face of it. Protests or not, armed forces are not a job generating portal. Reservations within the armed forces and by the veterans is also understandable. After all, it is often said that it is most difficult to get an old idea out of a military mind, much less to thrust a new one. But there has to be a clear distinction between what Agnipath was initially thought of as and what it has turned out to be.
When the scheme was first thought of and made public, it was called the Tour of Duty. Explaining the concept, then Army chief Gen M.M. Naravane had said that the idea came up after the Army learnt from visits to colleges and universities that the youth were eager to experience Army life.
“When our officers addressed youths in colleges, we came across the feeling that they want to experience army life, but not as a career. Taking a cue from this, this idea was born of why not give them an opportunity to serve for two to three years,” he had said.
But Army life is not a picnic spot that one can just waltz in, feel some experience and go back. So those arguing that that Army is not a tourist spot are absolutely right.
The Agnipath scheme is much more than what the Tour of Duty was. And that’s where the difference lies. It is a scheme through which all future recruitment of soldiers below the rank of officers will be undertaken. It is not be confused with the Tour of Duty proposal.
Also read: ‘Tour of Duty’ will expose youth to military life. Don’t let bureaucracy fail it like note ban
While there are multiple arguments both against and in favour of the scheme, what is undeniable is that it will help cut the ballooning pension bill that currently stands at Rs 1.19 lakh crore. So, no matter what the government tells you, its intentions behind bringing in this scheme was to curb the rising pension costs. Since 75 per cent of the total recruits will be weeded out and the remaining will have to put in a minimum of 15 more years to get pensions, the bill will indeed come down.
Another advantage of this scheme is that it will bring down the age profile of the Army, which currently stands at 32 years. With Agnipath, the number will come down to 26 in some years. This will also ensure that a majority of soldiers, especially in the fighting arms, remain young and unmarried as it will recruit people between the age group of 17-and-a-half years and twenty-one — the legal age for marriage.
With exit of soldiers every four years and new ones coming in, the collective strength will remain up to date with fast-changing technologies, which is the need of the hour.
Those worried about the balance between experienced soldiers and Agniveers can’t ignore the fact that in a few years, 25 per cent of the selected candidates too shall become experienced.
Under Agnipath, the induction will be all-India and all-class. So even though historical regiments with caste names will remain, over the years, the strict class composition will get diluted. Something many outside the Army will be happy about. Those of the view that caste composition is important to maintain a cohesive fighting unit should look at the Navy and the Air Force.
There is no doubt that the scheme will undergo tweaks with time as one learns from the experience. Government sources I spoke to sought to allay fears, saying that this is just the beginning and everything is not cast in stone and that tweaks will take place as and when needed.
Also read: Agnipath scheme is proof that Modi govt can bring change for good. But an open mind is key
In Agnipath, there are also several red flags that the government should have thought of first.
The implementation of the Agnipath scheme is characteristic of an old problem this government suffers from – even though they might come out with a good idea, they rush through it without doing the necessary checks. It is like jumping off an aircraft and then checking whether the parachute is on your back or not.
And what happens to 75 per cent of the Agniveers who will be let go by the armed forces?
Agniveers will be given Seva Nidhi Package of Rs 11.71 lakh, including interest (tax free) after retirement and have an option of accessing a bank loan of up to Rs 18.2 lakh over three years or more against the Package. But are these enough to help sustain the life ahead?
What about jobs? Where would a soldier of four years with Class XII qualification find themselves in the job market? Government says that the private sector is enthusiastic to employ them. But what kind of jobs will they land into? Security guards? There are people with engineering degrees in this country who remain jobless.
The home ministry has tweeted saying that it has “decided to give priority to Agniveers who have completed 4 years under this scheme in the recruitment of CAPFs and Assam Rifles”.
The key word here is “priority”. If the ministry is so keen, why does it not allow lateral entry from the armed forces in to the CAPFs in large numbers? This will definitely help bring down the pension bill.
‘अग्निपथ योजना’ युवाओं के उज्ज्वल भविष्य के लिए @narendramodi जी का एक दूरदर्शी व स्वागत योग्य निर्णय है।
इसी संदर्भ में आज गृह मंत्रालय ने इस योजना में 4 साल पूरा करने वाले अग्निवीरों को CAPFs और असम राइफल्स में भर्ती में प्राथमिकता देने का निर्णय लिया है।#BharatKeAgniveer
— गृहमंत्री कार्यालय, HMO India (@HMOIndia) June 15, 2022
The government might also have saved on paying out gratuity by limiting the service term to just four years instead of five as required by the law for such payout.
Clearly, the scheme lacks the financial pull that is needed to make it attractive. Instead, it appears more exploitative, especially given that thousands of youth are just waiting to join the armed forces for a better life.
The Seva Nidhi scheme payout of Rs 11.71 lakh shall also come from the Agniveer’s salary as the soldier will have to contribute 30 per cent of their monthly salary that will be matched by the government. Also, none of the Agniveers who get booted out will get an ex-servicemen status. This means that they will not be entitled to any medical or other similar perks extended to ex-servicemen.
The scheme is being introduced full-fledged at a time when the country is in a standoff with China. The Russian experience in Ukraine has shown that conscripts are not such a great fighting force because experience is what matters. Moreover, warfare does not mean picking up a rifle and charging forward.
If pension bills are such a burden, the government should bring in some form of a self-contributory pension scheme where it also makes a significant contribution.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)