Presented as a ‘transformative’ reform by the Narendra Modi government, the Agnipath scheme, promoting the recruitment and deployment of jawans for a four-year period, is viewed by supporters, critics, and protestors alike as a dramatic shift from the norms of recruitment for long-term careers that have been followed in India until now. Yet, while new to the armed forces, it is a continuation of a process of casualisation of frontline functionaries in civil bureaucracy such as school teachers and handpump technicians — a trend that picked up pace in the mid-1990s in India.
The civil bureaucracy and the armed forces are very different branches of the State. Moreover, Agnipath — like all initiatives towards casualisation — has its own unique features, which, in this case, must be contextualised and analysed in detail by those who understand and have experienced life and work in the Indian armed forces. At the same time, it is striking that across these schemes for the mass recruitment of contract workers at the frontlines — from para teachers to Agniveers — there is a potent rationale at work that weaves together fiscal and managerial discipline with an equally evocative imagination of a young nation and skill-building for an aspiring India.
It is, therefore, vital that the public attention that Agnipath has generated opens the space for reflection on the common assumptions and lived realities of the casualisation of frontline work and workers across various government institutions. In this regard, the historical experience of introducing such innovations among civil frontline functionaries, which has remained under the radar of public discourse, holds important lessons.
Parallels to MP’s para teachers
Agnipath is reminiscent of the ‘shiksha karmi’ or para teacher scheme of Madhya Pradesh, launched in 1996. In this scheme, the state government stopped recruiting ‘regular’ teachers with job security and higher salary scales and benefits, replacing them with ‘para teachers.’ These new recruits were local persons who belonged to the community, were recruited on a contract (to bypass pension liabilities) that was renewable every year and paid very low salaries in comparison to regular teachers.
The para teacher scheme appeared when the state government was under pressure to expand the primary school system, which involved recruiting more teachers. The financial implications of the regular teachers’ salaries and pensions were forbidding, while a large force of para teachers with low salaries reduced the burden on the government exchequer.
When the scheme began, the required educational qualifications for para teachers were modest, and unlike for regular teachers, a teacher training diploma was not necessary. The proponents of the para teacher scheme argued that even with extant well-qualified and well-paid regular teachers, student achievement levels in government schools were abysmal and the regular teachers’ unauthorised absence and casual approach to teaching were the subjects of many studies and policy discussions.
Para teachers, it was argued, would not only be cost-effective but would also perform better precisely because the lack of job security would keep them on their toes. Despite being less skilled, they would be more committed because they belonged to the communities they served.
Subsequently, para teachers spread to other states, also under pressure to provide universal access to primary education. Northern states such as Rajasthan and Bihar embraced the scheme with gusto, while southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu didn’t. Maharashtra and Gujarat adopted it cautiously, adding some para teachers as a temporary measure, and attempting to safeguard the level of their educational qualifications. In the northern states, the idea of low-paid contractual frontline functionaries became popular, encompassing secondary school teachers, gram panchayat secretaries, handpump technicians and so on.
Over time, the Union government too began to promote various types of low-paid contractual workers in schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) Rozgar Sahayak. The National Health Mission has also created many contractual positions in the primary health system, including contractual auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) and lab technicians among others.
To return to Madhya Pradesh, almost as soon as they were recruited, para teachers protested and litigated for better service conditions, especially for long-term employment. The state government gave in to their demands time-to-time, and today, they have managed to approximate the salary and other service benefits of the erstwhile regular teachers. Like the para teachers, nearly all low-paid, contractual frontline functionaries have formed associations which agitate and litigate for better service conditions.
However, para teachers have had varied successes in bargaining for better service conditions across states. In Bihar, para teachers continue to agitate desperately and have, at times, been lathi-charged. For para teachers working in the same schools as regular teachers and doing the same work for a fraction of the salary, this creates an unjust and demotivating environment. In sectors like health and education, where regular and contract workers must co-exist with shared and overlapping responsibilities, the likelihood of exploitation, demotivation and tense workplace dynamics is high.
Repercussions for government service delivery
There have been several repercussions for the government school system as well. In MP, not only has the cost-saving been wiped out over time, but student learning remains abysmal. And while the number of regular teachers was drastically restricted due to the para teacher scheme, there is limited evidence that temporary workers yield better performance or greater community commitment than regular employees.
This is hardly surprising when the institutional resources and support (such as training and supervision) and the systemic conditions (vacancies, political pressure and patronage, lack of autonomy, poor workforce rationalisation, excessive reporting and added tasks, and severely limited prospects for progression, among other factors) that impact all frontline workers remain unaddressed.
In the case of school teachers, the question of whether the para teacher scheme might have further compromised quality remains. Would better candidates have applied if posts for contractual, low-paid teachers weren’t advertised? Is the government now paying salaries equivalent to those of regular teachers for less trained and less capable teachers? In the end, the gains in terms of quality appear insignificant, while the costs to the professionalisation of the cadre are very substantial.
A preview of Agnipath?
The point is that because the processes of casualisation are so contentious, they inevitably produce innumerable tensions and contradictions as demands persist and concessions are made.
This process is already visible for Agnipath, even before recruitments have started. Ironically, some of the government concessions that are being made — reserving posts in the police or other services for the large majority of Agniveers not absorbed in the armed forces after their term — show a continuation of the casual approach towards civil frontline functionaries. There appears to be little concern for the fact that the personnel wishing to join the armed services and trained for the same may not make the best civilian frontline functionaries. And why does the government aim to train a person for a short stint in the defence forces first and then retrain them for a different job? Would this save money? Or will it have other costs?
It also raises questions about the incentive structure created by the system of contracting where differences in salary and tenure across and within various types of frontline functionaries are not related to the quantum of work or the skill required but whether employment is regular or contractual. The latter, in turn, depends on the year employees were recruited, and if contractual, on how well they have been able to negotiate salary hikes. Understandably, employee dissatisfaction tends to be high in such contexts and is likely to impact the quality of services delivered. Finally, a maze of litigation around government contractual employees has developed, so that courts must now decide their future, further reducing government initiative. Litigation also uses up significant public resources in terms of time and money.
The anxiety and unrest over Agnipath indicate that the idealistic and futuristic bargains that package temporary contractual service as nation and skill-building ‘tours of duty’ are not easily bought by those living out the real lives of aspiring India. The young recruits, who join via these innovative schemes, aren’t embracing new opportunities under satisfying and reassuring conditions. Instead, they are bracing themselves for a long and bitter struggle for regularisation in government service. But the history of contracting and casualisation also tells us what the real problem is — such schemes invariably fail to even acknowledge, let alone address, the deeper, systemic challenges of public service motivation and performance across different sectors. As citizens, it is this devaluation and damage to the dignity, purpose and potential of public service and public workers in India that should trouble us most.
Rashmi Sharma is a former IAS officer (Madhya Pradesh cadre) and a Senior Visiting Fellow at ICRIER. Mekhala Krishnamurthy is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University. Both authors are engaged in long-term research on India’s frontline functionaries at CPR’s State Capacity Initiative. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)