On June 14, 2022, the government of India introduced the Agnipath scheme for recruitment of soldiers to the defence forces. These soldiers, called 'Agniveers', are to undergo a four-year tour of duty after which 25 per cent of them will be retained for further service, while others will be relieved and free to pursue other professions.
This system of tenure-based soldiers is a common practice across the world, mostly because many countries do not have enough volunteers to serve in the defence forces and they have to resort to minimum-tenure conscription. As India does not have a compulsion of this nature, the government has cited three other reasons for this scheme. It claims that Agnipath will bring down the age profile of the defence forces, facilitate the induction of technically qualified young men and women, and will release a large number of disciplined and trained workforce into the national mainstream after completion of their tenure of duty.
On the face of it, these reasons do not hold much ground. It is well known that with the existing terms and conditions, age profile of the defence forces, more so in the junior ranks, is quite young and well-able to meet the requirements of modern-day combat as proved during the Kargil conflict and repeated faceoffs with the Chinese. Besides, the technical threshold of soldiers as weapon-systems users is fairly adequate.
The 30,000–40,000 Agniveers who are going to be released every year on completion of their tour of duty will not make any significant difference to the national workforce and its character unless their jobs are guaranteed and they are put in responsible positions. Rather, it seems that the government is obfuscating the actual reason for the introduction of this scheme which probably is to cut expenditure on defence pensions which did not work out earlier as the defence forces did not agree to the introduction of the contributory pension mechanism. While it appears so, we can only hope that financial pragmatism was not the major motive to push this proposal from the top.
Any major change of policy for the defence forces passes through a complex process of decision-making with many rounds of vetting, scrutiny and reconsideration as has been the case with the theatre commands, the National Defence University, the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff and many other such major policy changes. Surprisingly, the Agnipath has just taken a year from conceptualisation to implementation, making one wonder whether it has been thought through and the views of the defence forces have been taken into account.
The success of this scheme will not be defined by how Agniveers are being treated when in service but what happens to them after their release. Going by the condition of the short service officers and young retirees of the defence forces, the future of Agniveers does not seem to be very bright because without guaranteed jobs they will be left to fend for themselves. The meagre amount of Rs 11.71 lakh as the Seva Nidhi will not suffice to see them through.
It is common knowledge that successive governments have not been able to look after the interests of the short-service commissioned officers, who, after serving the nation for 10-15 years, are left to fend for themselves without pension or any guarantees for employment. Many of them sidestep to the central police organisation and other departments where they are given step-motherly treatment and are forced to start afresh. Those in the corporate sector hold jobs related to security and administration. All the proposals for improving post-release conditions of short-service commissioned officers have been gathering dust in the ministry of defence for decades.
A very large number of soldiers from the defence forces retire at a young age between 35-50 years with a lot of financial responsibilities, including school-going children. Very few of them get meaningful employment and it is common to see them working for paltry salaries as security guards or meter-readers. Rather than increasing the retirement age of these soldiers who are in good physical condition, the government has introduced Agniveers who are likely to add another category of dissatisfied persons amongst veterans. It is indeed a perplexing decision in light of the fact that all central police organisations have their soldiers serving till 60.
The government must also examine the legal aspects of this hurriedly put-through scheme or else it may turn out to be like the Women Entry Scheme which started as a short-service support entry cadre but converted into a regular permanent entry for women officers when they sought legal recourse on the grounds of equal opportunity. Many provisions such as non-grant of military service pay, entitlement of only 30 days annual leave or non-grant of the dearness allowance seem to be discriminatory in this case, and have the potential to be legally exploited.
The most important aspect to be examined is the potential impact of Agniveers on the efficiency of the defence forces. It takes five to seven years for a recruit to turn into a seasoned soldier who can be trusted in combat. Fighting units rely on regimental spirit and camaraderie amongst the soldiers, values which are inculcated only after years of togetherness. Also, in technical arms/ services, skilled JCOs/ NCOs (junior commissioned officers/ non-commissioned officers) master their trades over the years to become the backbones of their units. The scheme, structured at four years, falls short on all counts as it is doubtful if an Agniveer will be able to learn, become a valuable member, and contribute optimally to his unit.
It will be in fairness of things to mention that the Agnipath may lead to savings in pension bills, and that it has the potential to usher in some of the stated benefits, provided it is perfected as per Indian conditions and requirements. Of the many required improvements, the following major suggestions can make the scheme more acceptable and less disruptive.
For an average Indian, service in the defence forces is a matter of pride and also a career opportunity with job security and financial stability. Agnipath will not make any difference to them, as aspirants will join as Agniveers with the hope of getting absorbed as regulars. However, exits will not be seen as an opportunity and will cause apprehension and resentment. Therefore, for this scheme to become effective and attract talent, the government must ensure guaranteed employment in the government or private sector for all released Agniveers. The better way would be to first select the government employees and then put them through Agnipath. Many in the government will consider this as a tall order but it is critical for the success of this scheme conceptualised and implemented by the government in haste. It will not be a pleasant site to see the unemployed and disgruntled Agniveers on the streets howsoever small their number.
The terms of engagement in terms of salary, allowances, leave, and facilities while in service should be similar to other soldiers as any form differentiation will be resented as discriminatory. The UN peacekeeping forces are an example of this fractured model where there are many categories of soldiers that include international staff (senior officers only), staff officers, military observers and soldiers from the troop-contributing countries, all getting different emoluments and facilities.
For the initial years, the retention of the Agniveers should be kept between 40-50 per cent to ensure that more seasoned soldiers are available to the units as also the cost in training and preparing the Agniveers is recovered to a certain extent. This figure can subsequently be reviewed with experience.
The 31-weeks training period of Agniveers is too short because it is designed to fit into a four-year service period and does not cater to a wide range of skills for which a soldier needs to be trained, including physical fitness, weapons handling or battlecraft. The training period therefore needs to be increased to the existing standards to provide the Agniveers with the skills they need to contribute in the operational units they join and avoid being a burden on their comrades.
In conclusion, it suffices to say that the Agnipath scheme marks a significant shift from the traditional recruitment process of the Indian Armed Forces, with far-reaching implications for the regimentation, work culture, and combat effectiveness of military units. While it holds the potential to enhance the agility and adaptability of the forces, it necessitates mid-course corrections and substantial improvements, particularly in addressing the job security concerns of the Agniveers, to fully realize its intended benefits.
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.)