On June 14, 2022, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, in the presence of the three military chiefs, announced the transformative and ambitious Agnipath scheme for recruitment and initial service for ‘personnel below officer rank’ in the military.
The scheme intends to drastically cut down the burgeoning pension bill as well as the salary bill of the military, in an effort to save funds to equip and modernise the Indian military. A couple of days later, as the details of the scheme became public knowledge, protests and rioting by youth broke out in various parts of the country as they perceived that their employment prospects and related economic security had taken a major hit as a result of this scheme.
Welcome to this 17th episode of our program ‘Call of Duty’ on strategic and defence matters. In the last episode, we explained how the Chinese assertiveness on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was still ongoing. Our Foreign Minister highlighted this aspect in a town hall last week when he said, “India will not allow any unilateral attempt by China to alter the LAC.” To ensure this, there have been a large numbers of troops deployed along the LAC these last two years. It is also significant that recruitment in the Army is on a hold since the last two years due to Covid-19. There are already large deficiencies in the force because of this.
In this backdrop, will the Agnipath scheme make the Indian military operationally stronger or will it be a perilous double whammy – adversely affecting both force quality and quantity. That is the question we will be addressing today. I hope you find this episode informative and interesting.
The Indian military’s personnel and their leadership, well reputed for their high standards of training, experience and motivation, are meant to employ modern equipment and technology, to fight and win wars for our country. The threats we face emanate primarily from our Northern adversary, which continues to modernize its military in terms of new strategies, structures, technology and equipment. On the other hand, our Western adversary, emboldened by its strong nexus with the former, continues to fish in troubled waters in India’s northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, which could well lead to punitive retaliation by India.
In sum, we need a strong and modern Army, Navy and Airforce, which are operationally prepared and capable at all times of deterring and defeating our adversaries, singly, or when they fight in concert with each other.
The questions before us are: Will the Agnipath scheme help our military to meet such an operational requirement? Will the future military be a better military, operationally, than it is today?
Before we go any further, let us take a close look at the Agnipath scheme.
This new scheme entails recruiting youth between 17 and a half and 21 years of age, as soldiers, sailors and airmen on a short service contract for a period of four years, which includes an initial training period of six months. They will be given the status of Agniveers, ranked below a Sepoy, and paid approximately Rupees thirty thousand per month initially, and with an annual increment thereafter.
After four years, 25 per cent of Agniveers, who will be selected on merit, will be retained in their units, provided trade specific training, and allowed to serve for the minimum pensionable service period of 15 years and more. The remaining 75 per cent will be released, with a severance payment of about Rupees 11.7 lakhs, sourced from 30 per cent of the individual’s monthly pay and an equal contribution by the Govt, and interest accruing thereto. They will not be entitled to any pension and other benefits.
Some other relevant facts are that, firstly, the six months institutionalized training that will be provided to the Agniveers at the start of their four year service, will essentially be basic infantry training. Thus, they will not be provided institutionalized technical training related to their trades, eg, that of gunner, driver or radio operator, as it exists in the combat arms or the combat support arms of the Army. This implies that all other forms of subsequent training imparted to the Agniveer will be ‘on the job’ training’ in his unit, and not institutionalized training. There will be no parallel scheme for recruiting soldiers on a permanent basis, as hither-to-fore.
Secondly, the Agniveers will be recruited on an all India all Class basis and even those posted to single class units will be of ‘all India all class profile’, and not ‘single class’ profile. This has to be seen in the context that there are a significant number of single class units presently in the fighting arms of the Army.
And as mentioned earlier, the implementation of the Agnipath Scheme will be running concurrently with a separate ‘optimisation plan’ – which aims at reducing the strength of our military, especially the Army, by about 15 per cent (about 2 lakhs) by the end of the next five years.
So, let us now take a look at the positive aspects of this scheme:
Saving of Pension Bill: First, undoubtedly, there will be a huge saving of the pension bill, in that, only 25 per cent of those who are recruited each year will finally be eligible for pension, instead of the 100 per cent that were eligible hither-to-fore.
Saving on Salary Bill: Second, a collateral advantage is that there will also be a substantial saving of the salary bill, considering the numbers of military personnel who are planned to be reduced concurrently through the optimisation plan.
Lower Age Profile: Third, the age profile of the Army will come down. It is said that the average age will come down from 32 years to 26 years, making the military more youthful and energetic.
Reduction in Motivation Levels: The biggest challenge will be the qualitative reduction in capabilities of the young soldier, who remains at the cutting edge of military operations, at the platoon or troop level. It is a moot point, whether it will be possible for a soldier, especially one who is insecure about his employment status, to imbibe regimentation and related motivation at the desired operational levels, which make him put his life on the line for the honor of the ‘flag’ and country.
Drop in Training Standards: Further, the lack of or dilution of institutionalized technical trade training will result in inadequacies in training standards and confidence levels among the Agniveers in equipment heavy arms like the armored corps, mechanized infantry, artillery, engineers, signals and air defense. For example, in the armored corps and mechanized infantry, dual trade and reserve crew competencies will be seriously hit during the initial years. There would be a similar problem in the Air Force and Navy.
Quantitative Reduction: Another major challenge will be the quantitative reduction of the force, which is being concurrently attempted. Quantity, it is said, has a quality of its own. This is more so when there are shortfalls in quality. Thus, it is inexplicable why the Govt is concurrently implementing a scheme for reduction of numbers of the force, reportedly by about 15 per cent, over the next four years.
The question is: Should there have been a double whammy of reduction in quality and quantity at a time when we are facing serious prospects of a war against China. Moreover, the Army has not finalized new operational concepts which were being tested, due to delays on account of the Covid problem. Clearly, the optimisation scheme should have been held back, for implementation only after studying the impact of roll-out of the Agnipath scheme over a four to five year period.
High Levels of Insecurity: A fourth challenge will be to remove job insecurity and uncertainty – by convincing the Agniveers that, in case they are part of the 75 per cent that are not retained in service, they will be provided alternate employment. Only a guarantee in some form will provide the required degree of assurance, given that various agencies which gave assurance to short service officers in the past have been found wanting during actual implementation of these promises. Without a guarantee, the prospective Agniveers will remain skeptical of such assurances. To that end, the Govt must also establish an Agniveer Placement Agency while implementing the scheme. Further, it may not be a bad idea to increase the retention level of Agniveers to 50 per cent to address the problem of uncertainty and insecurity and increase their tenures so that they bring better quality .
Imposing of AIAC Profile: The fifth challenge will be the disruptive instability in single class units, of which there are currently a large number in the fighting force, due to the plan to change these to all India class units. Attempts at such changes have not worked well in the past. Will they do so in the future? Why did such an objective also have to be merged with the Agnipath scheme, which has implementation challenges of its own?
Reduction in Sporting Capability: A sixth challenge will be the adverse effects of the Scheme on the military’s capability to produce world class sportsmen like Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra.
The Agnipath Scheme must be made to work, considering that, if it succeeds, it would lay the foundation for further transformation of the force. Clearly, it must result in enhancement of operational capability, instead of putting question marks on the same. To that end, the Scheme may need some major tweaking to succeed.
Recommendations in this regard are:
High Quality Of Soldiers. First, it must be ensured that the quality of our soldiers, sailors and airmen are not adversely affected by this Scheme. To that extent, it may be a good idea to select the best 25 per cent, at the stage of recruitment, for permanent induction into the military. The remaining 75 per cent must be inducted under the Agnipath (short service) scheme for seven years, after which, one third, based on merit, should be retained for permanent service. This way, finally, about 50 per cent of the original batch will be retained and the remaining released, with a better severance package.
Assured Alternate Employment. Second, those Agniveers who are not retained must be provided a guarantee by the Govt that they will be provided alternate jobs at the time of release. An inter-departmental ‘Agniveer Placement Agency’ must be established to ensure this.
Delay Quantitative Optimisation. Third, the implementation of the ‘optimisation scheme’, which is a separate scheme to reduce the overall numbers in the military and consequently save on the salary bill – must be delayed. To that extent, additional recruitments must be done immediately to make up vacancies of the Covid period in a phased manner.
Delay Plan for Change to AIAC Profile. Fourth, the plan to change the class composition of single class units must also be delayed. It must not be implemented till the implementation of the Agnipath Scheme stabilizes.
Increase Short Service Tenure. Fifth, the tenure of Agniveers should be increased to seven years. Alongside, the institutionalized training in technical or ‘equipment heavy’ Services and branches must be increased to one year, to include six months of technical training.
Incorporate Sports Quota Recruitment. Last, but not the least, the existing system of identifying medal winning potential and special recruitment of sportspersons must be retained.
To sum up, the Agnipath Scheme of introducing short service terms for enlisted personnel should not entirely replace the current system of recruitment. Rather, it should be a complementary scheme, to cover only 75 per cent of the force. Of these, based on merit, one third should be retained as regulars, after an initial period of seven years. Only then will it be a win-win for the country, the force and its youth.