What about the balance who cannot further their prospects and once their money is spent, remain jobless?
Agnipath or Tour of Duty was announced on 14 June 2022, but the writing had been on the wall much earlier and had resulted in an intense debate on the issue. However, in this case, barring a few isolated voices, there was near unanimity among the veterans that this was a “disastrous” scheme and would tear the fabric of the very foundation of our regimental system and the pillars of “naam, namak aur nishan”. We need to bear in mind that the Services are a way of life and that way has to be preserved.
There are many ways to look at an issue both for the organisation’s interest and from the individual’s perspective. For an Agniveer joining the forces soon after his schooling at 17.5 years of age, he earns Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 between his first and fourth year of service. He gets free accommodation, food, clothing and medical. Over and above all this he remains entitled to two months’ annual leave and 20 days’ casual leave per year. They have also got a non-contributory insurance cover of Rs 48 lakh. At the end of his tenure he is discharged with a “Seva Nidhi” package of Rs 11.71 lakh, which is equally divided between an individual’s contribution and the government’s contribution. He also earns allowances depending on his place of posting and would have gained both skill sets and values of the Army. The CTC, or as Shekha Gupta calls it, “cost to the country” is extremely high if you consider all factors.
No doubt this sum of money earned at the end of the tenure, if invested in higher education on exiting the forces would allow an Agniveer who exits between the age of 21 to 25 years to better his prospects and avail of the existing reservations for Central and State Government jobs. But the issue is that as they are not ex-servicemen in terms of the laid down definition, would they be entitled to an ex servicemen’s reservation, which unfortunately largely goes unutilized?
The current average age of the armed forces personnel is around 32 years, but after the implementation of the Agnipath scheme, it is expected to come down to 26 years. But will this reform enhance our competitiveness and provide for wider and inclusive participation in the Armed Forces?
An educated, disciplined citizen with work experience would naturally be at an advantage compared to his peer group who have not joined the Armed Forces. It thus exposes a larger section of the Indian population to the military way of life and gives them a wider exposure. It also provides the nation with a large pool of disciplined workforce, with certain skill sets.
But what about the balance who cannot further their prospects and once their money is spent, remain jobless? Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, a former DGMO, who is highly respected for his views, summed it up by stating, “ToD (Tour of Duty) not tested, no pilot project, straight implementation. Will also lead to militarization of society, nearly 40,000 (75%) youth year-on-year back rejected and dejected without a job, semi trained in arms ex-Agniveers. Not a good idea. No one gains.”
The other issue remains as to why this scheme is being implemented only for the Forces, if there are multiple benefits. The answer unfortunately lies in the very nature of the job of the Armed Forces, wherein we require a youthful profile of soldiers and as a result the maximum number of people only serve till the age of 35 years. Out of a total of approximately 60,000 retirees each year, up to 45% retire between 35 and 40 years and as a result have unfulfilled responsibilities such as education of their children. The fact is that these personnel are now drawing a pension and the increased life expectancy in the country has driven up the pension bill more than the salary bill. The “revenue expenditure” now being greater than “capital expenditure” cuts down on the forces’ expenditure on weapons and equipment. If it was a scheme targeted at the youth it should have been applicable across the board for all government employees including Police and Railways. Incidentally, their personnel serve up to 60 years and get a pension.
The current average age of armed forces personnel is around 32 years, but after the implementation of the Agnipath scheme, it is expected to come down to 26 years. But will this reform enhance our competitiveness and provide for wider and inclusive participation in the Armed Forces and lead to a more youthful Army, or a more inexperienced Army?
If the problem lies in the burgeoning pension bill, the answer lies in establishing an ex-servicemen commission mandated amongst others to implement the resettlement of ex-servicemen and by increasing the avenues for a second career in CAPFs. But should the focus be on reduction of pensions or having a highly motivated, committed and competent professional army? There is no doubt that both the Directorate General of Resettlement and the Army Welfare Placement Organisation now need to seriously look at the issue of educating, skilling and providing suitable resettlement opportunities for them. The answer cannot be in placing the majority as security guards.
Another issue is training. To say the least, the training standards in the Services are exacting. They involve long hours, are both physically and mentally demanding and often push individuals almost to the breaking point. What keeps one going is the collective nature of this training, the building up of a sprit that is everlasting and the fact that on completion of the training a young soldier will be part of an elite and distinctive outfit and will continue to wear that badge with pride. That is the strength of the Regimental value system. However, the Agniveers will undergo recruitment training for six months as this generation is considered to be fitter and technologically savvier than earlier generations. While the latter may be true, the former is debatable as the earlier soldiers mainly drawn from rural India were extremely tough and courageous and had the ability to withstand any hardship.
With the new scheme being implemented, there is a fear that the number of dropouts will be greater or the standards will be diluted. Though the Army Chief, General Manoj Pande has stated, “During implementation of the scheme, there would be no compromise on our op capabilities.” He said that the Agnipath scheme is a transformational reform for the Army and the nation and it aims to bring a paradigm shift in human resources management. He also said that it will maintain the balance between youth and experienced personnel.
The other issue is the selection of those Agniveers being retained. There is no doubt that this will be a challenge. The policy no doubt is that retention will be considered in a centralised manner based on objective criteria including performance during their four-year engagement period, limited to 25% of each specific batch of Agniveers.
A workable solution could be by changing the ratios either 75:25 or 50:50 instead of the present 25:75. Letting go of 75% of men in a unit will be a challenge for a commanding officer. I am sure that SOPs for retention will be worked out and implemented and will be transparent. But how do you compare the different conditions—field, high altitude, deserts and counter insurgency operations—vis-à-vis someone who has remained in a peace station? Commanding officers will find it hard on their conscience to look an Agniveer in his eye and tell him he hasn’t been retained in spite of fulfilling all the criteria, because of the “vacancy system”.
While concerns have been raised by a large number of people, but a decision has been taken and the reality is that this “is the new normal” “as far as recruitment in the Armed Forces is concerned”. The success will no doubt lie in addressing the shortcomings identified. The Vice Chief of Army, Lieutenant General B.S. Raju has said that the scheme will be tweaked, if needed, on ground experience and operational necessity.
The moot point is that there has been no recruitment due to Covid and units are suffering shortages in the region of 20%, hence it is imperative that these be made up at the earliest.
Ultimately, it is whether to resist the forces of change or come to terms with them. The ownership for success of this scheme must rest with both the government and the Armed Forces to ensure resettlement of the Agniveers not retained and the success of this scheme. While Agnipath is transformative, the direction in which this transformation takes place is critical. It may turn out to be a catalyst for larger reforms needed for the future or be just the opposite.
Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd) is an Army veteran.