What needs questioning is the basic premise for launching the scheme, which was to bring about a reduction in revenue expenditure.

A lot has been said and written about the new Agnipath scheme for enrolment into the Armed Forces of India. In essence, the scheme is a radical departure from past practices as from now onwards, all enrolment will only be through the pan-India, merit-based Agnipath scheme. Selected individuals, called “Agniveers” will serve for a period of four years, which includes a six-month training period. Entry is for individuals in the age bracket of 17.5-21 years (later increased to 23 years) with educational qualification being 10/12 pass. As no recruitment has taken place for the last two years due to the Covid pandemic, a one-time waiver has been given for the year 2022, wherein the upper age limit has been increased to 23 years.

The financial package is reasonably attractive. The Agniveers will be entitled to risk and hardship allowance and to death and disability pension. They will contribute 30% of their monthly emoluments with the government contributing an equal amount towards a lumpsum gratuity that will be given to each individual on completion of four years’ contractual service. This amounts to Rs 11.7 lakh. On termination of the contractual period, an option is to be exercised for permanent entry into the Armed Forces, which will be restricted to 25%. Selection procedures are well laid out and transparent. The Commanding Officers will have a major role to play in the same.
It has been stated that the Agnipath scheme will yield a more youthful profile for the military and will result in improved battle preparedness through more trainable and resilient youth. But the Army already has a youthful profile and the soldiers are well trained, so this will make little difference. The benefits of Skill India are also proposed to be harnessed. The individuals not selected will, it is hoped, form a disciplined, motivated and physically fit group of youth that will be inducted into civil society. Some of these youth may be employed by the corporate sector on the basis of their skill sets or by the Central Government in the Central Armed Police Forces (BSF, CRPF, ITBP) or in the para-military forces (Assam Rifles and the Coast Guard). The state governments may also absorb some of these individuals. It is also hoped that all those not so employed will become small-scale entrepreneurs with the skill sets they have gained and the financial package they will receive at the end of four years. Most of what has been stated is more in the nature of a promissory note rather than a concrete proposal, but even so, there is merit in the same.

What needs questioning is the basic premise for launching the scheme, which was to bring about a reduction in revenue expenditure. The outgo on pensions every year was thought to be very high and unsustainable in the long run, which necessitated this step. However, a more holistic course of action would have been to look into force effectiveness, based on a fixed budget. There is a large civilian work force numbering over 3.5 lakh persons, which is paid from defence estimates and which has been left outside the ambit of this structure. The productivity of the ordnance factories and the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) as also of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have also not been considered. A qualitative improvement in the functioning of all these government owned research and production facilities will, by itself, generate huge revenue for modernisation of the military. Decision making at the apex level too is sluggish, resulting in time delays and cost overruns. Streamlining the same will again lead to reduced costs and enhanced force effectiveness. The utility of a large civilian bureaucracy is also questionable. The Agnipath scheme is modelled in some fashion on the US military, so it would be logical to model higher defence management on the same lines. We could thus consider placing the Department of Defence, the Department of Defence Production and the DRDO under the CDS, who would be the one-point contact on all military matters with the Defence Minister. This would not be easy to accomplish as the bureaucrats will fight tooth and nail to preserve their turf, though they contribute little to force enhancement.

In terms of military effectiveness, the scheme will throw up some uncomfortable realities, when it is fully operational. One of these is the fact that about 60% of an infantry battalion’s profile will be of Agniveers in the 0-4 years’ service bracket. Armoured, artillery and engineer regiments will also have a similar profile as shown in the diagram. The Army will no longer have a uniform profile of soldiers spread equally over the years, but a tiered structure, with the 0-4 years’ bracket soldiers occupying over 50% of the operational space. This will have adverse consequences for the military as seen by the performance of young soldiers in the war in Ukraine.
More importantly, the ratio in rifle companies will be further skewed. Training and induction into the specialist platoons like the 81 mm mortar, medium machine gun, anti-tank, signal and pioneer platoons will be only of the permanent inductees, which means that the rifle companies will have most of the Agniveers in the 0-4 years’ service bracket. This ratio could be as high as 80-90% and does not augur well for force effectiveness either in a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism (CICT) environment or in hot war.
Many other imponderables also crop up. How much time will the unit spend now, on continuously training a bunch of raw soldiers? How will the Agnipath scheme impact on traditional unit activities such as sports and professional competitions, which are so necessary to build esprit-de-corps and unit and sub-unit bonding? What will be the impact on the motivational level of young inductees in the fourth year of their service?
The questions are endless and too innumerable to be dealt with in a short opinion piece, but the challenges are mind boggling. The military leadership would most certainly have given a thought to all these issues, but the devil really lies in the detail. Perhaps, the Agnipath scheme will have greater acceptability if the ratio of permanent inductees into the military is increased to 50% and the term of duty for the Agniveers extended to six years instead of the current four. This would give better operational pay offs and would remove most of the infirmities discussed here. Also, it would be better if lateral induction to the CAPF and para military forces is guaranteed to 25% of the Agniveers. Then, just a quarter of the Agniveers would require rehabilitation in the private sector, which is a more manageable task. This would cater to both the military’s operational requirement as well as the needs of the individuals seeking a career in the military.
Only time will tell whether the scheme to reduce the revenue expenditure has been a worthwhile experiment. In its present form, it will most certainly result in savings to the exchequer. But one shudders to think of the cost the nation will have to pay, in case of defeat on the battlefield.

Dhruv C. Katoch is an Army veteran who is presently Director, India Foundation.