During World Wars I and II, an iconic poster came up all over the United States. It read: “I Want You — For U.S. Army”. The figure with the top hat was fondly called Uncle Sam. The government of India could attempt a similar poster to publicise its new scheme to recruit soldiers to the defence forces. It may, however, need to add a line, in small print, “for becoming a tailor, washerman or barber”. The scheme, called Agnipath, is simple, in fact, too simple. Forty-six thousand soldiers will be recruited every year to the three defence forces. They will be trained for six months and deployed for 42 months. At the end of 48 months, one-fourth will be retained to serve another 11-13 years and the rest (about 34,500) will be discharged with a severance payment of Rs 11,67,000. There will be no guarantee of a job, no pension, no gratuity and no medical or other benefits.
Act First, Think Later
The negatives of the scheme were glaring and obvious. It is a fair assumption that the idea was imposed from ‘the very top’. That is the way this government has functioned since 2014. Past examples include demonetization, the Rafale deal, the amendments to the land acquisition law (the LARR Act) and the three farm laws.
Predictably, there were protests, mostly by young men who had trained and prepared for regular recruitment to the defence forces, that had been deferred more than once due to the pandemic. Many of them would have crossed the age of 21 fixed under Agnipath. The day after protests broke out, the government began announcing piecemeal changes, and shamelessly called the changes “pre-planned”. Nothing in the changes addressed the fundamental objections to Agnipath:
Firstly, the timing. The security situation on the entire border is extremely precarious and there is no end to incursions (by China) and infiltration (by Pakistan). One should fix the roof when the sun is shining, not when the rain is pouring.
Secondly, the Agniveer will be poorly trained and cannot be deployed on the frontlines. Admiral Arun Prakash has pointed out that the normal recruit is trained for five-six years. Besides, the Navy and Air Force are increasingly technology-driven and no sailor or airman can be trained in six months. Lt Gen P R Shankar, who retired as Director General of Artillery, in an article replete with data, has argued that when the Agnipath scheme is fully rolled out, India would have an Army with soldiers incapable of handling the Brahmos, Pinaka or Vajra weapon system or being a gunner or a 2iC. He named it the Kindergarten Army!
Thirdly, several distinguished defence officers have pointed out that a fighting soldier must take pride in his unit, not be risk-averse and be capable of exhibiting leadership in a crisis situation. No human resource textbook teaches that such qualities can be imbibed in six months of training. Training of a police constable takes longer.
Fourthly, there is a tradition and ethos in the defence forces, especially in the Army. A soldier must be ready to die for his country and his comrades. The regimental system may be archaic but it made the Indian Army among the best fighting forces in the world. During the four-year tour of duty, the Agniveers know that at the end of the tenure, 75 per cent of them will be unhappy ex-soldiers (without the status of ex-Servicemen) and financially insecure. Will there be camaraderie or rivalry among such soldiers during the four years? How can you expect such soldiers to make the supreme sacrifice, if necessary.
Fifthly, imagine the consequences of sacrificing quality, efficiency and effectiveness for the sake of the economy. The burgeoning pension bill is indeed a problem, but there is no evidence that alternative models were examined. The argument that the Agnipath model has been tried and tested in Israel is puerile. Israel has a small population, practically no unemployment and mandatory military service for the youth. Why was Agnipath not introduced as a pilot and tested before making it a universal and only mode of recruitment to the three services? Now, Vice Chief of the Army, General Raju, has said Agnipath is a ‘pilot’ scheme that will be tweaked after 4-5 years!
A Contractual Force?
The so-called changes and concessions offered by the government do not answer the fundamental question: whether ill-trained, poorly motivated and largely contractual defence forces will not seriously impair the security of the country. A 10 per cent reservation in CAPFs, defence establishments and CPSUs for discharged Agniveers is no answer. According to the DG, Resettlement (quoted by The Indian Express, June 21, 2022), as against the present reservation of 10-14.5 per cent in Group C posts and of 20-24.5 per cent in Group D posts for ex-Servicemen, the actual percentage employed was 1.29 (or less) in Group C posts and 2.66 (or less) in Group D posts.
If modifications in the recruitment to the defence forces were required, the way to make changes was to publish a status paper, list the issues, seek alternative solutions, discuss the matter in the Parliamentary Standing Committee, hold a debate in Parliament and frame a law or a scheme. The ill-conceived Agnipath scheme must be rolled back and the government must go back to the drawing boards.