Agnipath: Altering well-oiled system can have serious repercussions
The flame of protests ignited by the Centre’s new scheme for recruitment of youth in the Armed Forces of the country should serve as an eye-opener for our policymakers, who have been consistently courting controversies.
The ongoing mass agitation over the incumbent government’s latest ill-conceived policy — prognostically christened Agnipath, literally meaning trail of fire — has so far left at least one dead, several injured and public properties worth millions of rupees gutted.
The protestors, with most being aspirants for military jobs, have serious apprehensions about the scheme though the violence they have unleashed cannot be supported at any cost.
Under the Agnipath scheme, youths aged 17 to 21 (23 for the current year) will be recruited below officer rank in the three wings of Defence forces for a period of just four years without pension or ex-servicemen status. Only one-fourth of the recruits would be retained for another 15 years on regular service terms based on merit, medical fitness and willingness.
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The announcement came as a shocker for the job aspirants who have been eagerly awaiting the recruitment process to begin after COVID brought in a gap of two years.
The new policy would effectively turn the majority of those to be absorbed in the Armed Forces, into contractual soldiers, sailors and airmen with no job security and pension. Seventy-five per cent of them will not be absorbed and left in an uncertain job market after four years, forced to compete against more qualified aspirants.
This is at a time when the job crisis in the country is going from bad to worse, which is why the Agnipath scheme could lead to much trouble.
There is no clarity as to what would happen to those who would be chucked out after four years of service. There is only a vague promise that they would be given priority in the recruitment of paramilitary forces. Such a promise does not mean anything unless it is backed by clear policy guidelines that a certain percentage of seats would be reserved for these military returnees. Now after the protests broke out, the Home Ministry has announced 10 per cent quota for them in paramilitary forces to assuage job security concerns of aspirants. But that will clearly not cover most of those relieved from the military after four years.
Lack of job security is just one part of the problem. There is a greater danger lurking in the idea, ambitiously termed as “transformative”.
As per the government’s claim, the new recruitment scheme would bring down the age profile of the Defence forces by four to five years while instilling a fresh lease of “Josh” and “Jazba”.
There are also suggestions that the new recruits, called ‘Agniveers’, could be sent randomly to any regiments ostensibly in a bid to do away with the caste/race-based regiment system prevailing in the Army.
Clearly, the tall claim shows that those who had put their heads behind this idea either had no knowledge of military functioning or just did the bidding of those in the power for small recognition.
Of the four years, the effective tenure of ‘Agniveers’ would be fewer than three years considering the time to be spent in training and leave. The government expects that within such a short span, a jawan will be fully trained and motivated, which may not happen at all.
First of all, which commanding officer would like to take the chance of training a jawan who may or may not be in the force after a short duration? Having served in Armoured Corps, I know what it takes to train new recruits. Why would I train a person to operate a tank or fire a gun when he is not going to be there in the force by the time he masters the arts of combat. During the course of training, the equipment can get damaged. Moreover, each tank round costs thousands of rupees. Why a CO would waste ammunition or risk equipment in training someone who might not be there after four years. He might as well give extra training to those who would be permanently in the force.
Ultimately, these new recruits would end up working in langars, doing cleaning and other odd jobs like gardening. They will not contribute to enhancing the combat strength of the force.
As for “josh” and “jazba”, it does not come merely by wearing a uniform. It has to be instilled through continuous drilling and training. For that, one needs to spend considerable time with his regiment and get a better understanding of its values and valour. An Army officer may learn these by reading the history of his regiment and the force. But for a jawan, he needs to go through it to know the real meaning of “josh” and “jazba”.
The suggestions of randomly mixing these recruits in various regiments such as Sikh, Dogra, Rajput, Madras etc will further dilute the spirit and will have dangerous consequences.
More importantly, there will be ‘commitment deficiency’ if the jawans are drafted on a contractual basis under the new Agnipath scheme. They may not put extra effort when they are not sure about their future in the force after four years.
In this scheme, only 25 per cent of the recruits who would be retained beyond four years would eventually grow up to become professional soldiers. The rest (75 per cent) will end up neither here nor there.
The crux of my argument is we cannot experiment with the basic structure of defence forces. Our established recruitment policy has to be maintained.
In defence of the scheme, some even say that it will help prune the pension bill of the Armed Forces. This argument, too, does not hold water. If defence is the priority, then why should funding be a criterion in deciding the future policy for the forces?
If we want to be a regional power, the country needs a strong Army. But policies like the Agnipath scheme are indicative of the misplaced priority of the government of the day. It will only end up harming our regional aspirations.
This led us to wonder why the government is so determined to implement the policy despite the likely negative impacts and vociferous protests.
To get further clarity on that, we need to wait and see the background of the bulk of the jawans to be recruited under the new scheme.
(As told to Samir K Purkayastha)
(The author is a former deputy chief of Defense Intelligence Agency)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)