Photo for representation.
The Agnipath scheme should remind us of the National Commission for Informal Labour. The Commission reported that only 0.4 per cent of casual sector workers receive social security benefits, such as the provident fund and others. The commission used the term ‘informalisation’ to refer to the phenomenon of labourers being forced to work without adequate social security and shifting from permanent jobs to contract systems. The UPA government had problems with the commission's poverty estimation, and there was no criticism of the committee’s assessment of the informalisation of the Indian labour market.
Whether we like it or not, neo-liberalism made labour a flexible capital. But this is a theory for only industrial capitalism. Nobody expected that there would be a time when the army would take to informalisation like any other capitalist industry. The difference between the state and private corporates is disappearing in this context.
Economists seldom applied the theory of profit to military expenditure. Most countries, high-income or low-income, are spending a lot on the defence sector. It does not deny the economics behind the defence sector in arms production, distribution, and the role of war and conflict in ensuring a public market for arms. Another economic importance of the military establishment is its job security.
Market economists defined the reason for informalisation as cost-cutting and profit. However, this logic is never applicable to security establishments. Private firms can use market and price mechanisms as a reason to justify informalisation. The fundamental question is, how to compare a private market-oriented firm with military establishments? It is a known fact that the current Union government is more open to privatisation than the Congress and other opposition parties.
However, the decision of applying market logic to military establishments is a bit confusing. It is a state endorsement of the market as a transparent and effective method to control expenditures. If we treat government capital and revenue expenditure as profit-seeking investments, the Agnipath is a good management strategy to reduce the burden of fiscal expenses. Every government justifies its high defence expenditure by pointing out national security and external threat. Citizens have accepted the government’s reason for the high defence establishment. Agnipath, in fact, challenges all those state narratives of defence and national security. The government may be trying to build a parity between defence expenditure and market-driven firms.
Unlike the UPA, the BJP government categorically uses all possible military narratives; ‘military nationalism’ is a term used in everyday politics now.
The BJP could bring the army to ordinary households. But such popularisation of the military does not justify informalisation. Being a soldier is not an everyday task; it needs commitment and the will to take risks. But even so, it is a job, too.
The present agitations against Agnipath come from a deep sense of income insecurity, exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A study conducted by this author in four metro cities to study the impact of the pandemic-induced lockdowns on informal sector income loss proved that the informal sector's income gap has widened in the last two years.
The proposed Agnipath resembles the notorious Special Police Officers of Chhattisgarh. Many independent media reports and fact-finding reports highlighted the amount of human rights violations done by SPOs.
The government can very well offer reservations to Agnipath soldiers in other sectors after four years of their contract service. But the fundamental concern remains the weakening of the institution of the military. It enables the birth of contract soldiers with limited expertise, who may not be suitable for strategic areas, and who may eventually be relegated to domestic, political and social conflicts. And both the government and contract soldiers will then be answerable for their acts.
(The author is Assistant Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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