The new ‘Agnipath’ scheme for recruiting soldiers in the Indian Armed Forces has been drawing a lot of different reactions since its announcement on 14 June, Tuesday.
Currently, the army recruits young people under the short service commission for an initial tenure of 10 years, which is extendable up to 14 years. But, under the new scheme, soldiers will be hired on a short-term contractual basis.
Hailing it as a "historic" reform, the government has touted the Agnipath recruitment scheme to be a "transformative initiative that will provide a youthful profile to the armed forces."
But while some say that the radical reform was necessary to cut costs of salaries and pensions of defence personnel and induct cutting-edge technology into the armed forces, others believe that there will be challenges along the way.
The Quint spoke to three army veterans on the pros and cons of this scheme.
'Agnipath is a Dead-End Street'
A popular criticism of the Agnipath scheme is how this recruitment process will leave young soldiers in the lurch after their short contractual stint in the armed forces come to an end.
On the condition of anonymity, an Air Force veteran said, "At the age of 22, you’ll have a youngster who will have gone through this whole exercise of enrolling in the defence services and find himself struggling and looking for a job once again. Being an 'Agniveer' is a dead-end street."
What is raising this big concern is the fact that under this scheme, about 45,000 people aged between 17.5 years and 21 years will be inducted for a four-year tenure into the defence services. They will be called ‘Agniveers’.
During this tenure, they will receive a salary between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000, along with benefits.
At the end of four years, each soldier will get a lump sum amount of about Rs 11.71 lakh, but only 25 percent of the Agniveers will be retained to join the regular cadre to go on and serve for a full 15 years in non-officer ranks. While the rest who leave the service are likely to restart hunting for new employment.
Soon after the announcement by the government, several defence veterans felt that the scheme shouldn't be implemented in a hurry without running a pilot project first.
Not just veterans, even defence aspirants themselves are opposed to the scheme as they are worried about their prospects after the completion of four years of service in the India Army, Navy, and Air Force.
According to reports, many of them took to burning tyres, blocking highways and railway tracks to protest against the Agnipath scheme in several places such as Bihar's Muzaffarpur and Buxar, Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow, and in parts of Rajasthan.
'Scheme Can Impact Training of Soldiers and Their Calibre'
Besides leaving a question mark on the future careers and employability of the recruits, there are also worries about how this scheme might dissuade people from joining the armed forces and in turn, impact the overall quality of the new soldiers.
"It is believed that people join the armed forces out of patriotism but the truth is many people from economically marginalised populations aspire to be in government service since it comes with perks and lifelong benefits. Then, along the way they develop patriotism, courage, and get inculcated with certain values," the retired Air Force officer said.
"With this scheme being implemented, it's a big possibility that people will try to flock to other government venues such as CRPF, BSF, state police, ITBP, etc instead and the armed forces will probably get the bottom of the barrel."Air Force Veteran on condition of anonymity
Retired Brigadier Kuldip Singh was also of the opinion that the rushed training might affect the operational prowess of the new recruits.
"Today, precision weapons are the norm; even existing platforms are quite sophisticated. India is operating automated artillery systems, advanced tanks, sophisticated aircraft, ships, and submarines. Even the communications are digitised, and using both cyber-space as well as space-based systems. But what is the calibre of the recruits who will come in under this new scheme? Will they be able to optimally exploit these systems, and win battles and wars for India?" he asked.
'Need to Reduce Cost of Manpower to Bring in New Tech, But...'
The primary imperative of this new policy, it has been pointed out, is to be able reduce the swelling defence pension bill which has become a concern for the government at the Centre.
According to a report in The Indian Express, the government has either allocated or paid more than Rs. 3.3 lakh crore in defence pension since 2020 pension bill. In this year's allocation, Rs 1.19 lakh crore out of Rs 3.65 lakh crore was just pensions, the report added.
Speaking on the bulging cost of defence pensions and salaries, Brigadier Kuldip Singh said, “It’s hard to assess if the scheme will succeed or not. Manpower costs, which traditionally have been around 25-33 percent of the overall budget, are now ballooning. This increase in salaries, living standards, training costs, and pensions is impinging on both revenue and capital expenditure."
This, in turn is holding up the induction of cutting-edge technology and platforms in numbers that will make a difference in future wars, he said.
"The fact is that technology is now playing an ever increasing role in combat. Look at the US armed forces – they are far smaller than most peer militaries but are able to punch far above their number size. Reducing manpower has allowed the Chinese armed forces an opportunity to focus on technological upgradations and precision weapons.”Retired Brigadier Kuldip Singh
By 2019, China, the world’s largest military force, downsized its land-based army by 50 percent while boosting its navy and air force to prioritise on shifting away from a “quantitative” to a “qualitative” force, as China's Central Military Commission put it.
“Technology also facilitates a reduction in manpower for example, a few precision or autonomous weapons can do the same work as a couple of artillery batteries or a number of aircraft sorties. Thus, for India, one way out of this dilemma is to reduce manpower and most contemporary armies have been doing that. To induct hi-tech, there are two routes – one, a huge, one-time infusion of cash; and two, reduce manpower while simultaneously using the money saved to induct cutting-edge platforms,” Brigadier Singh pointed out.
“Yet, the transition is easier said than done. The Chinese did it over a period of five years,” he added.
“The problem for India is that a huge infusion of cash is not available and the latter approach – reducing manpower to induct hi-tech creates an operational void during the period of transition, and India's prevalent security environment perhaps does not allow that luxury,” Brigadier Singh said.
'Ensuring Re-employment of Recruits Can Encourage Them'
Retd Lt General AK Singh, however, was of the opinion that since the reform has already been brought in, one should cooperate to make it work while also anticipate the challenges that prop up in the way.
"There have been many misgivings on this scheme mainly from veterans but the uniformed personnel feel it will succeed. My own view is that now that the scheme is here, we have to make it work. As we go along, there will be hiccups but we should be flexible and be ready to embrace alterations to the scheme where required."Retd General AK Singh
But, in the meantime, the government has to ensure that scheme becomes popular among the youth, he added.
"The armed forces are the first choice of profession for many youth in rural areas. Whether it will continue to remain the first choice with this new scheme is something to be seen. But on its part, the government should ensure the re-employment of these soldiers and give preference in the CAPFs and in the state police forces. Along with that, the public and private sector must also give 'Agniveers' a preference," General AK Singh said.
If given a good chance at re-employment, it might encourage aspirants to be recruited under this scheme, he opined.
"However, many questions remain, specially their operational effectiveness in a short service period of four years. With experience I feel the service period will have to be increased further. After all, the armed forces are the last resort of a nation and operational effectiveness is the most important criterion. Financial prudence should not be the arbitrator," he said.
Government Responds to Protests and Criticism With Myth vs Fact Doc
The government unofficially released a 'Myths vs Facts' document on 16 June, addressing some of the crucial concerns around the Agnipath scheme amid protests and criticism, NDTV reported.
To allay fears about the future of the contractual soldiers, the government said that those who desire to become entrepreneurs after the completion of their service will be given a financial package along with a bank loan.
Those wishing to study further will be provided a certificate equivalent to the completion of the 12th class and can attend a bridge course. They will be given preference in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and the state police force, it said.
The government also said that this scheme would not impact the effectiveness of the military as the number of Agniveers who will be recruited in the first year would comprise a mere 3 percent of the armed forces.