The recently launched Agnipath scheme for recruitment of soldiers, sailors, and airmen is a radical departure from the past patterns. Under this scheme, soldiers called Agniveers will be recruited to serve for four years with a partly contributory severance package but no pension benefits. Only twenty five percent of the soldiers will be reabsorbed in their own units to serve full service as regular soldiers.
There has been a vehement debate across the nation and most veterans wanted a pilot project before full-fledged implementation. However, since the new recruitment policy has been announced by the government, the Indian Armed Forces must not only deal with it, but also turn this to an advantage.
The Agnipath scheme has some advantages, a few challenges, and some apprehensions.
Reduced training period will have to be offset by focused training and employment of other innovative methods.
A young boy from rural class is likely to apply for more permanent avenues like police or paramilitary forces first. There will, therefore, be a requirement to incentivise this new scheme.
It is important to ensure that Agniveers are absorbed gainfully in the society, lest they become a potential threat to the society.
Army leadership will have to employ innovative devices to inculcate loyalty and camaraderie in quick time.
Indian Military Leadership Must Capitalise on the Strengths of Agnipath Scheme
The Agnipath scheme has some advantages, a few challenges, and some apprehensions. The Indian Armed Forces will have to capitalise on the strengths of this scheme and deal with the challenges and apprehensions, without getting unbalanced.
Let us examine the advantages first. It will lower the age profile of the soldiers, as three fourths of the soldiers will retire after four years’ service, and they will be replaced by younger soldiers every year. While a regular soldier who retires in his mid-thirties today is also young, but the soldiers in early twenties are no doubt younger, and better suited for certain operational contexts.
This new policy is in keeping with times, where younger generation is more tech savvy and a large number are keen to join the army, although some may not want to make it a lifetime career.
A short service commission scheme exists for officers, but there is no equivalent entry scheme among soldiers to enhance the support cadre.
This will also result in better leadership at junior levels, as only the top twenty five percent will be selected for retention as regular soldiers after four years. The newer crop of soldiers will always be more tech savvy, in comparative terms. The Agniveers will also stay motivated to give their best performance during the four years of their service, in order to make it to the top twenty five percent—those who will be retained in service after four years.
Currently, the expenditure on salaries and pensions of soldiers constitutes over eighty percent of the defence budget, leaving very little capital budget for modernisation of armed forces.
This Tour of Duty will reduce the expenditure on salaries and pensions.
Will Agnipath Attract the Best Candidates?
However, the challenges will be no less. A recruits’s training is the first step that goes into making of an effective soldier, and the intangibles like camaraderie, motivation and sense of belonging come later. Basic training of recruits in their regimental centres is augmented by on job training in the units. Now both the durations are being reduced. Reduced training period will have to be offset by focused training and employment of other innovative methods.
A young boy from rural class is likely to apply for more permanent avenues like police or paramilitary forces first. This might result in young aspirants opting for the army as second or third choice. There will, therefore, be a requirement to incentivise this new scheme. For instance, in the US the short-term duty soldiers undergo education at government expense.
The youth is likely to worry about uncertain future after four years service. Although a disciplined and motivated candidate in early twenties is more likely to find employment than an untrained counterpart, yet there is no assurance. It would be preferable if some assured lateral absorption in paramilitary or central armed police forces could be provisioned. It would be a win win situation, as these forces would get a trained soldier who is still young.
Can Unemployed Trained Soldiers be a Threat to Society?
Another spin off that govt expects is a proliferation of ex-soldiers in the society, which is likely to enhance the societal quality, as well as a high quality resource to fall back on. For this to happen, it is important to ensure that these young men are absorbed gainfully in the society, lest they remain unemployed and as trained soldiers, they become a potential threat to the society.
There are also some apprehensions that the Agniveers may fail to develop the same camaraderie and sense of loyalty and motivation as full time soldiers. These intangibles are a significant factor in the combat edge of a soldier.
A soldier dies for his 'paltan ki izzat', the honour of his unit or 'Naam, Namak, Nishan', the good name of his unit, symbolised by the regimental flag or colours or penants. Army leadership is of exceptional quality, and they will have to employ innovative devices to inculcate these war winning factors in quick time.
Will Indian Military Get More Funds for Modernisation?
Another apprehension is that the savings that accrue in the salaries and pensions expenditure under revenue head may not necessarily result in increase in modernisation budget as the latter is under capital head, and both heads are differently funded.
The government has agreed to introduce mid-course corrections, if need be. This is a welcome step, as the Agnipath scheme is a radical departure from the past and there may be a requirement to tweak the policy, depending upon the experience.
The bottom line is that the combat power of the armed forces should not be affected adversely, as we have two active borders, with both nuclear neighbours.
(Lt General Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)