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Centre's Agnipath Scheme: A Test by Fire – Need for Reforms and Resolutions

For the country's good, unpopular decisions need to be taken, but they should preferably be implemented delicately.

Published
Opinion
9 min read
Centre's Agnipath Scheme: A Test by Fire – Need for Reforms and Resolutions
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The topic is much too important for our nation and the future of the military, hence this is going to be longer than the usual opinion pieces. Bear with me.

I need to clarify before I start – I have never been against Short Service Engagement in the military, including at the jawan level, provided it is well-rounded and balances out individual aspirations and organisational requirements while synchronously maintaining regular permanent recruitment, even if on a gradually declining scale.

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I am conscious that a ballooning recurring pension bill somehow needs to be tamed for future benefit and that is why I was always against the overemphasis on One Rank One Pension (OROP) and hyper-technical fault finding in what had been granted under it, fully aware that too much focus on personal financial benefits might lead to deleterious effect on other equally important issues.

Again, I am not against OROP for our regular pensioners but only against excessive attention to it. I am also well aware that change in a military milieu is quite hard to come by with the inherent resistance prevalent amongst the military community, including veterans, in most parts of the world.

It is also a fact that in overall good of any particular nation, at times, certain unpopular decisions need to be taken, though to soften the churning, even such unpopular but nationally imperative decisions should preferably be implemented delicately with minimal distress. That said, I proceed.

While the focus of most debates has been the shorter recruit training of our youth who would be joining the military as Agniveers for four years under the new Agnipath scheme and the perceived lack of regimentation and assimilation and therefore negative impact on operational efficiency, though I do not consider myself an expert in operations and strategy, I feel this is not going to be a huge challenge knowing the ethos of the Indian military and the fact that many other militaries of democracies offer similar shorter recruit training with no concept of such direct regimentation.

Moreover, though regimentation has many plus points, it does not mean that military outfits that are not based on human-invented attributes such as class, caste, religion, or region are any lesser in battle. While these time-tested military concepts would live on, they would have to yield in part to the principles of a democratic nation which constitutionally espouses equality.

The aim of penning this opinion piece is different. The foundation of this is not how the organisation will assimilate the change, since I am sure it will self-adjust, as it always has, without any reduction of capability, but on the terms and conditions now applicable to aspirants joining the defence services.

And since the government has apparently made it clear that it is open to changing and tweaking the scheme as we move forward, I do hope this is just 'Work in Progress' and the changes are brought in sooner than expected, to avoid any impression of exploitative human resource practices.

The Contours of the Scheme and Genuine Apprehensions:

1. Financial Aspects and ‘Ex-serviceman’ Status

The current scheme involves four years of military service, including six months training, after which 25 percent of such personnel would be absorbed in the permanent cadre and 75 percent would be released with ‘skilling’ and envisaged opportunities to transition into other vocations and self-employment. This shall now be the only entry into the defence services for recruitment at jawan level.

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The premise on which a four-year tenure is based is quite bewildering, and it seems an idea emanating from the military fraternity, quickly lapped up by financial mandarins.

The tenure has been capped at four years since a service of five years would have led to the entitlement to gratuity, which further would have meant the entitlement of “ex-serviceman” status which is granted to a person released on completion of terms of engagement with a gratuity. Now isn’t this imprudent? Of course, it is.

While the government might be concerned about ballooning recurring longtime expenditure on pensions, it is never averse to one-time payouts such as gratuity or lumpsum compensation. The proposal initiators, therefore, failed to keep in mind this very basic distinction, which not only shows the lack of an all-round approach while processing this proposal but also the lack of a large heart.

Should we be bothered more about the machines we would be buying by saving money, or the women and men behind those machines, the soldier – the very soul of any military?

The financial package touted with much fanfare also requires a critical breakdown. Half of the Seva Nidhi amount of about Rs 12 lakh to be paid on culmination of military service comprises the person’s own contribution – his or her own money, while the other half would have been contributed by the government.

The salary announced does not state whether it is inflation-proof by way of Dearness Allowance (DA) as is applicable to all other government employees all over India or not. If not, its real-time value would continue to diminish and would not remain what it is today at the time of the announcement.

While hardship allowances as applicable would be admissible, it is not clear whether the Military Service Pay (MSP) entitled to all military employees, currently pegged at Rs 5200 + DA, would be paid or not.

2. Disability Benefits

The package also talks of an insurance and disability compensation. But the disability compensation is only a one-time payout depending upon the percentage of disability suffered, and not in the form of disability pension.

Hence, in case a person gets disabled while on duty and even if he or she is injured in battle, we intend paying him or her only a one-time amount without any life-long disability pension or medical care to look after him or her.

Contrast this with what is available to others – military personnel recruited till now were entitled to disability pension for in-service disabilities and civil uniformed employees, including temporary ones, are also entitled to lifelong disability pension under the Extraordinary Pension Rules for in-service disabilities, including (rightly) for diseases such as hypertension and psychiatric conditions which might have been aggravated by service conditions. Are we not falling short on commitment and again being too miserly?

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3. Reservation, Comparison With Other Alternative Available Avenues and Allied Issues

The post-release priority (or reservation as now announced in the Central Armed Police Forces – CAPFs or civilian posts in the Ministry of Defence) may sound very attractive, but the political executive has not perhaps been informed of its pitfalls.

Firstly, for example, why should not a youth join the CAPFs directly, serve till 60 years, enjoy full service benefits for himself/herself and his/her family, including lifelong medical care, family pension in case of death in harness, disability pension if admissible, gratuity, Dearness Allowance, House Rent Allowance and other allowances for self and family, leave encashment, and above all, contributory pension under the National Pension System, colloquially referred as the New Pension Scheme (NPS), rather than first join the military for four years, and then attempt to join the CAPFs if rejected for the permanent cadre in the military, thereby losing his/her seniority and edge over his/her peers by four to five years who would have joined the CAPFs directly rather than through the Agniveer route?

This itself makes a career in the military subservient to that in the CAPFs or any other comparable service, while the situation was the opposite for the past 80 years.

Secondly, what has been the state of re-employment of ex-servicemen within government departments or post-release private employment till now even in case of veterans with much longer length of military service? We always had 10 percent reservation for ex-servicemen in Group C posts and 20 percent in Group D (now abolished) posts. How many were we able to fill? I need not dwell more for those who know the reality of this!

4. Issues Concerning Those Granted Permanence

It seems we are being stingy even to those 25 percent who would be granted permanence since if what is being stated is actually true, their service of four years would not count for pension or service benefits in the permanent cadre.

Now this is again small-hearted and such self-introduced restrictive clauses blow logic to smithereens. As per regulations, such military service is to be added and counted as pensionable service. An option to count service is given even to those military personnel who join any central or state civil employment or a post-release appointment within the defence services such as Territorial Army and Defence Security Corps (DSC). Counting of service is even available to civil employees making inter-departmental transition.

While this has remained the rule throughout, what was the need to jettison it for our own soldiers under this new scheme?

Alternatives to Save the Burden of Pensions on the Exchequer

Needless to state, it is not that there were no ingenious methods available to tame the pension bill. Easily, as a pilot project, or as a small percentage of recruitments, a Short Service Engagement of 5 years extendable (at the volition of the soldier) to 10 years could have been introduced on the NPS format.

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It would have resulted in better financial protection under the NPS, payment of gratuity, grant of ex-serviceman status (and hence availability of existing ex-serviceman reservation), admissibility of proper disability pension in case of disability (which has already been extended by the government to civilian employees on NPS), family pension in case of death and a much more softer churn towards a new recruitment policy.

The benefits on the civil side kick in at the age of 60 and hence the scheme would have to be tailor-tweaked in consultation with the Pension Fund Regulatory & Development Authority (PFRDA) with perhaps a suggested heavier contribution from the government’s side. Interestingly, a similar Short Service Scheme at the officer level is already in existence in the Coast Guard under the Ministry of Defence itself, but senior military staff of the three services seem to be totally unaware of it. A live template was hence in existence which was not even examined, let alone be emulated.

Effectuation of Changes, Wider Consultations, and Avoidance of Past Mistakes

The saving grace in the saga is that the government has shown its willingness to tweak the rough edges, and with Rajnath Singh, a person known to command respect across political, ideological, and other divisions, at the helm, a resolution is not unattainable.

However, we need to tread with care. Whenever a change is proposed, the first thing that is required is a wide consultative process with much more sunlight and expert inputs than what was done in the instant case through hush-hush studies piloted by officers of the military.

Even certain changes made in the last few days should have been factored-in and announced while detailing the scheme and not after protests.

The political executive must discuss with those who can render advice in the interest of the nation without fear or favour, and not just 'Yes' Men/Women who might not be in touch with reality and who would render a rosy exaggerated picture on the formula they initiated or even senior but clueless military veterans, who do not know the basics of human capital practices, pensionary or resettlement policies or the predicament of the youth, and who, in a tone-deaf manner, are parroting words from hand-outs such as ‘win win’, ‘gamechanger’ etc on the sudden deprivation of adequate social security of aspiring youth while comfortably enjoying their own hefty pensions and lifelong facilities for self and family.

I am sorry if I sound harsh but I am not here to please.

While the attack on public properties should be dealt with an iron hand and arsonists have no place in our military, it is not quite a fair stance to blame it all on social media and television when there are youth who are peaceful but have understandably genuine concerns on the sudden change of a permanent career with pension, gratuity, service benefits and security with 19 to 35 years of assured service to a four year contractual engagement, as having ‘not understood the scheme’ or ‘are being misled’..

Let us put ourselves in their shoes for a moment.

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Besides the military, the defence setup and financial wizards, the wider consultations alluded above must include the youth, human capital & human resource experts, preferably from outside the officialdom, representatives of the PFRDA, legal and pensionary experts, insurance experts and representatives of the Department of Pensioners & Pensioners’ Welfare (DoPPW) – people who know the practical realities of life and have worked in these fields and have not just theoretically downloaded pamphlets of service conditions of the US and British Armies from the internet.

As we move from here, there is a need to consult those who have the guts to say, “No Sir, this might not be a good idea”.

I am sanguine that there shall be change, and it shall come sooner than expected in the overall benefit of the nation and its youth, but the decision-makers might need more people around them who identify and present the warts in all their glory rather than those who please with high praise and flowery language.

(Major Navdeep Singh is a practicing lawyer at the Punjab & Haryana High Court and the author of “Military Pensions: Commentary, Case Law & Provisions” and “March to Justice: Global Military Law Landmarks”. He was a Member of the Raksha Mantri’s Committee of Experts to review litigation, service and pensionary matters, constituted by the Defence Minister in 2015 on directions of the Prime Minister. 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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