Can Agnipath Mayhem be Ended, and National Unity Built, with These Tweaks?
A national security expert gives recommendations to make Agnipath scheme work for applicants and armed forces both.
The Agnipath mayhem seems to be unending and it has to stop. That’s the minimum that almost everyone agrees with. People who are burning buses, trains, and indulging in a bout of rampage just for the heck of it would not agree, but the genuine sufferers would.
There is no denying the fact that the Agnipath scheme has come as a bolt from the blue for those who were building their futures on a life in the army. Also true, however, is that the government’s scheme is aimed at a real problem; escalating pension costs which is preventing the armed forces from buying the weapons they desperately need. There’s a way to get there to the satisfaction of the last two, even while taking the wind out of the first.
Different Kinds of Protestors: Genuine As Well As Hired
Many videos of the protests will clearly show the following: that young men all have identical lathis, that they seem to have plenty of petrol to throw around, that some are using petrol bombs, and that many are having a great time. Goons for hire is nothing new in South Asia, nor is it difficult. All it needs is a large chest of cash, the ‘mob gatherers’ , and of course the mobs themselves.
In all probability, many of these have taken part in the protests against farm laws, in those against/for Nupur Sharma or even against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). Oddly, there were no protests at all against the demonetisation scheme which wreaked havoc on exactly the class of people who are protesting. Perhaps all those illicit cash chests had been wiped out back then.
There appears to be a hand of sabotage here, that need not necessarily be limited to opposition parties only.
Such large scale operations—protests are now taking place in 11 states—are probably beyond the capabilities of the usual suspect, the Pakistani intelligence. This is very big money with a strong local network. So that’s the first group which has to be ‘sorted’ quickly.
Agnipath scheme has come as a bolt from the blue for those who were building their futures on a life in the army.
The scheme is aimed at a real problem; escalating pension costs which is preventing the armed forces from buying the weapons they desperately need.
The Agnipath mayhem seems to be unending and it has to stop.
Defence Ministry needs to put out Recruitment Rallies for 50 per cent of total vacancies as regular service, who will go through the normal recruitment cycle.
Remaining 50 per cent should be filled by Agnipath scheme and after four years all Agniveers must be absorbed by other paramilitary and state governments.
India's Veers in Waiting
None of this is meant to take away from the fact that there are thousands out there who have been shell shocked by the fact that their dream of a life time in the armed forces is no more. Many of those selected will be from families who have traditionally sent a son into the services, their standing in the village comes with service, and so does their marriage. It's not a career; it’s a life.
At any recruitment rally, about a lakh of persons turn up for a hundred or so vacancies. That’s the demand. Add to this the fact that recruitment rallies have not been held for at least two years in a pandemic situation.
Take one statistic. Of 97 recruitment rallies planned in 2020-21, only 47 rallies were held; of that the written test was done for four. The story gets worse the next year. There have already been protests on this score. At least one massive protest in Secunderabad was being operated by coaching centres themselves, unsurprising given the losses these ‘middle men’ make.
Military's Battle with Money Can't be Fought by Agniveers
The Armed Forces are facing a shortage of more than 1.13 lakh soldiers, with the army the worst hit. Apart from this are a host of issues including ageing equipment, and table top exercises rather than dusting up the ground with tanks, artillery and helicopters in real time. Nobody is fooled. The one doesn’t replace the other.
The basic figure needed to be understood is this. Salaries and pensions formed 54 per cent of the defence budget, while just 27 per cent went for new equipment. That leaves less than 19 per cent for maintenance, as well as the road building frenzy post Galwan. Which is why successive Defence Committees of the Cabinet has been saying either reduce manpower, or step up the budget to 3 per cent of GDP. Right now its shrunk to a mere 1.49 per cent. In other words, there is a choice. One or the other.
The Agnipath scheme is aimed at changing the forces largely into an all volunteer force, with an envisaged 46,000 volunteers in each of the first four years, to 90,000 volunteers in the fifth year, and to 125,000 in the sixth year.
As a formidable expert Lt Gen Shankar observed, by 2032, when the 50% mark is reached, each subunit will have one experienced soldier for three inexperienced Agniveers. That’s not a fighting ratio. It’s a make do mandate. Then at the end of four years, a 75 per cent cut takes place, which means that only one of four will make it.
That’s not the healthiest competition, especially under fire, when an Agniveer dead means a slot gained for absorption. And no, an Agniveer on a four year lease is not quite the same as a regular foot soldier, however brave.
An Alternate Solution
So here’s the way out; of those lakh plus vacancies—now probably far more, given some 60,000 retirees a year—the Defence Ministry needs to put out Recruitment Rallies for 50 per cent of that as regular service, who will go through the normal recruitment cycle. Put this out quickly, and watch the protests die down.
Announce that the rest are to be inducted through Agnipath scheme. And here’s the second point. Tweak the scheme to announce that all of the Agniveers go out after four years, with all to be absorbed by other paramilitary and state governments. Remember the numbers are now half.
Also announce that top layer of Agniveers will be given special orders/ medals that will ensure better employability at a better rank, with all of these promises set in legal stone.
No, just public statements by Ministers which are coming out thick and fast will not do. Pass the orders.
Also make sure that the services don’t need to conjure up an entirely new method of evaluation at the lowest levels, where it's not just promotion but dismissal.
In other words, you have the best of both worlds, with a lowered financial commitments and a younger service, as also the continued induction of men through a system that has stood the army well for years.
What Price For National Unity at a Time of Erosion?
That brings in the last aspect. Consider that service in the armed forces means that in nearly every village in the country, there are people for whom the country matters, naturally disciplined, and respected for their views. That kind of a core population is beyond a budget figure.
Service officers have repeatedly said that the Indian Armed Forces were not an employment scheme. But it may well be, and a very good one, that keeps the country together and inculcates values that are eroding elsewhere. There are skills, too, that are being wasted.
Maybe it's time the government thought of that second option, recommended by one parliamentary committee after another, and that is to raise the budget, and use short service commission and regular retirees as a resource. ‘Skilling’ has become a fashionable word. Instead, make it a workday ethic. At the end of the road, you wont just get an Agniveer; you'll get a man who can do the job, any job. And the best part? Watch our enemies wilt. That’s the cherry on top.
And here’s the add on. This cycle of recruitment and retirement means that in almost every village—particularly in the north—there is a solid mass of people who are completely loyal to the country. Balance this huge asset with the inflated pension bill.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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