Agnipath scheme: Generating more heat than light?

Agnipath 2022 is the latest of schemes with large-scale, long-term national implications, pushed into implementation without discussion or consultation in Parliament.

——-

THE Tour of Duty scheme of recruitment for the Defence Services is catchily named ‘Agnipath’, and the youth to be recruited are named ‘Agniveers’.

The implications of the Agnipath scheme are different for the Army (and within the Army for different arms and services), the Navy and the Air Force. This is because of the difference in the arena of operations, the conditions of service, the role of personnel at different levels of the command and control chain, and the different operational and technical requirements. However, the discussion that follows pertains principally to the Army.

Youths in the age bracket of 17.5 to 21-years of age are selected according to the existing selection system – written Common Entrance Examination + physical + medical tests – from among online applicants, and employed as Agniveers on a four-year contract, starting with 31-weeks basic military training. ‘Agniveer’ will be a new military rank different from existing ranks, and Agniveers will be liable for deployment in any unit or regiment on military duties, like regular cadre soldiers.

How the Army’s functioning will suffer

The Army functions on the basis of mutual personal trust and confidence in the operational capability of every soldier in the team. In general, the four-year-contract Agniveer who may be deployed in operations which involve personal risk, would not have acquired the professional competence level that would inspire mutual trust and confidence. Besides, an Agniveer is insecure, being unsure of service beyond four-years, and will not be motivated to expose himself to serious risk or hazard that military service frequently demands. This would cause unacceptable sub-optimal performance of the team, and result in sub-unit and unit commanders, who are responsible for success of operations, keeping Agniveers out of critical tasks, with consequent overloading of regular cadre soldiers.

The four-year-contract Agniveer who may be deployed in operations which involve personal risk, would not have acquired the professional competence level that would inspire mutual trust and confidence. Besides, an Agniveer is insecure, being unsure of service beyond four-years, and will not be motivated to expose himself to serious risk or hazard that military service frequently demands.

46,000 Agniveers are expected to be recruited in the current year, starting July 2022. At the end of four years, a maximum of 25 per cent of Agniveers may be offered absorption into the Army, based upon fitness and performance during the four year period.

For a regular cadre soldier, performance assessment at unit/sub-unit level concerns his selection for promotion to non-commissioned officer rank. If he does not qualify, he serves for 15 years and retires with gratuity, pension, lifetime medical cover and other benefits. However, performance assessment for an Agniveer determines whether at the end of four years, he is among the 25 per cent selected for absorption into regular cadre, or among the rejected 75 per cent who will be demobilised. This places an additional burden of responsibility upon the already overloaded (due to personnel shortage) command structure at unit/sub-unit levels, besides causing the Agniveer to focus on being seen to perform rather than on actual performance.

The performance assessment system is still in the discussion/planning stage, indicating that the Agnipath scheme was rolled out without adequate preparation. This is quite unlike the meticulous planning which is part and parcel of traditional military ethos.

What about the 75 per cent Agniveers offloaded after four years?

Seventy-five per cent Agniveers will be demobilized with a severance lump-sum amount on discharge – Rs. 10.04 lakhs, which includes their own 50 per cent contribution, plus interest accrued. Thus, about 40,000 demobilized youth aged 21.5 to 25 years, will return to the ranks of the unemployed every year after 2027.

Agniveers’ pre-recruitment insecurity is seen as “No rank, no pension, only tension”. This is notwithstanding very recent assurances of lateral absorption of rejected Agniveers into the Central Armed Police Forces (‘CAPFs’), state police, or the private sector, 2027 onwards. These assurances are viewed with scepticism since, for decades, absorption of fully trained and disciplined veteran soldiers into reserved quotas in CAPFs, state police and the private sector has been worse than dismal.

About 35,000 young men with basic military skills re-entering the job market every year after 2027, are an excellent source for employment as mercenary soldiers by Indian or foreign military contractor corporations. Indeed, veteran Lt. Gen. Abhay Krishna holds that “Agnipath may help in raising private military companies in the same way as the US had deployed Blackwater in Iraq or the Russians had used the Wagner group in Syria or how the Chinese are using Academia in Xinjiang. Whether or not such corporatization of armed conflict is desirable, it is probable that the annual 75 per cent rejected Agniveers will be employed by insurgent, terrorist or communal organizations which possess huge financial resources, and result in increased violence and repression in society.

It is probable that the annual 75 per cent rejected Agniveers will be employed by insurgent, terrorist or communal organizations which possess huge financial resources, and result in increased violence and repression in society.

A claimed advantage of the Agnipath scheme is, to imbibe a sense of desh-bhakti (patriotism) in the youth during their four-year contract period. It is accepted that military training and service creates a sense of discipline, but whether 75 per cent rejected Agniveers will imbibe additional desh-bhakti during their four-year contract period is questionable, since they may sell their acquired military skills to the best paymaster. Notably, the motto of the National Cadet Corps, which imparts military training to students, is “Unity and Discipline”, since desh-bhakti does not require separate emphasis.

Yet another hastily implemented scheme

India joining the World Trade Organization in 1995, the Unique Identification Authority of India’s Aadhaar system in 2009, the four-hour-notice currency note demonetization in 2016, the inadequately prepared Goods and Services Tax roll-out in 2017, the four-hour-notice national COVID lockdown in 2020, and the farm laws legislated in 2020, all happened with little or no discussion in Parliament, and with no consultation with relevant stakeholders. Agnipath 2022 is the latest of such schemes with large-scale, long-term national implications, pushed into implementation without discussion or consultation in Parliament.

Also read: India’s descent to a presidential State and the birth of ‘parliamentary dictatorship’

There was unexpected, spontaneous youth anger concerning the Agnipath scheme, and consequent condemnable violence. Apparently in response, the government announced an extension of the upper age limit to 23 years only for 2022-23. Introducing Agnipath as a pilot could have avoided this.

Reportedly, in 2019, an Army Headquarters concept paper for Tour of Duty recommended a pilot project of 100 officers and 1,000 soldiers. However, although the Agnipath scheme was announced without conducting a pilot, the Department of Military Affairs Additional Secretary Lt. Gen. Anil Puri stated that Agnipath was finalised after Defence Services, officials of the Union Ministry of Defence, and other government departments held 254 meetings over 750 hours. He also averred that Agnipath would improve the military’s combat capability, but provided nothing to substantiate this.

According to early media reports, the Agnipath scheme was meant to (1) lower the age profile of our Armed Forces, and (2) reduce the defence pension payout by the government.

Regarding age profile, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had said that Agnipath was a transformative initiative that would provide a youthful profile to the armed forces.

The Agnipath scheme was expected to make a statistically “more youthful profile” of the troops, by bringing down the current age profile of frontline units from 32 years at present to 26 years in four to six years. It is indubitable that the Army needs to be “youthful” for effective performance in military operations, but the idea of creating a “more youthful profile” assumes that the present (pre-Agniveer) youthful age profile is somehow inadequate. This assumption is wholly misplaced, because the combat performance of the present regular cadre soldier in any operational environment over the past decades is proven beyond doubt, and is not lacking in any manner. The pithy wisdom of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, comes to mind.

Government sources trotted out the simplistic argument that since the military pension bill is very high, and since money is needed for modernization of the military, reducing the pension bill would release money for modernization. Putting the arithmetic aside, the argument is as if modernization of the military is only for the benefit of the military, and as if national security is the responsibility of only the military.

Also read: OROP suffers from no constitutional infirmity: SC

The Agnipath scheme was touted as the method of reducing the defence pension bill, since 75 per cent Agniveers would provide non-pensionable military service for four years, with 25 per cent Agniveers being absorbed as regular cadres.

The idea of creating a “more youthful profile” assumes that the present (pre-Agniveer) youthful age profile is somehow inadequate. This assumption is wholly misplaced, because the combat performance of the present regular cadre soldier in any operational environment over the past decades is proven beyond doubt, and is not lacking in any manner.

It is another matter that Defence Minister Singh reportedly said that the Agnipath scheme was not for saving money, perhaps back-tracking after potential Agniveer youth across our country were deeply disappointed and disenchanted with the scheme. The Agnipath scheme appears as a four-year’ employment reprieve for around 50,000 youths annually after four to six years, with actual benefit to only 25 per cent of them – out of increasing unemployed millions countrywide!

It is deeply regrettable that the impact of the Agnipath scheme on the war-fighting capability of the military was a side-issue or non-issue, despite the on-going hostility of the Chinese and Pakistani armed forces. Additionally, our Army has the “half-front” responsibility of internal security, because of combined political-bureaucratic-police ineptness.

Setting Agnipath aside for the moment, the government also appears intent on changing the Army’s regimental system, which is at the foundation of proven war-fighting effectiveness. The stated reason is that the regimental system is of British origin and needs to be changed. Once again, the wisdom of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should be heeded. In particular, making far-reaching military organizational changes for political reasons, displays strategic myopia.

Agnipath scheme must be withdrawn

Many senior-ranking, experienced veterans have expressed deep concern at the multi-faceted negative impact of the Agnipath scheme, the proposed de-regimentation of the Army, and consequent negative effect on national security. They are calling for withdrawal of the Agnipath scheme, and for not tinkering with the composition of the Army’s fighting arms. Notably, one senior Army veteran who unfailingly fulminates at anything even vaguely critical of the government, has outrightly opposed both the Agnipath scheme and de-regimentation.

It is deeply regrettable that the impact of the Agnipath scheme on the war-fighting capability of the military was a side-issue or non-issue, despite the on-going hostility of the Chinese and Pakistani armed forces.

Also read: Justice Deepak Gupta: ‘Criticism of government, army & judiciary can’t be construed as sedition’

The senior serving officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force, are implementing the inadequately thought-through Agnipath scheme. Whether they will similarly implement de-regimentation remains to be seen, although at the present, the government is playing that song at low volume.

It is high time that government works more transparently and openly regarding schemes, proposals, projects, and so on – especially those without precedent, like Agnipath and de-regimentation – engages in discussion and consultation with people and experts, and uses democratic tools of governance, instead of ramming schemes into implementation.

The Agnipath scheme has, sadly, generated more heat than light. The government would be well advised to withdraw it for careful reconsideration and testing as a pilot, in national interest.