Opinion: Agnipath, a path-breaking scheme

The scheme envisages the military will take the lead in the training and subsequent employment of the youth, without affecting its capabilities in any way.

By TJ Reddy  Published on  21 July 2022 11:26 AM GMT
Opinion: Agnipath, a path-breaking scheme

The Union Cabinet had approved the Agnipath scheme on June 14, just over a month ago, announcing its intention to recruit 46,000 Agniveers under the initiative this year. it is quite obvious that the Prime Minister wants the youth of India to become better and disciplined citizens of the country and imbibe the professionalism, dedication and focus on the good of the nation that the armed forces are known for. The scheme envisages the military will take the lead in the training and subsequent employment of the youth, without affecting its capabilities in any way. The scheme has already seen much debate and the opposition to the scheme has still not died down entirely even though it is nearly a month since the announcement was made and the recruitment process is underway in all three services, Air Force, Navy, and the Army. Naturally, any new scheme requires some time and space for addressing issues that may crop up during implementation.

It is not my aim to engage in a critique of the scheme but to highlight the apprehensions that require wider consultation and inputs from experts in various fields who are familiar with ground realities for bringing about necessary changes for better impact and successful implementation based on the experience and the track record. A detailed presentation on the scheme was given by the consultative committee of defence led by the Minister of Defence on July 11 to the participating MPs, attended by the three service chiefs and the defence secretary. A joint statement was submitted by six opposition MPs who attended the presentation (two from the Congress, one from NCP, two from TMC, and one from RJD) asking the government to hold wider consultations and refer the discussions on the scheme to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence, while for the record another congress MP who had argued a week earlier that the scheme is part of much needed military reforms and modernization of the armed forces declined to sign the statement. The opposition parties have also demanded a discussion on the scheme in this monsoon session, indicating their concerns regarding the same.

Positives of the scheme:

A short military service to the nation and society by the youth of the nation is an important feature of nation-building. This includes the inculcation of patriotism, teamwork, enhancement of physical fitness, improved loyalty to the country, and physical fitness besides the availability of trained personnel to enhance national security in times of external threats (as citizen forces seen in the Ukraine conflict), internal threats and natural disasters. The scheme offers an opportunity for Agniveers to train in the best institutions and enhance their skills & qualifications besides the spread of military ethos in civil society. Those returning to society after four years could emerge as role models for the youth. There is a genuine expectation that the inspired and disciplined youth with specialized skills, focus, and national spirit will contribute to other sectors on re-employment. Industry leaders have expressed confidence in the scheme saying it has a large potential to provide a disciplined and trained workforce to the industry. Perhaps Corporates are increasingly realizing that qualities such as sincerity, integrity, and adaptability, which are core to the armed forces take a lot of effort to develop and feel that Agniveer would be a readily available product already well-trained on planning and execution skills, making them eminently employable in the private sector more particularly in unchartered areas in the manufacturing field. Agniveers and military veterans would also be an asset for the defence industry, with 68% accounting for the 'Make in India' budget. The scope of employing armed forces veterans in logistics, warehouse, and civil aviation segments is considerable.

Response to the scheme: Initial data suggests that the scheme has caught the fancy of the youth. IAF received the highest ever recruitment registrations for 'Agnipath'. Nearly 750,000 candidates have registered for recruitment in the Indian Air Force (IAF) under the scheme designed for short-term induction into the armed forces. This can be interpreted in three ways – the scheme has garnered popularity among the eligible youth, it signifies large-scale unemployment among the youth(after the effect of nonemployment in the pandemic season aggravating), or a calibrated attempt from certain sections of the society to utilize the opportunity to infiltrate into the defence forces with ulterior motives.

Other options:

Many have argued that certainly other options could have been thought of before introducing the scheme in defence forces. Options suggested include expansion of NCC (it is in the news that the Government wants the meager army component in NCC reduced) as a first step to inculcate the habit of punctuality, discipline, and a feel of uniform. Introducing the scheme in para-military forces or on an experimental basis in selected areas in the armed forces were the other.

Apprehensions voiced by the critiques :

(a)Downsizing of forces:

It is learnt that the Agnipath scheme is based on the simultaneous downsizing of forces by over one lakh people due to non-recruitment in the last two years and less recruitment in the future. The present ground situation portends serious consequences as the Indian military's responsibilities multiply along its western and northern borders where it is locked in a standoff with the Chinese since May 2020. In the Indian scenario, the security situation with proxy and hybrid war demands enough boots on the ground, and downsizing the strength may have an adverse effect.

(b) Departing from time-tested regimental ethos:

The scheme envisages centralized recruitment from across the country. While comparing with other militaries is not right as no other has the diversity of the kind that our military has, it is not a wise move to tinker with time tested regimental sense of identity. Though it is announced that this will continue as before, the cohesiveness through the sense of identity and belongingness based on regional, ethnic, and language considerations that have developed over decades may not be the same anymore with the proposed pan-India recruitment.

(c) Assimilation of technology during the period of training:

The scheme, in its present form, is suitable only for the army, remaining fixated on the "boots-on-the-ground" syndrome, whose large infantry component is not excessively burdened with technology. In the case of the navy and air force, it needs to be recognized that at least 5-6 years are required before a new entrant can acquire enough hands-on experience to be entrusted with the operation or maintenance of lethal weapon systems, and complex machinery, electronics, and avionics.

(d) Reservations for Agniveers after completion of four years:

The post-release priority (reservation) for Agniveers as now announced has to be viewed in the context of experience. About 60,000-70,000 armed forces personnel retire every year, with a majority being in their early 40s, after putting in a minimum of 15 years of active service. The state of re-employment of ex-servicemen (ESM) within Government departments, Public Sector Units (PSUs), and private employers with such a higher length of military service, despite laid down the percentage of reservations is nothing much to write about. The figures available from authentic sources reveal the real picture.

In central government, 10% in Group C jobs and 20% in Group D jobs(now abolished) are reserved for ex-servicemen. However, of the 10,84,705 Group C employees, only 13,976 were ex-servicemen. And of the total 3,25,265 Group D employees, only 8,642 were ex-servicemen. That is a paltry 1.3% against 10% in group C and 2.65% against 20% in Group D even in central government jobs.

In public sector banks, PSUs, etc., 14.5% in Group C and 24.5% in Group D is reserved for our veterans. The available data for 94 of the 170 PSUs shows only 1.15% of the Group C strength, and 0.3% of the Group D employees are ex-servicemen.

Another data from the Directorate General of Resettlements of Ex-servicemen states that only 2.4% of armed forces veterans are likely to get a job after applying for it. This is despite an existing reservation that isn't being filled in.

The worst is PSUs under defence ministry. In the 10 Defence PSUs, Ex-servicemen comprised only 3.45% and 2.71% of Group C and Group D posts. Only 0.62% of positions reserved for veterans are filled. Railways could only fill 1.4% of the positions reserved for retired armed forces personnel.

Even worse are CAPFs. There is a 10% quota for ex-servicemen in direct recruitment up to the level of assistant commandant in the CAPF(Central Armed Police Forces) / CPMF (Central Para Military Forces). As on June 30, 2021, ex-servicemen accounted for only 0.47% in Group C (4,146 of total 8,81,397); 0.87% in Group B (539 of 61,650); and 2.20% in Group A (1,687 of 76,681). It is well known that the home ministry has resisted the induction of ex-servicemen into the armed police and para-military forces because it would spoil the career path of their cadres.

Similarly, state governments and other agencies have blatantly ignored the reservations mandated for ESM, notwithstanding eloquent assurances.

(e) Counting of Agnipath service for seniority and pension:

The scheme presently does not provide for counting of Agnipath service, essentially military service, for pension or seniority on re-employment(which is nothing but the transition from one service to another), which is presently available on post-release appointments of not only military personnel but also to civilian employees making the inter-departmental transition.

(f) Wayward behavior of unemployed youth post-demobilization:

The (TMC) Trinamool Congress has linked the assassination of former Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India's recently introduced Agnipath scheme, following similar insinuations from Congress which claimed that the shooter had served with Japan's Self-Defence Forces without a pension. It was mentioned that Shinzo Abe's death underscores the reasons why people have grievances against the Agnipath scheme. This is because the alleged had served in the Japanese army without a pension. This view may be far-fetched but in a free society, it is desirable to consider all possibilities arising out of the increase in the number of frustrated and misguided youth trained in handling weapons. The present scenario in the country wherein many elements are relentlessly working to undermine the national unity and development for avowed reasons the contrary presents no comfort in this regard. A perfectly good and efficient soldier if sent home for no reason and without any transparent criteria for retention (technically fresh employment) would feel miserable, unhappy, and even angry if his effort in finding re-employment does not fructify in a reasonable time.

Misnomers:

The first misnomer is that the salaries of the armed forces and defense pensions form a huge portion of defence budget. This is propagated by the government itself whenever defence acquisitions for modernization are discussed. The government wants the public to believe this. The prospect of a military defeat and its consequences is so dreadful and horrifying to a nation. National security, therefore, has to be "the first charge on the treasury". The fact is that the finance ministry, instead of finding ways and means of raising essential, additional funds for national defence, has passed the buck to the armed forces, and demanded that they evolve measures for reducing the pension bill. One presumes that the Agnipath scheme, launched with much fanfare, is an outcome of this demand. Surely, the public is well aware that politicians (even for the truncated term and multiple pensions for as many terms), bureaucrats of all hues of central and state governments (enjoying Non-Functional Financial Upgradation, the NFFU) also draw pensions. The pension percentage of 22% of defence civilians in the armed forces accounts for roughly double this percentage of defence pension budget. Yet the government every time only brings up the pension bill for the armed forces. If the Nation can afford all kinds of extravagant outflows by way of freebies in various forms, with no accountability, it is obligated to provide for the genuine needs of defense forces, without too much emphasis on the financial burden on anything connected with security. The nature of our geopolitical context demands that we maintain our armed forces with the highest professional competence at all times. The reduction of pensionary demands will take at least ten years and more, to have any effect after the implementation of the scheme. Time will tell about its efficacy or otherwise in this regard. While the scheme may bring a 'sobering' effect on the soaring defense pensions budget for some time, there are not many takers for the official line that the induction plan is centered on imparting a youthful profile to the armed forces and concomitantly enhancing the employability of the demobilized youth thereafter in the Central Para Military Forces and the public and private sectors. The vehement official protestations that the Agnipath scheme was in no way motivated by financial considerations are, in a sense, difficult to digest.

Measures to be considered for the success of the Scheme:

Thorough recruitment process: In the light of the apprehensions expressed about the wayward behavior of unemployed youth post-demobilization, it is necessary to ensure proper screening and pre-recruitment verification process for Agniveers. The Government has made a habit of pushing things in a hurry knowing there will not be resistance from defence forces who are endowed with the inherent capability of adapting and self-adjusting in quick time. Doing this too frequently – induction of women in a combat role, increasing their strength in armed forces and the like, where even the judiciary has a hand – is bound to have serious ramifications on their effectiveness in course of time, when it may be too late to reverse the process. Armed Forces are not for experiments. The Government has however chosen to experiment with armed forces. In future wars, we cannot and should not expect any military support from others. Everything will only depend on our preparations and our strength.

Legal mandate for reservations: If the Agnipath scheme has to offer a meaningful promise of post-demobilization employment or education and carry conviction, proposed reservations for retired armed forces personnel including Agniveers must have a legal mandate (by an Act of Parliament). Perhaps mere 25% retention on re-employment in the armed forces may be too less. The success of the scheme largely depends on the initial screening and recruitment process and actual placement after four years.

Specialized orientation program: Specialised orientation program that helps in the smooth transition of ex-servicemen to civilian life is necessary. Comprehensive orientation programs in the corporate sector are necessary to take them on board and enable them in becoming actively contributing members of the organization. A policy to sponsor the upskilling and further education of employees who have joined them from defence backgrounds for various training courses is essential. As the Government has made it clear that it is open to changes in the scheme moving forward, the aim should be to start working right from now at various levels and make changes before the first batch of Agniveers rolls out seeking re-employment, correcting the ineffective system of the past and address any shortcomings.

Tailpiece:

The favorable impact of this scheme has to take time. It is impolite to trash the scheme from the outside without the benefit of knowing the finer details of how it came about and checkpoints factored in. Knowing the ethos of the Indian armed forces, myself having served for over 22 years and actively participated in two major wars of 1965 and 1971, I am confident that they will, as has always been, self–adjust to this change as well, without dropping the level of effectiveness. Any transition from the established practice of many decades will have its share of challenges and our armed forces will need to and are equipped to overcome them. A transformational change of this magnitude may seem unpopular at the beginning but a will to succeed amidst challenges is what makes the armed forces stand out. The right balance of operational effectiveness of armed forces needs to be maintained, in an era when war is a national effort. Resistance to change perhaps sums up the apprehensions voiced.

Author: A Wing Commander in the IAF, was a Fighter Controller who actively participated in the 1965 and 1971 wars. He was awarded Vishisht Seva Medal by the President of India. Currently President of Air Force Association (AP &Telangana) and also President of Air Force Officers' Co-op Housing Society Ltd, Vayupuri. Views expressed are personal.


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