Can Armed Forces Remain Just Mere Employment Guarantee Agency?

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Scenes of violence over a big change in recruitment policy for the Armed Forces may make one wonder whether the government has erred politically as well as in security terms. But such a move has been in the pipeline for over two decades for two reasons.

The first is to ensure a young and fitter fighting force for India. Secondly, it is to divert huge money, which is currently spent on salaries and pensions, for modernising the Army, Navy and the Air Force, which are struggling with obsolete weapons and equipment.

It needed political courage to take the call and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not wish to dilly dally on the matter as time was running out.

So his government had to bite the bullet in view of the rapidly increasing global and regional challenges that threaten India’s security and come up with the “Agnipath Scheme.”

Of course, the country’s job crisis is such that the agony of a large number of so-called soldier aspirants could easily be triggered by misconception and misinformation. They could be exploited and made to spill over to the streets, egged on by vested political interests.

Caught in their own internal and external nightmares, some opposition parties have found the issue handy to rile against the PM and the government. Their hope is that the youth would turn against the ruling party and bring political dividends to them.

It is unfortunate our political parties cannot see beyond their electoral wins and do not ever ponder over the future of the country’s defence preparedness.

But the misguided youths too will have to remember that acts of vandalism automatically make them unfit to become part of the Indian Armed Forces.

True, there may be gaps or some lacuna in the new Agnipath scheme which can be addressed sooner than later. At the same time, we must realise that the government cannot reduce the Armed Forces into just a recruitment agency without taking into account of the country’s security interests.

Yes, providing jobs to our youth is a very important objective but the requirements of the Army, Navy and the Air Force will have to be prioritised. Nothing can be subjugated to the electoral interests of political parties.

The harsh truth is that if the jobs in the Army, Navy and Air Force have to expand on a sustainable basis, the Agnipath Scheme may be the only answer.

In the Union Budget 2022-23, ₹5.25 lakh crore were allocated to defence. Of this, defence pensions added up to ₹1.19 lakh crore. alone. This means almost 25% of the defence budget is spent on paying pensions only. The army pension has also gone up sharply after the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme.

Understanding the Agnipath

Under the new scheme, around 46,000 soldiers will be recruited this year. Youth between 17.5 to 21 years of age will be enrolled on an ‘All-India All-Class’ basis as soldiers for four years. These recruits will be known as ‘Agniveers.’ They will enjoy a distinct rank bearing a distinct insignia. The existing framework of employment for soldiers will cease to exist and those below officer rank — jawans in the Army, sailors in the Navy and airmen in Air Force — will be recruited into the three services through the Agnipath scheme.

What has upset the aspirants is that they will not be eligible for any pensionary benefit under the scheme. After four years of service are completed, only 25% of Agniveers will be eligible to apply for permanent enrolment in the armed forces.

But the aspirants need to realise that Agniveers, who are not absorbed in regular commission, will be paid a one-time ‘SevaNidhi’ package amounting to a lump sum, tax of ₹11.71 Lakh. In addition, the Agniveers will get skill certificates, awards of credits so that they can study further, and a financial package to support future endeavours after their short-term military service.

Adequate re-employment opportunities are proposed to be created for the rest 75% who will move out of the service.

In case an Agniveer suffers a disability attributable or aggravated due to conditions of engagement, a provision of up to ₹44 lakh based on the percentage of disability, apart from full pay for the unserved period will be given. The soldier will also be given the balance amount in the Seva Nidhi fund and the Centre’s contribution from the Agniveer Corpus Fund.

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs announced that the youth recruited under the Agnipath scheme will get priority in recruitment to the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and Assam Rifles. Many states such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh have announced that Agniveers will be given preference in police recruitments. They will also get preference in PSUs, and state governments’ jobs. Also, an Agniveer can be called back if the situation demands, particularly in case of a full-fledged war.

Can Agnipath Scheme be further fine-tuned?

Certainly, a lot of fine tuning could be done as the scheme progresses. As suggested by some veterans, the period of the contract for new recruits can be made longer than four years. The 25 % cap on absorption could be increased to upto 50 %, depending on trades that Agniveers took training. A more binding commitment could be made from CAPFs (Central Armed Paramilitary Forces), states’ police forces and other organisations that are willing to absorb this trained military manpower. Alternatively, the existing regular enrolment could also be continued but in a reduced manner and gradually shift to the Agniveer Scheme after five to ten years. The Agniveers can even be placed under a contributory pension scheme to reduce the burden of pension payout if other recommendations are accepted.

Need for attitudinal change among youth

Agniveers should not be viewed as a burden on themselves and the country. The current employment scene has made the aspirants believe that they will be back to square one if they are not absorbed in the service. The “job emergency” in India may be such that some aspirants are not willing to nurture any hope of sorts.

They do not realise that when they leave the Army they will be much better equipped financially and otherwise than they would be if they had not done the four years in service.

No other job leaves you with that kind of money and training by your mid-twenties after four years of service.

A world of opportunities could await them if only they change their attitude. After all, they will come out with a degree and skills, which will be a passport to new openings.

Is India alone to bring such a scheme? Was it done in a haste? The idea of recruiting jawans, airmen and sailors is working in the United States where personnel are enlisted for a set period called the tour of duty (TOD). Similarly, the idea of a short-term recruitment model was first mooted around two years back for the selection of officers and jawans, for a limited number of vacancies.

In 2020, the army had proposed a “tour of duty” scheme to recruit youths for 3 years. The current scheme has several similarities with this proposal, while the service term has been fixed at 4 years instead of 3 years. The Army found substantial savings by employing soldiers for three years instead of 17 years currently and the saved money could be used for the much-needed modernisation of the Armed Forces. At present, the average age profile of serving personnel in the Army is 32 years, which will come down to 26 years over a period of time with the Agnipath scheme.

Of course, there are critics of Modi and the government who argue that the proposed model would not inculcate the same spirit of service just as a regular service would do. Also, there won’t be any bonding of service among Agniveer soldiers and the regiments they serve. Why tinker with a time-tested system that is doing well in catching young volunteers and utilising their service and expertise gained for an optimum period of time?

But nothing is cast in stone. Why not try out the Agnipath scheme? Changes can always be made to address the issues. But to throw “the baby along with bath water” would not only be a case of missed opportunities for the much-needed reforms in the Armed Forces –but also close future options for our youth.

(The author is a senior journalist and a well-known political commentator)

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