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DEFENCE

Has ‘Agnipath’ opened a Pandora’s box for the Narendra Modi government?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Has ‘Agnipath’ opened a Pandora’s box for the Narendra Modi government?

A train set on fire by a mob protesting against the Agnipath scheme, in Lakhisarai, Bihar, on June 17. 

A train set on fire by a mob protesting against the Agnipath scheme, in Lakhisarai, Bihar, on June 17.  | Photo Credit: PTI

The Agnipath policy, which has resulted in widespread and violent protests, is rationalised as being driven by financial imperatives, with the government seeking to reduce its Defence outlay. Given the project’s likely grave impact on the military and on society, it would have been prudent to have introduced it as a pilot project.

On June 14, 2022, the Union Government of India announced a change to the recruiting policies of the armed forces. In contrast to the existing recruitment model, in which young people can go to a recruitment centre, pass a physical and written exam, followed by a medical test, then enrol for service in the armed forces for their working lifetime, and retire with a guaranteed pension afterwards, the new model, soon to be implemented in enrolling new soldiers, sailors, and airmen, will involve a “tour of duty” concept.

Under the new scheme, called “Agnipath”, or “Path of Fire”, recruits will join the armed forces on a four-year contract. Those who enrol will be referred to as “Agniveers”, or “fire warriors”. At the end of four years, a maximum of 25 per cent of these recruits will be retained, at the discretion of the armed forces. This will not be a natural continuation of the four-year tour-of-duty; instead, all temporary conscripts will be issued a certificate and severance package, and those selected for continued service will re-enrol in the armed forces. Thus, the first four years of service will not be counted for seniority, pension, or gratuity while retiring.

There has been an outcry about the new recruitment scheme. Violent protests have taken place in various parts of the country, with railway coaches and train stations being set on fire and other acts of mobbing and vandalism to protest the change.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with the three services chiefs, General Manoj Pande, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari and Admiral R. Hari Kumar at the June 14 press conference where Agnipath was announced.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with the three services chiefs, General Manoj Pande, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari and Admiral R. Hari Kumar at the June 14 press conference where Agnipath was announced. | Photo Credit: Manvender Vashist/PTI

The official notification of the Agnipath scheme lays out its objectives: the government wants a young and technically savvy armed force. The government claims that the recruits who will be discharged at the end of four years will prove to be an asset to society as they will be imbued with the ideals of service to the nation that are ingrained in the armed forces.

Implications for recruits

The Agnipath scheme replaces the existing recruitment system. This means that the new recruits are not guaranteed a job, but 25 per cent of them might be retained after four years. At that time, those not selected will have to look for another job in the outside world.

On the face of it, it does not appear to be a terrible fate.  The scheme takes in four times the number of anticipated permanent vacancies, gives them some kind of training, absorbs the best one-fourth into the regular forces after four years, and discharges the remaining with some value addition and skills. This has the consequence of providing some employment for all recruits for four years. Thus, the scheme promises discipline and employment for four years, and a possible longer future in the armed forces.

Buses set on fire by people protesting against the Agnipath scheme, in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on June 17. 
Buses set on fire by people protesting against the Agnipath scheme, in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on June 17.  | Photo Credit: -

But what has upset aspirants most is that the number of vacancies has reduced drastically. In normal times, the Indian Army alone recruits around 60,000 soldiers each year, besides the recruits into the Navy and Air Force. But the total intake for the Agnipath scheme will only be 46,000 this year, of which a maximum of 11,500 are to be inducted into all branches after four years. That is a reduction by more than a factor of 5.

Second, many of the angry young people protesting on the streets had cleared all tests and were waiting for the appointment letter. The pandemic had intervened, and everything was on hold. Now, they are being told that the entire recruitment process has changed, and they have to reapply. They do not know if they will be selected again and, even if they are, whether they will be permanently absorbed.

Third,  aspirants for the armed forces often prepare for years to qualify, undergoing rigorous physical preparation. If they cannot be assured of a long-term job after all that, they are questioning if the effort is worth it.

AGNIPATH: IN A NUTSHELL
All new recruits from 2022 to be called Agniveers and taken in on four-year contracts
At the end of the contract, all temporary conscripts will be issued a certificate and severance package
A maximum of 25 per cent will be selected to continue in service, but they have to re-enrol
The first four years of service will not be counted for seniority, pension, or gratuity
Agnipath scheme significantly reduces intake: from an average annual intake of 60,000 to 46,000
Scheme is being pushed as enabling a younger armed force while reducing spiralling Defence budget
It is also in line with global defence trend of less manpower and more tech
Scheme is criticised for reducing permanent defence jobs at a time of high unemployment
Discharged recruits with army training might fill the ranks of private militias

One aspect to keep in mind is that for many people who join the armed forces, this is not just a career but a passion. Recruits often come from “defence families”, in which members across generations have served. It is a matter of fierce pride and honour to carry on the tradition, something that civilians will have difficulty understanding. Many will remember the pride with which Alka Rai, daughter of the martyred Colonel M.N. Rai, of 9 Gorkha Rifles, saluted her father’s coffin in 2015 and said she hoped to follow in his footsteps and join the Army in a combat role. For these people, to whom we owe our safety, a job in the armed forces is not just a job. That is one reason that is driving the passionate displays of emotion. Experts are also asking if short-term tours of duty can engender such passion and commitment.

Another reason for the anger is that many aspirants do not have the education to qualify for any job other than putting their bodies and lives on the line; for them this has created a great sense of uncertainty.

A lot has been said about the kind of jobs the Agniveers could get after their discharge after four years. Some have suggested that they could work as security guards, a  suggestion that angered many. One is not likely, however, to be eligible for a lot more that that even after the four years of training. The level of education this segment has is low. People with higher schooling and skills do not apply to be foot soldiers—they try their luck with the National Defence Academy to become officers.

The reality, therefore, is that there simply will not be enough jobs in the civilian space for all the discharged personnel, about 35,000 a year, going by the planned recruitment numbers this year.

“What has upset aspirants most is that the number of vacancies has reduced drastically.”

Youth unemployment in India rose from 16.7 per cent in 1991 to 23 per cent in 2019, even before the pandemic hit, and things are much worse today. This has led to worries that the discharged soldiers may only find work in the underworld, leading to a dangerous situation in the country. A potentially large mass of unemployed youth without any particular job skills but with discontentment, military discipline and lethal skills could lead to the rise of right-wing militias. The government has denied these suggestions, citing the high moral values inculcated during service.

Implications for Armed Forces

One of the main factors at play here is that the number of jobs in the military is going down. And Agnipath is merely the mechanism to implement this.

Two reasons are being cited for the reduction. One is that salaries and pensions have become a huge and rising percentage of Defence budgets. In the February 2022 Budget, the allocation for defence was Rs.5.25 lakh crore, of which Rs.1.2 lakh crore was pensions; in contrast, the corresponding figures for 2012-2013 were Rs.2.38 lakh crore and Rs.39,000 crore. This corresponds to a compounded growth rate of about 10 per cent annually for defence spending and 11.5 per cent for pensions, well above the rate of inflation. While the government can be blamed for poor economic performance, spending at this level is still unsustainable. So, reducing the intake in the armed forces is seen as one way to contain costs.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at Parliament House on June 24.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at Parliament House on June 24. | Photo Credit: PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan

The second is that the nature of warfare is changing, from personnel-focussed wars to technology-focussed wars. The war in Ukraine shows that precision-guided munitions, hypersonic guided missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles are the tools on use, with the focus on masses of troops being less.

But the technological nature of the wars of the future also means that the armed forces personnel need to be highly skilled. Former Navy test pilot K.P. Sanjeev Kumar has said that most jobs in the Navy and the Air Force are too technical for a raw recruit to pick up in a couple of years. Col. Subhash Chandra Deswal (retd.), who commanded a Mechanised Infantry Regiment in the Army, is of the same opinion.  He said that in his experience a minimum of seven years was needed for a soldier to be competent at managing a tank or an armoured vehicle. The implication, thus, is that it will take a minimum of four years to give specialized training to recruits, and just when they are skilled, most of them will be discharged, to be replaced with a fresh set of raw recruits.

The argument offered to this is the practices of several countries with short tours of duty, such as the US (four years), China (three years), Israel (32 months), Russia (one year), and Germany (seven months). But opponents of the  four-year Agnipath scheme  contend that such short tenures make these armies ineffective in long-drawn and on-ground combat situations, especially in difficult and unfamiliar terrain.

If future wars are to be won by brain rather than brawn, then we need smart people who are well-versed in technology, and this knowledge takes time to accumulate. An older, experienced soldier will better serve the needs of a technically savvy armed force, especially given the increased complexity of war machines.

Civilian militias

The concern that the tens of thousands of trained soldiers discharged into society will encourage the creation of private defence militias in India similar to those operating in the US, such as Blackwater Security Company, which infamously provided support services for the country’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not without merit.  Essentially, this move could be seen as a precursor to privatising the defence sector.

Plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Blackwater Security Company infamously provided support services for the United States’ operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Plainclothes contractors working for Blackwater USA take part in a firefight in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Blackwater Security Company infamously provided support services for the United States’ operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Gervasio Sanchez

As already seen, the Agnipath scheme will lead to the loss of around 50,000 jobs a year. The question is where these people will go for work given that unemployment is already very high. The private sector is anaemic and sectors such as banking and the Railways, high-volume recruiters, are being aggressively privatized by the Modi government. It has been speculated that privatisation of the Railways and state-owned banks will lead to the loss of 5,00,000 jobs in India.

According to a recent study by the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), Ashoka University, in partnership with the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), the manufacturing sector in India has seen a rapid decline (around 50 per cent) in employment, from 51 million employees in 2016-17 to 27.3 million in 2020-21. Similarly, the real estate and construction sector registered a 25 per cent decline in employment, from 69 million in 2016-17 to 53.7 million in 2020-21. The mining sector also saw a drastic decline of 68 per cent, from 1.4 million in 2016-17 to 0.88 million in 2020-21.

In contrast, the agriculture sector saw a rise of 4 per cent in employment, from 145.6 million in 2016-17 to 151.8 million in 2020-21. The share of agriculture as a percentage of the GDP actually increased from 38 per cent to 40 per cent, which is not great news for a developing economy—a robust developing economy should see a gradual transition from agrarian jobs to manufacturing and knowledge-intensive jobs. So, this is clearly an economy in regression, with increasing unemployment. And this decline predates the Covid-19 pandemic. Given this dire economic environment, how will the increasing numbers of young people who used to look to the armed forces for a long-term and secure livelihood survive under the new scheme?

As can be seen, the issue is fairly complex. The Agnipath policy is most likely driven by financial imperatives, with the government seeking to reduce its Defence outlay.  But given the crucial importance of the armed forces as a source of employment and the impossibility of absorbing all the discharged recruits into the regular economy, this drastic move is likely to have a grave and long-lasting impact that will become apparent only later. It would have been more prudent, therefore, to have introduced such a dramatic policy change as a pilot project.

It appears that the Modi government has opened a Pandora’s box, and it remains to be seen what consequences, if any, the nation will face because of it.

Seshadri Kumar is an R&D Chemical Engineer by training with a B.Tech from IIT Bombay, and an MS and a PhD from the University of Utah. He writes regularly on political, social, economic, and cultural affairs.

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