First Person | Ruse of the Reforms

Driven by compulsions, the Agnipath scheme will militarise the unemployed

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Two compulsions and one assumption steered the government towards the Agnipath recruitment scheme. The compulsions first.

In 2013, once Narendra Modi was declared Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, he addressed an ex-servicemen rally in Rewari accompanied by the former army chief and by then a BJP politician, Gen. V.K. Singh. He assured the exultant crowd that once he came to power, he would favourably resolve the One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue that had been exercising the armed forces personnel. Thereafter, the BJP election manifesto promised implementation of OROP.

The problem with the promise was that the scheme made no economic sense. That was the reason the previous government, despite repeated assurances, could not implement it. In a move to placate the protesting ex-servicemen, the UPA government did increase the old pensions in a manner that the gap between them and the current was significantly reduced. But it refused to equalise the pensions in perpetuity, between, say, a colonel who retired in 1990 and the one who retired in 2010. The logic was that a person’s pension depended upon the salary he/ she drew upon retirement and not what that salary would be 20 years later.

But once the BJP chose populism over logic, it had to fulfil its promise, which it did in November 2015. Sure enough, defence allocations shot through the roof. A brief pause, to understand the nuances of the defence budget. The defence budget is divided between the revenue and the capital. The revenue is for pay and pensions; and the capital is for the purchase of defence equipment, basically modernisation of the forces. Even before the implementation of the OROP, the ratio between the revenue and the capital allocations was skewed in favour of the former.

However, with the OROP imposing a recurring expenditure of nearly Rs 7,123 crore every year, the total spending on pay and pensions crossed 70 per cent of the total spending on defence, leaving even less money for buying new equipment. Worse, the remaining 30 per cent is not available for buying new stuff alone. It also has to cater for instalments on the already bought weapon platforms. Now, if the economy was growing at 10 per cent, as once we thought it would, this expenditure wouldn’t have hurt so much. But given the way things are and are likely to be in the foreseeable future, claims of USD 5 trillion economy notwithstanding, it is impossible for the government to meet this expenditure.

A vast majority of young men

In 2019, former military advisor to the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, Lt Gen. Prakash Menon and deputy director of Takshila Institution Pranay Kotasthane wrote a paper on ‘A Human Capital Investment Model for India’s National Security System’ in which they proposed several measures to contain the growing burden of defence pensions. Though not officially accepted, the Agnipath scheme is loosely based on their tour of duty (ToD) model. One major difference is that while ToD included officer cadre as well, the Agnipath is limited to jawans.

So, anyone who says that Agnipath is about reforms is either ignorant or a liar. It is only about money. Simply put, we don’t have any. A testimony to this is the carcasses of innumerable procurement programmes which the ministry of defence has been stalling for years on some pretext or the other. All kinds of theoretical changes in the procurement procedure have happened, including renaming—from defence procurement procedure (DPP) to defence acquisition procedure (DAP)—yet neither the Indian industry has been able to produce anything, nor have we been able to buy the critical equipment that the services wanted through global tendering for want of money.

Take two cases for example, the fighter planes for the Indian Air Force and the submarines for the Indian Navy. A simple Google search would throw up the chronology, so I won’t waste valuable space on that. Given where we are on these programmes today, even if we are able to conclude one of these tenders soon, say, the 114-fighters for the IAF, by the time we will be able to induct them, the technology would have become near obsolete. The IAF has been seeking a 4th Generation plus fighter for the last decade and half. The US and Russia are already operating the 5th Generation fighters. Even China has a 5th Gen fighter now, which is likely to find its way to Pakistan Air Force too. What’s more, the Americans and the Europeans have proven technology of fighters flying in concert with unmanned flying vehicles, whereby the capabilities of the manned fighters would be multiplied by the accompanying unmanned aerial vehicles referred to as the loyal wingman. Of course, several countries, including Russia and China already have the capability of unmanned vehicles to carry out aerial strikes, which they envisage will replace the need for human fighter pilots in the future.

Hence, the criticality of MoD taking serious and sustained interest in defence modernisation, whether through indigenous research and development or partnership with foreign companies cannot be overemphasised. And this can only be done if there is money for long-term investment.

The second compulsion was China’s sauntering in into Indian territory in Ladakh in April 2020 and plonking itself there. This has been no routine transgression for three reasons.

One, they came in a certain distance and no further and pitched themselves there, thereby creating a new Line of Actual Control. By all accounts, this new line is actually the old line that the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai had proposed to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959, but the latter had rejected it. So, China has imposed their version of the LAC upon India and we have accepted it. Hence, Prime Minister Modi’s mystifying statement in the all-party meeting on 19 June 2020 that ‘neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured.’ Because what we held as ours all these years is now theirs.

Two, such has been the Chinese government’s determination to not concede any ground in Ladakh, that it allowed the People Liberation Army (PLA) to escalate the situation in the Galwan Valley, when the Indian Army tried to forcefully remove their tents. Without using any weapons, the PLA soldiers managed a fatal assault upon unsuspecting Indian troops, killing 20, including the commanding officer, Col Santhosh Babu on 15 June 2020. The Indian Army, which traditionally seeks revenge in such instances to ensure that the morale of the troops remain high, did not rise to this provocation.

Three, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi got his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar to sign on a joint statement on 10 September 2020 which replaced the LAC in Ladakh with ‘border areas’ thereby permanently obliterating the line which the Indian Army had been holding as sacrosanct for decades. It has also put the onus of maintaining peace in the ‘border areas’ on India, implying that we quietly accept the Chinese occupation of our territory.

Given this, the Indian Army and the government of India’s anxiety is understandable. Caught napping, they now want to try not to cede any more ground, even if it means that soldiers stand hand in hand at an imaginary line, presenting their bodies as resistance to the PLA. For this, one doesn’t need much training. All one needs are young, desperate men eager to grab anything which offers a semblance of income.

The inclusion of the IAF and the Navy in the Agnipath scheme is mere tokensim because their human resource is built around machines—aircraft and ship—unlike the Indian Army where a lone soldier with a rifle is both the man and the machine.

Now the assumption. For this, refer to the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s address at the National Police Academy in November 2021. He said, ‘Wars have ceased to become effective instruments for achieving political or military objectives. They are too expensive and unaffordable, and at the same time, there is uncertainty about the outcome.’

The government believes that war is unlikely; even against China which in its thinking it is deterring by committing more and more to the US-led Quad. With the US watching India’s back, China is unlikely to indulge in any more mischief against us. Hence, the government reasoning that if the war is unlikely why do we need such huge and recurring investment in human resources. For our threats, we need numbers, not necessarily highly trained or educated.

Refer to another statement by the NSA at the same event: ‘The new frontier of war–what we call fourth-generation warfare–is civil society. But it is the civil society that can be subverted, that can be suborned, that can be a divided idea, that can be manipulated to hurt the interest of a nation.’ To understand the full import of the enemy that the government of India is preparing against, one needs to recall a series of statements made by both the Prime Minister as well as the NSA.

Agnipath Concept

In October 2014, Prime Minister addressed the top commanders of the Indian military at an annual event called the Combined Commanders Conference. He told who’s who of the military that ‘The threats may be known, but the enemy may be invisible.’ Neither Pakistan nor China could have been the invisible enemy that the Prime Minister was warning the military about. Recently, after the announcement of the Agnipath scheme, the NSA in an interview to ANI also referred to the invisible enemy. He said, ‘The whole war is undergoing a great change. We are going towards contactless wars, and also going towards the war against the invisible enemy. Technology is taking over at a rapid pace. If we have to prepare for tomorrow, then we have to change.’

When the pieces are put together, it is clear why the government believes that the Agnipath scheme, which will create Agniveers is a winning idea. Clearly, for the kind of threats and enemy it envisages, Agniveers are adequate, both in and out of uniform. One stone, multiple birds.

Now the grand scheme. There are four key highlights of Agnipath.

One, the defence services will recruit 46,000 personnel annually in the age group of 17 and half to 21 years for four years. Of these, 25 per cent will be selected for permanent induction and 75 per cent will be released from service, with a government-recognised Class-12 certificate. The selected 25 per cent will start their military career afresh—the four years of Agnipath will not be counted.

Two, upon selection, the Agniveers will undergo 26-week training, roughly six months at the respective regimental centres before deployment (with effective service of three and half years) into their field areas. The current training period for recruits is 42 weeks.

Three, while they will not be eligible for gratuity, forget pension, they will get a consolidated amount of under Rs 12 lakhs. This will partly be their income, and partly forced saving to which the government would make an equal contribution. For example, in the first year, an Agniveer will get the salary of Rs 30,000, with the take home of Rs 21,000. The rest would be forced saving of 30 per cent to which the government will contribute 30 per cent, something akin to provident fund. Upon discharge, this consolidated amount would be handed over to the Agniveer. The government would also provide them with life insurance during the term of their service.

Four, the government will impress upon other government organisations, like public sector undertakings, central police and paramilitary forces, as well as the private industry to give preference in employment to the released Agniveers.

Even to a non-expert it’s evident that the Agnipath scheme is not only ill-conceived but also removed from the Indian reality. When the Indian Air Force claims that it has received 2 lakh applications in response to their Agnipath advertisement, it is not a matter a pride, but shame that we continue to push our young towards desperation. In a country where even PhD holders apply for the job of a peon, is it any wonder that lakhs apply for temporary jobs that guarantees at least Rs 12 lakh at the end of four years!

Agnipath is a disastrous experiment and here is why.

One, worldwide militaries are moving towards being lean and mean; favouring quality over quantity. Even China has cut down 300,000 from its army over the last few years. Almost a decade ago, the concept of the future infantry soldier as a system (F-INSAS) emerged, which envisaged a highly trained, technologically-savvy, multi-tasking trooper capable of not only handling intelligent weapons but also handheld computer-devices which kept him connected both with the battlefield but also the headquarters. At one point, the Indian Army aspired for certain characteristics of F-INSAS, but couldn’t do much because of the prohibitive cost involved, not only in terms of buying equipment, but training the manpower.

However, now the training has been further downgraded. The fact that four-year Agnipath tenure would not be counted when 25 per cent Agniveer will be recruited is testimony to what the military thinks of the training it would be imparting to these men. It is true that with 25 per cent retention every year (after four years), the overall numbers may eventually come down, but with 75 per cent under-trained recruits what qualitative advantage can the service have? After all, the speed of a team is determined by the slowest member, not the fastest.

The world is moving towards military technologies that ensure there are fewer humans in the harm’s way, because nothing is more sacred than a human life. India, on the contrary, is not only putting more humans on the front-line, but also not even training them adequately for the job. Shouldn’t putting undertrained men in harm’s way be considered treating human beings as fodder? Shouldn’t it be regarded as a criminal act? Thereafter imagine these people with some experience of combat, some exposure to debilitating violence, even death, floating in a highly polarised society, trying to fit in, trying to find employment commensurate to what they think they deserve after having served the nation, without the regimentation or discipline of the military.

Two, 75 per cent of Agniveers will be released after four years with a Class-12 certificate without having studied a word of what a regular school would have done. This not only undermines the government of India certification but also raises the hope of decommissioned men, who would expect to get admission in universities for a higher degree. Even if they do, it’s unlikely that most will be able to cope. This will obviously add to their frustration and bitterness.

Three, a vast majority of young men who join the Indian Army, risking life and limb, do so for the job security and in case they die, for the security of their families, not for the motherland. That sentiment is cultivated during training, because the motherland for a villager is the village, not the amorphous notion of a nation, which is a theoretical concept. Moreover, for the majority of the village youth, military service is a family tradition. They join it because everyone in the family did so. For others, it is the only way out of poverty and ignominy. For them, the financial security that the military career offers is paramount. The moment a young boy is recruited, his family fixes his marriage. His ability to demand dowry increases. What’s more, one job improves the marriage prospects of the recruit’s sisters as well. So, those who say that a demobbed Agniveer can use the Rs 12 lakh windfall for higher education or starting a business do not realise that it will be used for paying off family debt or marrying the sisters. Clearly, the MoD mandarins live on another planet.

Four, in India, everyone wants a permanent job, or ‘pucci naukri’, because so many of one’s life decisions hinge on that. The short service commission concept, both for men and women, only led to dissatisfaction and disillusionment. While the male SSC officers demanded and got the extension of tenure to 10+4 years plus the option of permanent commission, the women officers fought and won the right to permanent commission. No one wants to commit to a job which has the potential to give better but does not because of the terms of your recruitment.

Five, even today, the armed forces are struggling to ensure lateral induction of their personnel in the civil domain, but without much success. Most end up with jobs much below their expectations and capabilities. Most defence PSUs or private sector companies prefer technical employees, if not always engineers. There is hardly any place for generalists, especially those who earned their matriculation certificate in the military. As far as the CAPFs/ CPMFs are concerned, their own personnel are facing disillusionment and dissatisfaction with their jobs because of the stagnant hierarchy and poor promotional prospects. Where is the space for lateral induction of Agniveers, year on year?

However, the impact of the Agnipath scheme on the Agniveers and on society thereafter are secondary issues. The foremost concern is the impact on the military—its ethos, its war-preparedness and the ability of its leadership to stand by their men. As is evident by the genuflectory statements by several military leaders, the military edifice is in danger of crumbling. What demonetisation did to the Indian economy in 2016, Agnipath will do to the Indian national security in the years to come.

(A version of this article first appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly)



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