Modi govt’s Agnipath scheme exploitative, political ploy to create weaponised youth, say top veterans
Such youth may end up joining ranks of those leading violent mobs and exploited by leaders of majority and minority religious and political groups for their own ends, Admiral L Ramdas (Retd.) said
After the Modi government’s announcement of the Agnipath scheme through which around 45,000 to 50,000 soldiers will be recruited annually for a period of four years only, several defence forces veterans have called the scheme exploitative and a political ploy in the name of employment generation.
Under this scheme, the soldiers will be recruited for just four years. Of the total annual recruits, only 25% will be allowed to continue for another 15 years under permanent commission. Aspirants between the ages of 17.5 years and 21 years will be eligible to apply and recruitment will be done twice a year. The move is aimed at making the armed forces leaner and reducing the defence pension bill.
The selected aspirants will go through six months’ training and will be deployed for 3.5 years. They will begin with a salary of ₹30,000, along with additional benefits which will go up to ₹40,000 by the end of the four-year service. At least 30% of their salary would be set aside under a savings programme, and the government will contribute an equal amount every month, and it will also accrue interest.
At the end of the four-year period, each soldier will get ₹11.71 lakh as a lump sum amount, which will be tax-free. The four-year period will not be considered for retirement benefits in case of those who are re-selected.
However, this scheme has begun to ring alarm bells amongst many defence force veterans. Former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral L Ramdas (Retd.) warned that the exercise smacks of short-term quick fix solutions to problems which are rooted in the economic and political crises and contradictions within the country.
“The apparent benefits of the Tour of Duty or Agnipath plan, which are being promoted and flaunted by media – with very little articulation from the services or the veteran community – must be weighed against the serious downside of what seems like a populist schema,” added Ramdas.
Countering the hype around the Agnipath scheme, Lt Gen HS Panag (Retd.) argued that for this programme to succeed, it must have an attractive finance package both in service and after; secondly, it must not be exploitative.
“Presently, the Agnipath scheme falls short on both these counts. It appears to be exploitative and not attractive. After four years, these young people will be left at the mercy of their own devices,” said Panag.
Ramdas observed that there are genuine fears that these thousands of youth will end up joining the ranks of those who are today leading the violent mobs of unemployed, maybe radicalised and exploited by the leaders of both majority and minority religious and political groups for their own ends.
Another veteran who did not want to be named said, "This scheme will adversely affect the fighting efficiency of the Army and is therefore not good. The aim of the Agnipath scheme is to save money, but there are better ways to save pension money without degrading the last resort of the nation. This scheme will degrade the fighting capability of the defence forces,” said the veteran.
“This scheme will create a whole lot of trained people out in the open available for mercenary use or misuse. That is the way I see this scheme working in the longer run. In the immediate term, it is not going to be beneficial,” reiterated the veteran.
“By its very nature – as announced and seen in the publicity posters and documents – this appears as a very short-term solution to a far deeper problem. This has the risk of leaving the services, and the country as a whole, facing the huge problem of a bunch of weaponised youth, with understandable ambitions, possibly facing huge frustrations of a further unemployment and educational crisis, four years down the line,” Ramdas warned.
Lt Gen HS Panag (Retd.) asserted that the short term engagement of soldiers and officers was a time-tested universal method of managing manpower in all armies and in reducing pension.
“In principle, it is the best way to manage your manpower and pension bill, but it needs to be refined and the government must keep an open mind about it. Even if this is what the armed forces require, it appears as if there is a political motive. The political motive is to show it as a government employment generation scheme,” underscored the Army veteran and defence analyst. This current scheme seems to be the handiwork of politicians, he added.
Defence analyst Major General Yash Mor (Retd.) questioned what would happen to the lakhs who were not recruited in the last two-and-a-half years. “There are many unanswered questions. The government has played with the lives of many such youngsters. How can you sets aside aspirations of many in just one stroke,” he explained.
Mor underscored that this four-year scheme will remain a non-starter because the youth in the villages is looking for a permanent career in the armed forces. They would rather join the police or the para-military forces where they have an assured career till they retire.
"This scheme, if at all, should be tried with a few thousands and the normal recruitment of the army should begin. Only then will the young people have faith in the government of India and Army," added Mor.
“What has been done with this scheme is that there will be no regular enrolment soon. After 15 years, all in the defence forces will be Agniveers; either Agniveers who served for four years or Agniveers who after four years got enrolled as soldiers. That is the inference you can draw from this scheme,” said Panag.
Giving examples, Panag said in the United States, all the soldiers are enrolled on four years of active service and four years of reserve service. During the four years of reserve service, they can serve in the National Guard. “That is equivalent of our Central Armed Reserve Forces. This can then be extended by another four years to indefinitely. Pensionable service is reached at 50 years. Most don’t reach it. However, when they leave irrespective of whether they leave after four years or later, they are given a lot of incentives which include a severance package, preference for university admissions, jobs and affirmative action by the private sector,” pointed out Panag. However, the current scheme offers no such benefits to a young person.
He was of the opinion that the severance package is inadequate and that it should be increased to above ₹20 lakh. The government should have the rule that those who have completed this service should get preference in government jobs, university education or anywhere else they attempt.
Incidentally, this is not the first time such schemes have been introduced in the Indian Army. Earlier, up to 1976, we used to have active/colour service and reserve service. Colour service was from 7-10 years and the reserve service was from 8 to 5 years. Those under reserve service could take up another job and they would only report to the Army once in two years for two months training. During this period, they would be paid. The rules were then changed to state that people needed to have at least 15 years active/colour service for pension.
“During World War II in 1939, Indian Army had only 2 lakh people. By 1945, it jumped to 25 lakh, a 12.5 fold increase. The training period was reduced to 4-6 months, even for officers it was 6 months. The terms were to serve as long as required. It was extremely exploitative. By 1946, the Army strength was reduced back to 3 lakh. All the rest went back without a pension. There was only a token amount of just ₹30,” pointed out Panag.
Noting that the government had stated that the Agniveers will get priority in recruitment to the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), the army veteran who did not want to be identified said that they have been asking the government for decades to induct soldiers who retire at 36 or 38 or 40 into the Central Armed Police Forces or the state police force to make use of their training on which the government spent money.
“Instead of implementing that, they are planning to do it for half-trained people. If they had done it earlier, they would not have had such huge pension bills,” maintained the veteran.
Slamming the government, Panag said this idea of giving the youth a chance to serve in the armed forces so that there will be a disciplined manpower back in the civil society are all romantic notions. “It has nothing to do with the armed forces. This doesn’t work,” said Panag, while requesting the government to not dilute the entrance test norms. He wanted the government to make the entrance test and the re-enrolment process more stringent.
Sounding a dire warning about the scheme, Ramdas pointed out that many of the ex-servicemen had pointed out to the Prime Minister in 2019, and more recently through an open letter released on December 31 2021, the potential threat to national security by the open calls for genocide of our largest religious minority by religious leaders at a Dharm Sansad in Haridwar.
“These leaders were even calling on the armed forces to take up arms to kill Muslims, Christians and other groups. And one can well imagine what could happen if we are swelling the ranks of our Army with young men who are barely educated, receiving training in using arms, and they become cannon fodder for exploiting by criminal and irresponsible groups for their narrow communal ends,” underscored Ramdas.
Demanding that the Agnipath scheme be put on the backburner immediately, Ramdas said a parliamentary committee and a group of responsible veterans, educators, economists, sociologist and psychologists among others, should study this proposal coolly and at length – and then come up with a set of recommendations.