The Government playing with fire as the Agnipath scheme fails the smell test

It remains a mystery why TV channels have not yet grilled Union minister G Kishan Reddy or BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya on their explanation of the Agnipath scheme.

The Government playing with fire as the Agnipath scheme fails the smell test

AJ Prabal

TV channels this week were unusually kind to Union minister Kishan Reddy and BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya. While the former declared that the military would be training ‘Agniveers’ to be good drivers, cooks and barbers among other professions, Vijayvargiya announced that he would give preference to Agniveers for the job of security personnel at BJP offices. Neither has appeared on TV since then to explain and no questions have been asked of them till now.

But Vijayvargiya appeared to lend credence to speculation that RSS and BJP are planning to build a private militia at public expense. By absorbing the Agniveers, warned an ex-serviceman, the party could easily form militias in every state much the same way as Hitler formed his Schutzstaffel or SS, the military unit put in charge of the Holocaust.

In any case, the duo effectively torpedoed attempts by the government to project the Agnipath scheme as beneficial for the country and transformative, they also reinforced the belief that Agniveers would be used as cannon fodder by the military before being thrown out at the age of 21 or 25, if they survive.

Those who defend the scheme have cited the experience of WW-2 when the Bitish Indian Army recruited millions of Indians and with minimum of training sent them to fight in the war. But times and warfare have changed since then and the example no longer holds.

They have also cited ‘conscription’ or compulsory military training of all able bodied and young citizens in Israel. But Conscription is different from the proposed ‘Tour of Duty’ for a variety of reasons. For one, Israel is a small country with population virtually one-third of Delhi alone. For another, being compulsory, nobody feels discriminated.

However, after Services chiefs failed to convincingly defend the scheme, the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was tasked to answer critics to the government-friendly news agency ANI. The NSA did not fare much better even as he waxed eloquent about the need for a smarter, leaner and tech-savvy military.

Future wars, the NSA declared, would be fought by Artificial Intelligence, drones and weapons fired from a distance. They would be contactless and would not require hand-to-hand combat.

Was Galwan, where 20 Indian soldiers died in June 2020, contactless? Others pointed to the Ukraine war to underscore that war still needed men and motivation and not just machines. In Ukraine much of the battle is being fought in trenches and urban settlements even as WW-2 type bombings and missile attacks reinforce the war going on since February 24 this year.

Several veterans felt that jawans are drilled to be loyal to their unit, the regiment, Naam, Namak and Nishan and the loyalty develops over time and not in four years.

The NSA, a former police officer, did no service to the government by elaborating on warfare. Some experts asserted that wars require boots on the ground and no superpower has ever won a war without putting boots on the ground.

The Government playing with fire as the Agnipath scheme fails the smell test

Veterans are particularly agitated because the Indian Army is currently short of 100,000 men while the IAF has just 30 squadrons of fighter planes as against the requirement of 42. The Navy, with 130 warships, is nowhere close to the 200 it aspires to have. Expanding and modernising the military is what is needed, not shrinking the military, they said.

The NSA ruled out any rollback of the ‘transformative scheme’, which proposes recruitment of 46,000 jawans every year, pay them around Rs.30,000- Rs.40,000 a month, end the contract of two-thirds of them after four years to avoid paying them Gratuity and send them home with Rs.11 lakh lumpsum.

The three Services, which have not recruited since 2019, announced dates for recruitment on the basis of ‘All India All Class’ and after doing away with the prevailing state-wise quota.

While violent protests have abated in the northern states, there is resentment and seething anger. Rural youth feel cheated and question why children of politicians and officials do not join the military.

Village elders are worried about the long-term effects. Being a ‘fauji’ adds to the standing of men in villages, enhances the stature of the families and remittances sent by them help the rural economy. The new scheme, they fear, will turn their world upside down even as apologists of the scheme scoff at status-quoists.

What do the young recruits aged between 17.5 and 21 years made to do? Many or most of them would be unloading ammunition, working in the kitchen, drive vehicles, fetch ration or work as runners or orderlies. Some will work as ‘buddies’, masalchi and gardeners in the officers’ mess and quarters. Some will work as dhobis and wash clothes while others will be cleaning the cantonments and be putting ‘chuna and geru’, explain ex-armymen. Many will be trained to assist in hospitals.

All such supporting arms are equally important to feed the fighting arms and keep them moving, they point out. While Artillery and Signals would also require a different set of skills and much more intensive training. “It takes 10,000 hours of training to make a soldier,” asserted a veteran.

Explains another retired officer, “An Artillery unit has 18 guns and a ‘Layer’ is a soldier who handles optical sights. A layer takes 5 to 7 years before he is permitted to fire ‘live’. It has nothing to do with being tech savvy. A unit has just 30-35 ‘master layers’ out of almost 200 gunners. That is the type of experience required.”

Their hand movements follow a specific pattern. A small mistake in movement results in the shell landing hundreds of meters away.”

Most military experts believe that the proposed six months of training is not enough and is a bad idea. At present, the men are given one year of military training and another year of specialised training. To compress this into six months does not seem feasible or even desirable, they said.

What is more, the new recruits will be allowed two months of annual leave. Out of four years, therefore, they will be on leave for eight months and on training for six months. Effectively they will be serving the military for two and a half years. The time is neither enough to train them or to evaluate them. Deciding on the 25% to be retained after two and a half years of service (currently jawans retire after 15 years of service in their mid-30s) is going to be hugely problematic. “Four to five years of training is necessary to become an effective member of an army unit,” said Lt GenVinod Bhatia (Rtd) to the Deccan Herald.

There are other reservations. The scheme will generate unhealthy competition among the recruits. The military works on trust and camaraderie. But the recruits, uncertain about their future and possibly told in the third year who would be retained, will harbour suspicion and jealousy, some felt. They will be necessarily risk-averse and resentful. In short, it is a recipe for disaster.

Others believe that those who are turned out of the military after four years will find it hard to live with the stigma of rejection. “The Americans disbanded the several military units in Iraq on the ground that they were loyal to Saddam Hussein and these were the men who joined the militants of the Islamic State,” added a military historian by way of a cautionary tale.

While the government has glibly announced that retired Agniveers would be absorbed by central paramilitary forces like the BSF, CRPF, CISF etc., these forces have already voiced their opposition in private conversations. Why should we absorb those rejected by the army, they asked.

The rosy pictures of re-employment after retirement of Agniveers are not borne out by facts. While 50,000 soldiers retire every year, only around 12,000 of them on an average have found re-employment, a majority of them in banks (See Table).

Industrialist Anand Mahindra received a lot of flak by offering to recruit the Agniveers. What stopped him from recruiting ex-servicemen till now, wondered many while some asked him to provide the number of ex-servicemen re-employed by him.

“I was an engineering sailor, released from Navy on 31 July, 2017. I approached Mahindra group for suitable job but they didn’t reply. After five years I am still jobless and now suddenly all companies are ready to give jobs to Agniveers. What a joke...,” tweeted one while Praveen Kumar Teotia asked Mahindra, “I am still unemployed after 15 years of service. I saved 185 lives in Taj Mumbai including that of Gautam Adani (in 2008) during 26/11. What job are you going to provide me…”

The scheme fails the smell test on every count, says an ex-armyman. The only reason seems to be cut down the pension bill. But unfortunately we will know the effects of the scheme only after 7-8 years.

Many, however, believe that the Indian military cannot afford to experiment and wait that long.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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