Agnipath scheme: India lurches from a career to a mercenary army

Junior Minister of Defence Ajay Bhatt told Parliament in December there was a shortage of 9,362 officers and 113,000 personnel, army alone having a shortfall of 7,476 officers and 97,177 soldiers

Protests against Agnipath in New Delhi
Protests against Agnipath in New Delhi

Sarosh Bana

For all its high-sounding attributes, the underlying purpose of the contentious ‘Agnipath Recruitment Scheme’ – Agnipath is Hindi for ‘path of fire’ - is to provide financial relief for the government by paring down the annual Defence pensions that are eating away a fourth of the Defence budgets.

The scheme’s four-year tenure for the recruits, or Agniveers as they will be known under the scheme (Agniveer being Hindi for ‘fiery warriors’), renders India’s hallowed military service a stop-gap job option rather than the career India’s youth aspire to.

Such tampering can have adverse implications for the world’s largest military after China’s, India’s 1.46 million armed forces being second only to China’s 2.19 million.

With but a six-month training period, instead of the normal five years at present, those selected will remain interns instead of growing up the cadres, and with the scheme’s aim to divide the forces equally between these Agniveers, who will essentially be armed civilians of non-officer ranks, and the long-term career servicemen, within the next decade, it is feared the country will be raising a mercenary military driven more by employment opportunities than by high patriotism to defend the sovereignty and integrity of their motherland.

Indeed, Agniveers will form a distinct rank in the army, though they can be posted to any regiment and unit, and they will also sport a “distinctive insignia” on their uniform during their service period.

Trains and buses have been torched, public places vandalised and highways blocked, while at least one young protester has fallen to police firing and two others have committed suicide in fear of an uncertain future, as the protesters’ rage mirrors the prolonged rioting sparked by the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the three Farm Laws over the last two years. The current skirmishing has been ignited even as mass demonstrations take place against recent Islamophobic utterances by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials.

Authorities have now started arresting protesters, as also those posting comments on social media. Agniveer applicants will moreover need to submit in writing that they were not part of the protests.

Agnipath was presented with much fanfare by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a press conference on 14 June, shortly after it was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Flanking him were the three service chiefs and other high-ranking Defence officials.

“The Agnipath Recruitment Scheme is a transformative initiative that will provide a youthful profile to the armed forces,” said the Minister of the plan he described as a paradigm change in recruitment for India’s armed forces.

A total 46,000 Agniveers are to be enrolled this year, their eligible age being 17.5 to 21 years. Similar batches will be annually recruited for four-year terms through an online centralised system for all three services. A fourth of each batch will be selected for regular cadre for a further minimum 15 years, while the remaining 75 per cent will be discharged with a one-time tax-free corpus of Rs11.71 lakh (little over $15,000), to be used “to further their dreams”. The scheme specifies, “There shall be no entitlement to gratuity and pensionary benefits.”

The corpus will comprise 30 per cent of their monthly salary that has to be compulsorily deposited, and an equal contribution from the government.

These combined outgoings will be minuscule compared to the annual Defence pension bills that faze the government. For instance, pension for 2022-23 was Rs1.19 lakh crore ($15.3 billion) of the overall Defence budget of Rs5.25 lakh crore ($67.3 billion), while it had been Rs1.16 lakh crore ($15 billion) of the Rs4.78 lakh crore ($61.3 billion) Defence budget in 2021-22, and Rs1.34 lakh crore ($17.2 billion) of Rs4.71 lakh crore ($60.4 billion) in 2020-21.

Salaries and maintenance of institutions come under Revenue expenditure, making it the largest component of the Defence budget, often twice that of Capital expenditure provided for purchases of new weaponry and other military equipment. For instance, Revenue expenditure for 2022-23 was Rs2.33 lakh crore ($30 billion), while Capital expenditure was Rs1.53 lakh crore ($20 billion).

Though the Defence minister claimed at the Agnipath news conference that the government will not deny any funding required by the Defence sector, there have been any number of funding shortfalls, apart from poor decision-making and policy lapses, constricting military programmes.

The Minister’s claims regarding Agnipath were contested by the protesting youth, Opposition parties, and many veterans and members of the public who found the scheme “neither in the interest of the country nor of its security, and certainly not in favour of the country’s youth”. They also deemed it unfair for the government to grudge service pension, which is eligible only for those JCOs/ORs (Junior Commissioned Officers/Other Ranks) who complete the minimum mandatory qualifying service of 15 years, whereas a politician who has been a lawmaker even for a day is entitled to a sumptuous monthly pension, besides medical and additional benefits, despite often having vast personal wealth.

The critics also noted that instead of rushing with a dubious plan, the government would have done well to rectify the alarming shortage of officers and ORs in the armed forces, which, according to information provided to Parliament last December by Junior Minister of Defence, Ajay Bhatt, totalled 9,362 officers and around 113,000 personnel. The army alone had a shortfall of 7,476 officers and 97,177 soldiers.

In fact, taking note of this worrying shortfall, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (SCoD) had in 2018 recommended five-year compulsory military service for those aspiring for gazetted jobs in the state and central governments.

The government accused the critics of undermining the morale of the armed forces, without realising it was doing just that. By claiming that Agnipath would advantage the services “by infusion of highly inspired youth with deeper understanding of self-discipline, diligence and focus who would be adequately skilled”, the government was implying that India’s standing forces lacked these abilities.

Its misgivings were likely prompted by the estimated 50,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers yet in control of vast swathes of eastern Ladakh at the India-China frontier since their cross-border invasion in May 2020.

Opposition parties demanded revocation of Agnipath and apology from the government to the young job-seekers for foisting it on them without first taking them into confidence. They were also affronted by the government’s again choosing to ram through a major policy decision via solely a CCS clearance, without deliberation by Parliament or its SCoD.

Even as the protests raged through the streets, the Defence minister and the three service chiefs mounted a defence for the new scheme, asserting it provided an opportunity to the youth to serve the nation, and announcing that recruitments would begin at the earliest for all three services.

However, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) yielded to an extent with some modifications. It announced a hike in the upper age limit of the recruits to 23 from 21 for the current year, considering that no recruitment had taken place for the last two years. “Cognisant of the fact that it has not been possible to undertake recruitment during the last two years, the government has decided that a one-time waiver shall be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022,” affirmed a Ministry spokesperson.

Another modification that would prove prejudicial was the proposal to reserve for those Agniveers completing their four-year terms, 10 per cent of the job vacancies in the Coast Guard, defence civilian posts, central armed police forces, Assam Rifles, and the 16 Defence Public Sector Undertakings.

These reservations will dislocate India’s job market even further, forcing greater numbers of general applicants to vie for ever shrinking posts. The BJP had coasted to power in 2014 on a surge of electoral promises, one of which was to provide 20 million jobs every year. In reality, over 122 million have lost their jobs since 2019-20. There have been demeaning instances such as when over 200,000 women applied for just 100 available posts of infantrywomen in the Corps of Military Police, or when over 93,000 men, among them 3,700 PhDs, 50,000 graduates and 28,000 post-graduates, applied for 62 posts of messengers in the Uttar Pradesh police.

On Sunday, even those aspiring for Agnipath would have been nonplussed by the statements of certain BJP leaders. Tourism Minister G. Kishan Reddy told newspersons that Agnipath recruits will be trained with the “skills of drivers, electricians, washermen and barbers”. Soon after, BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya publicly offered to hire Agniveers as security guards at the party office.

“The armed forces will now be a training ground for skilled labour workforce for the nation, such as drivers, electricians etc. under the Agnipath recruitment scheme,” commented opposition Shiv Sena party MP Priyanka Chaturvedi. “A new achievement unlocked!”

(SAROSH BANA is Executive Editor of Business India in Mumbai, Regional Editor, Indo-Pacific Region, of Germany’s Naval Forces, and India Correspondent of Sydney-based cyber security journal, Asia Pacific Security Magazine (APSM). He concentrates on Defence & Security, Cyber Security, International Affairs, Policy, Strategy, Space, Power & Energy, and Environment & Conservation. Sarosh studied in India, Switzerland and Germany, and has been member of the Board of the East-West Centre (EWC) Association, a Hawaii-based think tank.)

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