The government has introduced a historical change in the recruitment procedure of the Indian Armed Forces. Calling it historical is not an exaggeration as it brings a significant shift from the past and will have an immense socio-political, economic and integrative impact on the nation.
What is Agnipath Scheme?
According to this plan, the government would recruit around 50,000 soldiers annually for the Armed Forces. The candidates must be between 17.5 and 21 years (for 2022, the higher limit is 23 years). These soldiers will be called Agniveers and will serve for four years on non-commissioned posts and will get Rs. 30,000 per month for the first year, which will increase to 40,000 by the fourth year. An essential component of the scheme is the Seva Nidhi Package. After completing their four years of service, Agniveers will receive a lump sum of Rs 11.71 lakhs, 30% of which will be taken from the salary of the Agniveer, and the rest will be contributed by the government. Of these servicemen, 25% will be selected for regular cadre full-time service by the government based on merit, willingness and medical fitness. In addition, the retiring Agniveers will get a certificate which will help them get a job in the market and life insurance of Rs. 48 lakhs.
The rationale behind the Scheme
India is bound by sensitive borders on two sides. This calls for an economical expenditure of the defence budget to include the most modern weapons in our defence portfolio. Earlier, the soldiers were recruited on a 15-plus-year term of office. Meaning they could continue or exit after serving for fifteen years. They will get the benefit of a pension for life either way. This system meant that most of the defence budget was spent on the numerous retiring soldiers and not on the modernisation of the forces.
Moreover, the current mean age of military personnel is 32 years. The scheme will give our forces a youthful profile and maintain an age balance to ensure that our soldiers are at their best. The scheme will also instil disciple, dynamism and diverse skillset in our youth, making them an asset to the country. It will also provide a chance for the desirous youth to serve the country.
Impact of the scheme
Our army is centuries old and has a rich history and culture. Historically, the British empire regimented the soldiers based on caste, religion and region to prevent the development of a national feeling, making it easy for them to divide, conquer, and persist. Later, this structure was adapted by our forces to form a sense of unit cohesion and belongingness, which is the primary motivator in combat. However, the design acted as a hindrance in making an all-India, all-class and merit-driven recruitment scheme. In contrast, Agnipath will not divide regiments into caste, region or religion. This is a drastic change which should be welcomed.
The scheme is also being presented as an employment generation program. In fact, with high unemployment and a youth bulge, there will be a large number of volunteers for the scheme. The armed forces should take this as an opportunity to refine the recruitment process to bring in meritorious personnel below the officers’ rank.
The scheme also has a sociological and regional impact. The introduction of the scheme saw violent protests by young people. One does not have to look deep to notice that the protests were rife in a particular region. This forms a case of our country’s regional and economic disparity. The states with less industrialisation saw the angriest youth protests due to lack of employment. These young people wait to get recruited for government jobs based on their physical abilities and aspire to uplift their family’s financial situation with the benefits and job security these recruitments bring. The four-year term with no post-retirement benefit was a huge shocker for the rural and semi-urban youth who have always looked forward get the respect and security that comes with the uniform.
Issues with the scheme
Post-retirement benefits remain the grey area. According to veterans, not providing Dearness Allowance and denying gratuity is unfair. They also suggest an increment in the post-retirement amount as it is only a one-time expenditure.
The main issue is job insecurity. Where will these youths with military training go after four years? It will impact the individuals who would have to fend for themselves from scratch after living in the regiment’s protected, diverse and comfortable culture. It is not sure what value the certificate of their service will hold in the city streets. Given the scale of the future retired Agniveers, the government should ensure their post-release rehabilitation. The centre’s grant of 10% reservation to Agniveers in CAPFs is a welcome step towards addressing youth concerns regarding post-retirement rehabilitation.
Moreover, the target age group for the scheme is the age when a person acquires a degree and skills to enter the market. So it remains a dilemma how these young people without a degree will approach a job. Agniveer should be given future security by using affirmative action in college admissions and employment.
The scheme was criticised for not having a trial or experimental phase, which would have made the procedure more efficient.
Another catch-22 is about the training. For some, the training itself is insufficient. According to some veterans and service members, it takes seven to eight years to become adequately qualified conflict-ready armed forces personnel. Additionally, Air Force, Navy and some Army corps require technical skills which cannot be acquired in six months. And for some, the early retirement would mean wastage of the four years of training soldiers would receive. There are fears that due to lack of employment opportunities, Agniveers might be mercenaries giving away important information and skills from the Indian military to outsiders.
The Agniveer scheme is a radical reform that will have a cascading effect on the composition, culture and character of the armed forces. The problem will be more effective and refined with transparent, objective, non-exploitative execution. With a hostile neighbourhood, India needed to take a big step forward. The scheme can be made more attractive by raising incentives. It should also be ensured that the welfare of the soldiers does not get subdued and the system doesn’t get exploitative. If executed properly, the scheme will bring out dynamism in our youth, introducing them to the diverse terrains of our country.