Ghazala Wahab

Far from being driven by a vision for the reform of the armed forces, the Agnipath scheme is an outcome of compulsions born out of severe financial and strategic shortcomings.

It could have a destabilising impact on the military’s ethos, war-preparedness, and the ability of its leadership to stand by their personnel.

There are four key highlights of the Agnipath scheme. One, the defence services will recruit 46,000 personnel annually in the age group of 17 and a half to 21 years for four years. Of these, 25% will be selected for permanent induction and 75% will be released from service with a government-recognised Class 12 certificate. The selected 25% will start their military careers 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 a 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 `12 lakh. 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 `30,000, with the take home of `21,000. The rest would be forced saving of 30% to which the government will contribute 30%, something akin to a 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 is evident that the Agnipath scheme is not only ill-conceived but also removed from the Indian reality. When the Indian Air Force (IAF) 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.

Financial and Strategic Compulsions

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

In 2013, once Narendra Modi was declared the 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, General 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. Thereafter, the BJP election manifesto promised implementation of OROP (Pubby 2015).

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 United Progressive Alliance 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 one who retired in 2010; the logic being that a person’s pension depended upon the salary they drew upon retirement and not what that salary would be 20 years later.

But once the BJP chose populism over reason, it had to fulfil its promise, which it did in November 2015. Sure enough, defence allocations shot through the roof. A brief pause is necessary here to understand the nuances of the defence budget. The defence budget is divided between the revenue and the capital. The revenue is for pays and pensions; and the capital is for the purchase of defence equipment, basically the 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 `7,123 crore every year, the total spending on pays and pensions crossed 70% of the total spending on defence (Radhakrishnan et al 2022), leaving even less money for buying new equipment. Worse, the remaining 30% 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 a rate of 10%, as once we thought it would, this expenditure would not have hurt so much. But given the way things are and are likely to be in the foreseeable future, claims of a $5 trillion economy notwithstanding, it is impossible for the government to meet this expenditure.

In 2019, former military advisor to the National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon, Lieutenant General Prakash Menon and deputy director of the Takshashila 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 (Mehta 2022). One major difference being that while ToD included the officer cadre as well, the Agnipath is limited to jawans.

So, to say that Agnipath is about reforms is either being willfully ignorant or deceptive. It is basically driven by financial considerations. A testimony to this is the carcasses of innumerable procurement programmes which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) 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 (Wahab 2022).

Take two cases, for example, the fighter planes for the IAF and the submarines for the Indian Navy. A simple Google search would throw up the chronology, so I will not 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 (Sachdev 2022). The IAF has been seeking a fourth-generation-plus fighter aircraft for the last decade and a half. The United States (US) and Russia are already operating the fifth-generation fighters. Even China has a fifth-generation fighter now, which is likely to find its way to Pakistan Air Force too. What is more, the Americans and the Europeans have proven technology of fighters flying in concert with uncrewed flying vehicles, whereby the capabilities of the crewed fighters would be multiplied by the accompanying uncrewed aerial vehicles referred to as the loyal wingman. Of course, several countries, including Russia and China, already have the capability of uncrewed vehicles carrying out aerial strikes, which they envisage will replace the need for human fighter pilots in the future.

Hence, the criticality of the 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 firmly establishing 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 (LAC). By all accounts, this new line is actually the old line that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had proposed to the then 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 (Sawhney 2022).

Two, such has been the Chinese government’s determination to not concede any ground in Ladakh, that it allowed the People’s 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, Colonel Santosh Babu, on 15 June 2020. The Indian Army, which traditionally seeks revenge in such instances to ensure that the morale of the troops remains high, did not rise to this provocation.

Three, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi got his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar to sign a joint statement on 10 September 2020, which replaced the LAC in Ladakh with ‘‘border areas,’’ thereby permanently obliterating the line that the Indian Army had been holding as sacrosanct for decades.1 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 (GoI) anxiety is understandable. Caught napping, they now want to try and not 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 does not need much training. All that is needed 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 tokenism because their human resource is built around machines—aircrafts and ships—unlike the Indian Army where a lone soldier with a rifle is both the human and the machine.

Implicit Ideological Assumption

In order to discern the assumption driving the scheme, one should refer to the NSA 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. (Pisharody 2021)

The government believes that war is unlikely; even against China which it believes to have been 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’s 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 GoI is preparing against, one needs to recall a series of statements made by both the Prime Minister as well as the NSA.

In October 2014, the Prime Minister addressed the top commanders of the Indian military at an annual event called the Combined Commanders’ Conference. He told the military’s who’s who that “the threats may be known, but the enemy may be invisible.”2 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 with Asian News International, also referred to the invisible enemy. The NSA 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.3

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.

A Disastrous Experiment

Nevertheless, Agnipath could prove to be 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 3,00,000 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, multitasking trooper capable of not only handling intelligent weapons but also handheld computer devices that kept them connected both with the battlefield but also the headquarters. At one point, the Indian Army aspired for certain characteristics of F-INSAS, but could not do much because of the prohibitive cost involved, not only in terms of buying equipment but training the personnel power.

However, now the training has been further downgraded. The fact that a four-year Agnipath tenure would not be counted when 25% Agniveers 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% retention every year (after four years), the overall numbers may eventually come down, but with 75% 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 fewer humans in 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 is not even training them adequately for the job. Should not putting undertrained men in harm’s way be considered treating human beings as fodder? Should it not 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% 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 GoI 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 is 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 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. What is 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 `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 many of one’s life decisions hinge on that. The Short Service Commission (SSC) 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 that 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 public sector units 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 Central Armed Police Forces/Central Para Military Forces 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 the society thereafter are secondary issues. The foremost concern is the impact on the military—its ethos, war-preparedness and the ability of its leadership to stand by their personnel. As is evident by the genuflectory statements by several military leaders, the military edifice is in danger of crumbling. What demonetisation did to Indian economy in 2016, Agnipath will do to the Indian national security in the years to come. has notes and references.

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