The story so far: In a “transformative” military recruitment reform , the Centre has announced the Agnipath scheme for recruitment of soldiers in the three branches of the armed forces, on a short-term basis.
Under the scheme, youth between 17.5 to 23 years of age will be enrolled on an ‘All-India All-Class’ basis as soldiers for four years. These recruits, who will be known as ‘Agniveers’, will form a distinct rank bearing a distinct insignia in the respective forces. They will not be eligible for any pensionary benefit under the scheme. With this, the existing framework of employment for soldiers will cease to exist and those below officer rank — jawans in the Army, sailors in the Navy and airmen in Air Force — will be recruited into the three services through the Agnipath scheme. The scheme does not apply to defence officers for whom there is a provision of short-term service called the Short Service Commission or SSC.
Unveiling the scheme with the three service Chiefs, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said the reforms will strengthen the security of the country and enable a youthful profile of the armed forces. “The infusion of disciplined, motivated and skilled Agniveers back into society after military service will be a great asset for the nation as it will be a win-win proposition,” the Defence Minister added.
What are the features of the new scheme?
Aimed at reducing salaries and pensions to divert resources for military modernisation, the idea of a short-term recruitment model or ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) was first mooted around two years back for the selection of officers and jawans, for a limited number of vacancies. The then Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat publicly acknowledged that the forces were considering the ToD model, but added that the concept was at a nascent stage. While some welcomed the proposed model, many argued that it would do more harm than good to the armed forces.
After discussions for over two years, the Centre last month announced that the scheme was in its final stages. On June 14, the Union Cabinet approved the Agnipath scheme.
Eligibility and recruitment: As part of the Agnipath scheme, selected candidates will be enrolled under the respective Service Acts for four years. Those between the ages 17.5 and 21 years will be eligible to apply. Candidates below 18 years of age will have to get their enrolment forms signed by their parents or guardians. Medical and physical fitness standards will continue in accordance with existing norms for different categories and trades in the military.
The required educational qualification will be Class 10-12, depending on the service and assigned role. For instance, the educational qualification required for entry into General Duty soldier is Class 10.
This year, the Centre will recruit 46,000 Agniveers and the induction process will repeat every six months. While the Naval Chief has said that women will be part of the Navy as Agniveers, officials have stated that their recruitment will depend on the requirements of their respective services. The IAF, however, so far hasn’t made a mention of the selection of women under the scheme . Recruitment is set to begin in 90 days, from the date of the scheme being announced.
Training: Agniveers will undergo military training in existing training centres as per the requirements of the service they join and the role they are assigned. The training will go on for a maximum of six months, post which an Agniveer will be deployed for the remaining three and a half years. Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande has said that trained Agniveers will be capable of being deployed on the borders with Pakistan and China.
Selection process: An online centralised system will be used for enrolment of Agniveers with specialised rallies, and campus interviews from technical institutes like industrial training institutes (ITIs). The selection will be the exclusive jurisdiction of the armed forces, the three services have said.
Permanent enrolment: After four years of service are completed, Agniveers will be eligible to apply for permanent enrolment in the armed forces. Up to 25% of them will be selected on an objective basis and enrolled as regular cadre. They will have to serve for a further minimum of 15 years and their salary will be revised to that of a regular soldier. For these selected soldiers, existing terms of the service of Junior Commissioned Officers/Other Ranks (OR) in the Army and their equivalent in the other two forces will apply.
Adequate re-employment opportunities will be created for the rest 75% who will move out of the services and return to society, and according to the government will emerge as role models for the youth.
States such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh have announced that Agniveers will be given preference in police recruitments.
An Agniveer can be called back if the situation demands, particularly in case of a full-fledged war, Lt General K.K. Repswal, Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, had said.
What benefits will be extended to Agniveers?
In the first year of enrolment under the Agnipath scheme, an Agniveer will get a monthly salary of ₹30,000, which translates to an annual package of ₹4.76 lakh. The in-hand amount is estimated around ₹21,000. The remaining ₹9,000 will go to a corpus with an equal contribution from the government. In the second and third year of their service , an Agniveer will get ₹33,000 and ₹36,500 per month, respectively and ₹40,000 in the final year . In addition to monthly salary, these recruits will be paid allowances for travel and uniform. They will also be entitled to honours, and awards as per existing guidelines.
There will, however, be no pension or gratuity benefits for these recruits. Agniveers will contribute 30% of their salaries to a package called ‘Seva Nidhi’, and this amount will be matched by the government. This fund will accrue interest, and at the end of the four years, each soldier will get ₹11.71 lakh as a lump sum tax-free amount, which includes interest accumulated on the absolute amount of ₹10.04 lakh.
During service, an Agniveer will be entitled to avail medical facilities at service hospitals, along with canteen facilities. An Agniveer will be granted 30-day annual leave while sick leave will be based on medical advice.
The Agniveers will also be provided non-contributory life insurance cover of ₹48 lakh during their service in the armed forces.
In case of death during service, the next of kin of the deceased Agniveer will get insurance money, one-time ex gratia payment of ₹44 lakh, full pay for the unserved period along with the balance amount in the soldier’s Seva Nidhi fund and government contribution and interest accrued in the Agniveer Corpus Fund — which amounts to over ₹1 crore.
In case an Agniveer suffers a disability attributable or aggravated due to conditions of engagement, a provision of up to ₹44 lakh based on the percentage of disability, apart from full pay for the unserved period will be given. The soldier will also be given the balance amount in the Seva Nidhi fund and the Centre’s contribution from the Agniveer Corpus Fund.
In addition, Agniveers will get skill certificates, awards of credits so that they can study further, and a financial package to support future endeavours after their short-term military service.
Can an Agniveer leave service at any time?
No. As per the brief shared by the Air Force, an Agniveer will not be permitted to leave the service before completing the engagement period. “…except in exceptional cases, with approval of the Competent Authority,” it adds.
Concerns over Agnipath scheme
The Defence Ministry has maintained that the scheme has been designed to enable a “youthful profile” of the armed forces. In a statement, the Ministry said, “The scheme will enhance the youthful profile of the armed forces and provide a fresh lease of ‘Josh’ and ‘Jazba’,” whilst bringing about a transformational shift towards more tech-savvy armed forces which it said is the need of the hour. At present, the average age profile of serving personnel in the Army is 32 years, which will come down to 26 years over a period of time with Agnipath scheme, ministry officials noted.
Several defence experts, however, have raised concern over the Agnipath model and the future of Agniveers, asking the Government to fix gaps, which could have an adverse impact on the capabilities of the defence services. They point out that the reform is primarily being introduced to slash the growing salary and pension bills of the three services. Safeguarding national security should be of paramount importance for the Government, they say. In the Union Budget 2022-23, ₹5.25 lakh crore were allocated to defence. Of this, defence pensions added up to ₹1.19 lakh crore.
Many have taken to Twitter to point out the “flaws” with the Agnipath scheme. “Death knell for armed forces, ToD not tested, NO pilot project, straight implementation. Will also lead to Militarization of society, nearly 40,000(75%) youth year on year back rejected & dejected without a job, semi trained in arms ex Agniveers. Not a good idea. No one gains,” Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia, ex-Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) wrote in a tweet.
In reply, Major General Yash Mor (retired) tweeted, “…More than anything else we feel for lakhs who have lost all hope of recruitment in the past two years. Service headquarters too appear to be reluctant to implement this.” The veteran was referring to the suspension of the recruitment process for the last two years due to COVID.
In another tweet, he said that the armed forces should not be looked at from an economic point of view. “Military life and career can't be evaluated from money saved to the exchequer. Looking to be difficult to implement the scheme, with negative connotations in all aspects,” the retired officer added.
Concerns have also been raised about the employability of the 75% who will return to the civil world after serving for four years in the armed forces. On Wednesday, however, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs announced that the youth recruited under the Agnipath scheme will get priority in recruitment to the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and Assam Rifles.