The story so far: Large-scale violence by distressed youth broke out in many parts of India, notably in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, and Telangana which contribute sizeable manpower to the armed forces, in the wake of the Centre announcing, on June 14, a new scheme of recruitment of jawans, personnel below officer ranks (PBORs), to the three wings.
What is the scheme?
Agnipath or Tour of Duty will be the only mode of recruitment of soldiers, sailors, and airmen from now on. It envisages enlisting youths aged between 17.5 years and 21 years — the upper limit has been extended to 23 years this year after protests — for a period of just four years, also counting their training time. At the expiry of their contract, only 25% of these soldiers, to be known as Agniveers, will be re-enlisted for regular military service.
While the salary package of Agniveers will be around ₹4.76 lakh in the first year which can go up to ₹6.92 lakh in the fourth year, these short-term soldiers will also be offered a contributory severance package besides non-contributory death and disability compensation. They will not be eligible for pension or gratuity. A day after the scheme was unveiled by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in the presence of the Service chiefs, the Union Ministry of Education said it would offer a three-year degree programme to these enlistees in order to make them employable once out of service. As protests rocked the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs, on Saturday, announced its decision to reserve 10% of vacancies in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and the Assam Rifles to Agniveers. The Defence Minister also approved of a proposal to earmark 10% of vacancies in Coast Guard, defence civilian jobs and in the defence PSUs for Agniveers provided they meet the eligibility criteria.
What, according to its supporters, are the scheme’s benefits?
Defenders of the scheme, which include the three Service chiefs, have maintained that this ‘transformational’ initiative will make the forces lean and much younger, with the average age of the soldier brought down to about 25 from the present 32 years. It will also ensure the availability of a larger share of budget outlay for capital expenditure for the acquisition of hi-tech equipment and platforms because the outlay for pension payout will drop considerably over time. Military training at a young age would make these men returning to the civilian world more disciplined and employable, advocates of the scheme argue.
They say that the military recruitment procedures in many countries such as the U.S., Russia, the U.K., Israel, France and Germany were extensively studied over the past two years before formulating the scheme for Indian conditions.
Why are there protests across States?
Apprehensions about Agnipath are vast and varied. Scores of veterans have flayed the scheme as an effort to scrimp and save on revenue expenditure at the expense of the forces’ operational efficiency or fighting capabilities. Four years is too short a time for a conscript to acquire the skills essential for operating sophisticated systems in the technology-intensive Navy and Air Force. For the Army, which has a regimental system, it is feared to impair the unit’s cohesiveness as the soldier on a short-term contract could remain ‘risk-averse’.
There are also apprehensions about this path leading to the militarisation of society. Some say that it’s unfair to the potential recruit as well, as the absence of a continued employment guarantee at the expiry of four years when he’s still in his 20s and without the skillsets or credentials required to make the cut in the civilian/corporate world, could be demoralising. Agnipath cuts at the root of social security and dignity that have lured rural Indian youth to the military fatigue, argue the scheme’s detractors.
What is the way forward?
Unmindful of the ongoing protests and reservations expressed by a chunk of military veterans — ironically, also including some habitual votaries of the government — the Centre has stated unequivocally its resolve to go ahead with the reform. The Army and the Air Force have announced their recruitment plans and the Navy is expected to follow suit. Each year, about 45,000 soldiers will be enlisted in the three Services under this scheme. It remains to be seen if amendments such as the extension of their initial service period and mandatory re-enlistment of at least 50% of Agniveers recommended by some veterans would be considered to finetune the scheme.
Editorial | Playing with fire
Right now, the protests are continuing unabated. A clearer picture will emerge by the time the recruitment process gets underway.