The cloud of dust that rose following the announcement of the Agnipath scheme has now settled. Under this plan, around 50,000 soldiers, or ‘Agniveers’, will be recruited annually, with most leaving the service in four years. Only 25% will be retained in service for another 15 years, as permanent cadres. With the passage of time, it is now possible to review the scheme in a more mature and pragmatic manner, especially since the first batch of Agniveers are on the way to their training centres. The recruitment rallies conducted for the Agniveers have seen a positive response, both among boys and girls.
The times they are a-changin’
Nothing is ever constant and change will always be the order of the day. Therefore, our policies also need to change and be aligned with the future. To say that we must continue doing what we have been doing traditionally and not review our policies ever is not the correct approach. The merits or demerits of a particular policy can be debated and feedback given to make it more robust. But to denounce it outright smacks of a ‘status quoist’ attitude.
If we look at the past there have always been changes in the human resources (HR) policies of central government employees. In 1998, for example, the retirement age for all central government employees including armed forces personnel was increased across the board, by two years. Even then there was a hue and cry that it would lead to stagnation and so on. But now, more than 20 years later, it is business as usual. Does that mean this will never change? Not necessarily so.
There is already talk of raising the age of retirement to 65 years, in keeping with global trends. Similarly, the terms and conditions of service for our soldiers, sailors and airmen have undergone changes from the time to time. So, to say that the Agnipath scheme is tinkering with settled systems, or falling back on clichés such as “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, is self-defeating. The Agniveer rallies which saw a good turnout shows that our youth are motivated and willing to serve the cause of the nation.
Training and bonding
Our present system of almost one year of training — and even more for the technical arms — was devised when the standard of education of recruits was low, with an even lower technical threshold; therefore, it required time to drill concepts into them. Nowadays, all our youth are technologically savvy, which includes even those hailing from villages. Everyone has a smartphone; everyone uses digital payment platforms. To continue with old training methodologies is irrational. Optimising the training duration is very much a possibility. Given basic training, proficiency can be acquired on the job, and this is how it is done in many armies in the world. Since the Agnipath scheme was under formulation, this was an issue discussed with foreign service chiefs and delegations. In most cases, the training period varied between six to eight months. When a naval chief was asked about sending his sailors onboard ships with only six months training, his reply was in the affirmative: ‘where else can you learn better than on the high seas?’
Another aspect that has been much discussed is of bonding and esprit de corps, and whether the Agniveers will be able to deliver when the time comes. Without even giving them a chance, why are we questioning or doubting their abilities? As far as esprit de corps is concerned, the onus is on the units. There is a saying in the Indian Army that “there are no good units or bad units; only good officers and bad officers”. The definition of officers can be expanded to include ‘superiors’ — good or bad superiors. If the supervisory staff in a unit is good, they would make the Agniveers feel welcome, mould them and make them a part of the team.
Prior to the 1971 war, recruits were inducted into units after a curtailed training period; and within months, they were in the thick of battle. Within a month or two they could stand up and deliver and have that esprit de corps. So it shall be now. Young soldiers have more risk-taking abilities. Most gallantry award winners have had a younger profile. For instance, Subedar Major (Honorary Captain) Yogendra Singh Yadav, PVC, was only 19 years old, when he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, following his specific act of gallantry on July 4, 1999 in the Kargil conflict. He survived despite many injuries.
Lateral absorption later
While formulating the Agnipath scheme, the aspect of lateral absorption into the Central Armed Police Forces, State police and even in other Ministries had been deliberated upon. However, it was felt that since this issue would come up only after four years, when the first lot of Agniveers would be due to be re-mustered, it could be considered later. Various Ministries would not only have to identify possible vacancies but also have to amend their respective service rules to include aspects such as enhanced ages of induction, ante-date benefits for services rendered and the like. Hopefully, aspects such as pension and medical cover would be automatically addressed. Following the announcement of the policy, there was a public outcry on the issue of the resettlement of the demobilised Agniveers. The Home Ministry and certain State governments straightaway announced 10% lateral induction. This was, therefore, not an afterthought, but it will certainly give urgency to the necessity of carrying out the necessary legally tenable and non-discriminatory revisions.
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A United Nations report says that India’s population is among the youngest in the world. However, this demographic point is a dividend only if it is disciplined and imbued with a nationalistic fervour. This is the underlying philosophy of the Agnipath scheme, which will be of benefit to the nation, the Armed Forces and the individual. All new schemes have teething troubles and this one too will have its fair share of niggles. As and when these crop up, there will always be room for mid-course corrections. Even the Constitution of India has been amended 105 times. It requires collective resolve to make the Agnipath scheme a success.
General Manoj Mukund Naravane (retired) was India’s Chief of the Army Staff, 2019-2022