Tuesday, August 16th, 2022 18:04:38

Time for an unpopular but unavoidable idea forIndian Military

By Prakash Nanda
Updated: July 6, 2022 1:43 pm

Purists or conservatives among the military veterans seem to be unhappy at the Government of India’s decision on June 14 to commence “Agnipath” scheme for the recruitment of youth in the Armed Forces. 46 000 of the young persons in the age group of 17.5 to 21 years (one year further concession was given later) will be recruited this year (2022) and will be called “ agniveers”.

India’s cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,  has cleared the scheme and termed it to be a “transformative reform”, which will provide “ A unique opportunity to the youth to serve the country and contribute to Nation Building”; make “Armed Forces profile to be youthful and dynamic”; offer “ “Attractive financial package for the Agniveers”; train “ Agniveers in the best institutions and enhance their skills & qualifications”;  offer “Adequate re-employment opportunities for those returning to society and who could emerge as role models for the youth”; and ensure “ Availability of well-disciplined and skilled youth with military ethos in civil society”.
Once this scheme is implemented, the average age profile of Indian Armed forces, which is between 30 and 34 years at the moment, will come down by about 4-5 years, making the Indian military “young and fit”, it is said. But the scheme is for personnel below officer rank (PBOR) and they will be recruited for a period of four years. They would form a distinct rank in the Armed Forces, different from any other existing ranks.

Upon the completion of four years of service, based on organisational requirement and policies promulgated by the Armed Forces from time-to-time, Agniveers will be offered an opportunity to apply for permanent enrolment in the Armed Forces. These applications will be considered in a centralized manner based on objective criteria including performance during their four-year engagement period and up to 25% of each specific batch of Agniveers will be enrolled in regular cadres of the Armed Forces. They would be required to serve for a further engagement period of minimum 15 years and would be governed by the existing terms and conditions of service of Junior Commissioned Officers/Other Ranks in Indian Army and their equivalent in Indian Navy and Indian Air Force and that of Non Combatant enrolled in the Indian Air Force, as amended from time-to-time.

According to the scheme, Agniveers will be given an attractive customized monthly package (Rs. 30,000 in the first year with annual increments so as to have Rs. 40000 in the fourth year) along with “Risk and Hardship allowances” as applicable in the three services. Each month they will be providing a fixed sum to a “Corpus Fund” and this amount will be equally matched by the government.

On completion of the engagement period of four years, Agniveers will be paid one time ‘Seva Nidhi’ package which shall comprise their contribution including accrued interest thereon and matching contribution from the Government equal to the accumulated amount of their contribution including interests. The ‘Seva Nidhi’ will be exempt from Income Tax. However, there shall be no entitlement to gratuity and pensionary benefits.

Post their stint of four years, the Agniveers will be infused into the civil society where they can contribute immensely towards the nation building process, the government says. The skills gained by each Agniveer will be recognised in a certificate to form part of his unique resume.  “The avenues and opportunities that will open up for their progress in the civil world (government and private jobs) after Agniveer tenure would certainly be a big plus towards nation building. Moreover, the ‘Seva Nidhi’ of approximately Rs 11.71 lakh would aid the Agniveer to pursue his/her future dreams without the financial pressure, which is normally the case for young people from the financially deprived strata of society”, according to the announced scheme.

However, the scheme is not without criticisms. Many military veterans, most of whom were senior officers while serving, have argued against the idea of Agniveers. They are concerned that a combat soldier cannot be trained in four years, and the scheme thus compromises national security.

As one of them wrote, “the idea of shortened training -spell indirectly trivializes the skill-sets for which the armed forces train their cadres so diligently. For instance, the army alone has over 150 trades and each one is peculiar. The tenure of a soldier or sailor or airman under Agnipath scheme would be chock-a-block with activities. In his four year tenure, the recruitment training, authorised leaves and temporary duties would eat up to 90 weeks. Is it possible to groom a green soldier as a missile pilot or a tank and artillery gunner or machine gunner or a vehicle driver or even a scout who moves ahead of an infantry section in the remaining period and then lose him? ”

However, this argument is fallacious, in my considered view. For one, the wars will be fought with regular soldiers and they will include 25 percent of the Agniveers who will be regularized and undergo further training. For another, it is being forgotten that till 1974, soldiers (non-officers) were serving for only seven years, not 17 years as is the case now. So how did India fight wars and win (In fact, India has not fought a full-fledged war after 1971) with these soldiers, who were not properly trained, if we believe this group of select veterans? The bitter fact is that these veterans suffer from a tremendous sense of arrogance; they think they know everything. And what is worse, these veterans have never, repeat never, supported any change or reform in the Indian military ever. If we go by them, India will fight wars only with World War II mindset. They are eternally resistant to any change or reform.
Second major criticism against Agnipath scheme is that retrenchment of a large number of youth from the armed forces after four years will be liable to create security problems. Given the past experience of retired soldiers at the age of 38 (as is the norm for a regular soldier), it is very difficult to get absorbed into the paramilitary forces. In other civilian sectors, mostly the retired armed forces personnel get jobs as guards in the private security agencies. Mostly, they are unable to find respectable employment and are critically dependent on their pensions and other post retirement benefits.

There are some merits, indeed, in this criticism. But then, it is also a fact that soon after the Agnipath scheme was announced, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister Amit Shah have assured that the Agniveers will be provided preferential entry in nonfighting defence establishments and paramilitary outfits such as CRPF, BSF,CISF and Coast Guards. Many states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam have already declared that the Agniveers will be recruited in state police and other government services. Besides, some of them can begin as small time entrepreneurs with around 12 lakh rupees, not a small amount to have for a 25 year old person.
However, the opponents or critics are giving absurd logic by saying that as Agneeveers will be leaving the armed forces at a tender age of 21 to 25 fall prey to the lure of crime syndicates, radical political outfits and worse the foreign intelligence agencies. Trained in handling of weapons and explosives and having the basic knowledge of military establishments functioning, such a person can be a real security threat. In fact, some of the more enterprising ones could join the overseas mercenary groups and private military contractors (PMCs). After all, in Ukraine today, a large number of PMCs are fighting for that country.

Why are these critics so perverse-minded? Why do they doubt the patriotism of our youth? If at the age of 38 our soldiers are leaving the armed forces as is the rule but have never become anti-social, anti-national and terrorists, who do they assume that a boy or girl of 24 or 25 will become one?

But then, as I have argued, these critics will always remain critics. They will never welcome any change or reform. In fact, these criticisms, in some form or the other, have been there ever since the idea , called “Tour of Duty” then, was mooted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2015, and pursued vigorously by late Defence minister Manohar Parrikar and late Chief of Defence Staff Vipin Rawat ( he was highlighting it even as the Army Chief).
Parrikar and Rawat were of the opinion that the idea should be first applied to the Indian Army, which is the largest in terms of manpower. Though the scheme that has been announced will cover all the three services, for all practical purposes it is the Army that will be tested the most.

A major concern of the government has always been that “manpower costs are also eating into the capital allocation of the armed forces to cover revenue demand”. Obviously, the budgetary constraints happen to be a major factor for this decision. For instance, India’s defence budget for 2022-23 is Rs. 5.25 lakh crore, of which Rs. 1.2 lakh crore is for pension component, let alone the salaries.
As Amit Cowshish, a retired senior defence ministry official, says, of the total defence budget this year, 44.37 percent is earmarked for the services’ revenue expenditure, 29.01 percent for meeting their capital requirement, and 22.79 percent for defence pensions. And salaries plus pensions account for 55.3 percent of the services’ total revenue budget.

In the case of the army, the largest of the three services, salaries account for an even higher share in the revenue budget. From 69.16 percent in the current fiscal, this goes up to 70.78 percent in the FY23. To put it in perspective it was 60.92 percent in 2010-11.

Cowshish’s point is that salaries and pensions of the three services (armed forces personnel, auxiliary forces and the civilians working in defence establishments) as a proportion of the revenue budget has been increasing steadily. It has risen from 61.98 percent in FY22 to 64.12 percent in FY23.

Against this background, it has been reportedly estimated that  the “prospective life-term saving” in the cost of engagement of a jawan who leaves after 17 years of service with pension and other benefits, as compared to an Agniveer, will be Rs. 11.5 crore.

All told, national defence budget management is essential. There has to be a much more significant percentage for Capital acquisitions. No major country can afford to have such adverse capital to revenue expenditure and pension bill ratios. More important is to have money available for modernisation of the forces that includes badly needed new platforms and weapon systems.

And one of the best ways to achieve the above is to reduce the manpower. In fact, in the last 25 years, all major armed forces of the world have made deep cuts in manpower.

Way back in 2003, China decided to trim down its then 2.5 million-strong force.  President Xi Jinping has repeatedly talked of reorganizing China’s military to create a leaner army. At the moment, its army is 2.3 million strong. Xi reportedly wants to bring it under 1 (one) million.

China, on the other hand, would like to increase the size of its Navy and Air Force and make all the forces go high-tech, depending on robots or Artificial Intelligence (AI). Xi recently said, “Quantity should be reduced, quality improved to build a capable and efficient modernized standing army.”

In 2012, Great Britain announced a 20 percent cut, reducing its strength of the Army to 82,000 combatants by the end of the decade. And going by the UK 2021 Defence Review,  entitled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’, the United Kingdom’s Army is about to shrink further to by 10,000 soldiers so as to augment and modernize technological investments. The Defence Review says that £23 billion has been set aside for funding in such technological areas as the new National Cyber Force, Autonomous weapons Systems (AWS), and Space.

Rejecting the theory of classic hard power and troop size, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has turned its military into a lean and quick-strike force. Now-a-days, Russian soldiers fight out of brigades, not large divisions.
Similarly, the United States has decided to have smaller and leaner armed forces, given the financial constraints that the country is facing right now. The Pentagon has been asked to massively cut its budget running into several hundred billion dollars. The US Army is reportedly preparing to downsize 40,000 more active duty personnel from 490,000 to 450,000. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force will experience much smaller force reductions, though. Of course, every care will be taken, it is said, to ensure that the reduction in manpower will not compromise on the fighting capabilities of the US military.

Similarly, the Modi government is stressing that a leaner military, like the downsized armed forces of the four above-mentioned foremost military powers of the world, will not mean a weaker military. The reduced manpower will leave more resources for the capital expenditure so as to have new technologies and  smarter systems such as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and unmanned systems, in space and, in particular, in cyberspace capabilities. With better hardware, Indian armed forces can be more agile, flexible, lethal, innovative and creative. Its extended technological edge can be more lethal for the enemies than the numerical strength.

Viewed thus, time for the Agnipath scheme had come indeed! It is true that initially, some young aspirants for a career in the armed forces were misguided by vested interests, eternally negative veterans, coaching centres and political parties in opposition (some say even the ruling party JDU in Bihar). They openly instigated the youth to resort to violence and burn and damage billions of public properties. Strong punishment must follow them. But what is heartening is that the aspirants seem to have realised their follies and are now enthusiastically applying for the posts announced by the Army, Air Force and the Navy.


By Prakash Nanda


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