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Chandigarh: The launch by the Union government of the controversial Agnipath scheme to recruit personnel below officer rank (PBOR) into India’s armed forces, which has triggered widespread violent protests, could not have come at a worse time for a country that faces extant external security threats from both its nuclear-armed neighbours.
At a juncture when the Chinese military continues with its irredentist deployment in Ladakh, public disorder over Agnipath stands compounded by the lack of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) which, in turn had deferred the knock-on ‘transformational’ institution of Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) to augment inter-service synergy to manage future conflicts.
“This incapacitating triple hex is of the government’s and the services’ own making and comes at a time when India is confronting an actively dangerous Chinese military in Ladakh,” said defence commentator Major General Amrit Pal Singh (retired). Even though India is nowhere near resolving the military standoff with Beijing along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the establishment had flagrantly aggravated issues like Agnipath, while grave matters like nominating the CDS and the attendant formulation of ITCs, remains in limbo, he added.
A cross-section of other veterans, security officials and analysts were equally blunt in their assessments, but unwilling to be named, for fear of repercussions for opposing the designated ‘official line’ that the prevailing security situation was ‘highly manageable’.
“The government is presently facing crises on multiple security fronts, but resolving none,” declared a former two-star Indian Navy (IN) officer. The higher service echelons, he conceded, were equally complicit in perpetuating overall disorder, which only seems to be steadily proliferating.
And though all three major security concerns encircling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led administration like Agnipath, the CDS’s appointment and the ITCs, have been debated threadbare over an extended period, their significance still merits reiteration.
Firstly, Agnipath’s merits and demerits continue to figure prominently in newspapers and on social and electronic media, as youths across several states riot against it, burning and disrupting trains, buses and police vehicles. But the irrevocable upshot is that, despite such pervasive unrest and criticism of the scheme by both serving and veteran officers, the government is neither going to revoke or majorly alter the scheme, or even admit any fallibility in its conception. It aims to kick off the Agniveer recruitment drive later this week.
But, much like the recurrent procedural changes effected almost daily during the 2016 demonetisation campaign, the Agnipath plan too continues to undergo frequent modifications, evidently in proportion to the disaffection amongst youths rampaging against this contractual military recruitment scheme.
“It’s quite obvious that the entire Agnipath plan was not clearly thought through or debated before it was announced last week, or there would be no need for the slew of post facto additions and changes to it,” said a retired three-star Indian Air Force (IAF) officer. And, in a rare admission of the military’s blameworthiness in endorsing a flawed scheme, he said the respective service headquarters were also eager to endorse Agnipath without even remotely considering its obvious flaws and adverse implications that hinged primarily on its eventual execution and lack of trust in officialdoms ability to implement it.
Hence, the recent palliatives of 10% job reservations in the Central Para Military Forces (CAPF), Assam Rifles and 16 defence public sector units were announced for demobilised Agniveers only after the protests erupted. Alongside, several BJP-ruled states and other public sector corporations also competed with one another in offering future employment to large numbers of Agniveers, discharged after a four-year tour of military duty.
Nonetheless, some media reports citing official data, expressed severe skepticism on this count.
Quoting statistics from the Defence Ministry’s Directorate of Re-settlement, the Indian Express on June 20 revealed the paltry number of ex-servicemen who had actually been provided government jobs in the recent past, despite ‘dedicated’ reservations and grandiose promises, similar to the ones being assured given to Agniveers. The newspaper disclosed that of the 30% posts reserved till June 30, 2021 for ex-servicemen in various types of government organisations like CAPF, nationalised banks and public sector units, amongst others, only 3.95% of military retirees had managed to secure employment.
“The recent pledges of job reservations for Agniveers should have been part of the initial Agnipath announcement,” said a two-star IA officer. It now appears the recent undertakings were an afterthought, more like placeboes, and a damage limitation endeavour in which few opf the rioting youths believed, he added, requesting anonymity.
Pension savings not part of the plan?
Meanwhile, there is an element of disingenuity that has insidiously crept into the progenitors of the Agnipath plan, which the late CDS General Bipin Rawat and all three services had initially stated was being launched with the twin objectives of reducing annual pension pay-outs and fielding a youthful military, by reducing its mean age from 32 to 26 years.
Mysteriously, however, over the past week, first defence minister Rajnath Singh and thereafter Lieutenant General Anil Puri, presently heading the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) after General Rawat’s demise, said saving on pensions was the last thing on their mind in initiating Agnipath. Singh had stated last week, when Agnipath was announced, that the government did not look upon the armed forces from the ‘savings’ viewpoint, but Lt General Puri went even a step further than the raksha mantri.
In an interview with NDTV over the weekend, Lt General Puri disbelievingly stated that in his entire analysis on Agniveer’s, there was ‘no financial chapter’ or even mention of pensions. He declared that there was nothing like a cost-to-company (CTC) concept in the military with regard to Agniveers, as the country’s defence was priceless and incalculable. “There is nothing like CTC in the military; these words do not exist in its lexicon,” Lt General Puri categorically stated adding that there was simply no ‘connect’ between money and the prospective Agniveer scheme, disabusing all notions of Agnipath effecting pension savings.
In fact, the three-star officer went on to state that services will end spending more on these part-time recruits, than it would end up saving. “There is never a demand-supply problem (of finances) for the military,” Lt General Puri amazingly said, adding that in the services there was also no ‘planning on savings’. This latter statement will, no doubt, be queried not only by the armed forces themselves, but also by parliamentary and other governmental watchdog committees.
The DMA officer also inexplicably claimed that the severance package of the discharged Agniveers would total Rs 24 lakhs, instead of the Rs 11.71 lakhs that was earlier stated by defence minister Singh. According to Lt General Puri’s complex and knotty calculations, this larger amount would include the Agniveers’ ‘personal savings’ during their four-year tour of duty, in what appears to be a prescient evaluation of what each out going recruit would salt away each month from his salary.
Lt General Puri’s assertions, however, fly in the face of what his late boss General Rawat frequently dwelt upon – the issue of escalating pensions and how they were singularly responsible for eroding the military’s annual fiscal outlays for modernisation. In a Press Trust of India report in February 2020, for instance, General Rawat was quoted as saying that the rise in the armed forces pension budget was simply ‘unsustainable’.
The former CDS revealed that pensions for Financial Year (FY) 2020-21 were Rs 1.33 lakh crore, up from Rs 1.1 lakh crore a year earlier. “Look at that jump (in defence pensions) that is taking place,” he had stated at the time, and had subsequently repeated this escalation in pensions ad nauseum that he asserted was eating into the military’s capital or acquisition budget. If this is the way the jump (in pensions) keeps happening, it is not sustainable and needed reducing, General Rawat had said, contrary to what Lt General Puri maintains.
In FY 2022-23, service pensions equaled Rs 119,696 crore of the overall defence budget of Rs 525,166 crore or 22.79%, leaving limited resources for the military’s modernisation. In all likelihood, these exorbitant pay-outs would not pose Lt General Puri or his DMA any fiscal worries. Thus, recruiting Agniveers for longer durations would pose no financial burden on the state.
Secondly, procedures to appoint a CDS to succeed General Rawat after his death in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu last December, too have been equally muddled, much like Agnipath. This had resulted in India’s senior most military post remaining vacant, even as the Chinese military doggedly refused to withdraw and restore the status quo along the LAC that prevailed before its ingress in May 2020, into wide swathes of territory India perceives as its own.
After months of prevarication, the government recently expanded, via a June 7 notification, the talent pool of officers eligible to become CDS, to include all serving and retired three-star officers below 62 years of age. This prompted speculation that one such officer had been shortlisted and that an announcement was imminent; but nearly a fortnight later no proclamation had emanated. Consequently, damaging hearsay on the prospective CDS persists, with several putative candidates busy lobbying politicians and currying favour with the government by vociferously backing the Agnipath scheme on television news channels and from seminar podiums across the country.
And, thirdly the unresolved operational ITC concern that was closely inter-twined with the CDS’s appointment.
All three services are believed to have finalised their reports on creating theatre commands, which they had recently submitted to Lt General Puri for further consideration by the DMA. These analyses had been requisitioned by General Rawat in late 2021 with the eventual aim of instituting four or five ITCs – down from 17 individual service commands – to operationally combine India’s tri-service manpower and assets by 2023. But without a CDS, this task would not only remain still born but would also be delayed.
“Perhaps, the unhurried haste with which the CDS appointment is being pursued will eventually transpire, after which the ITCs can be pursued,” said a senior army officer. But till that occurs, the multiple security crises facing the government and military will endure, even as the dangers on the country’s disputed northern and western borders persist, he warned.