Agnipath and the Department of Military Affairs: Time to Rethink the Path We Are Taking

From operational efficacy and lack of job security, there are several issues that the armed forces and the government should be on the lookout for.

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Although these people with minds blinded by greed do not
perceive the evil of the destruction of one’s own race……
Age long family traditions disappear with the destruction
of a family…

– The Bhagwad Gita Chapter I Verse 38 and 40

The Agnipath scheme recently announced by the Department of Military Affairs is going to be a deadly blow striking at the roots of the time-tested ethos and traditions of India’s armed forces. The events that unfolded after its launch, such as reserving vacancies to assuage the concerns of the protesting aspirants, also give the impression that this scheme is exploitative in nature given the desperation of the country’s unemployed youth today.

What is of major concern is that our senior leadership seems comfortable with the end state: a situation where a Commanding Officer of a Battalion/Regiment/equivalent fighting unit in the other services will have only 50% of his troops as regulars with the balance 50% being temporary for a period of four years. Among them, 75% would be in the process of being sent out after four years, and this process will be an annual feature.

If the majority of the Commanding Officers have indeed agreed to this scheme – while giving their comments, which must have been sought from the command chain before making such a major change in our recruitment policy – then there is hardly anything that can be said, except that common military experience would suggest that accepting such a 50:50 ratio is not wise, particularly in combat units pitting themselves against an enemy who will throw their best at you.

The maximum percentage that a combat leader could accept is having up to 25% rookies or tour of duty soldiers in his team or unit, and therefore, such an end state needs a reconsideration on operational efficacy grounds alone.

Also read: Here’s What’s Likely to Happen to Indian Army’s Discharged Agniveers

Administratively too, the Agnipath military recruitment scheme is going to throw up additional – and completely avoidable – challenges for the armed forces. Unit commanders and all officers will now have to busy themselves with writing performance reports on these Agniveers right from their induction.

Currently, as far as the Army is concerned, such reports are initiated only after a soldier reaches the rank of a Naik – after around eight-nine years of service. Alternatively, some other form of selection process by a board of officers will have to be put in place.

The point is, are the armed forces going to get more involved in administrative work at the cost of training for war?

Matters could get worse in the years ahead given the culture gaining ground as exemplified by the appeals for granting of permanent commission by some short service officers before the courts. Thus, there is also a real danger of perceived subjectivity/grievances creeping down into the fourth-year Agniveer cadre as well, on account of ‘job security’.

Another probable undesired result of this mode of recruitment will be that the armed forces are going to become the last choice of employment – even below Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) – for those in dire straits or those who are unable to clear the tests for jobs offering greater security. For example, if an individual gets through both the armed forces and the CAPFs, he will, in all probability, opt for the latter. Therefore, one has to ask, who are the ones choosing to join this profession with the highest risk to life and yet no guarantee of career security? Perhaps it is best for the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Other challenges

A very important issue of this scheme, that it can help cut the burgeoning pension bill, therefore saving the taxpayers’ money, has been sought to be downplayed for reasons simply not understood.

While saving the taxpayers’ money has to be a top priority in a democracy, this issue should have been worked out in black and white and placed in the public domain as the key feature of the scheme.

Instead, the entire effort has been more on focussing public attention that this scheme is some sort of a golden pill to bring down the average age of the armed forces from 32 to 26 years which incidentally is coming about purely as a function of statistics on account of the yearly release of 75% of the fourth year Agniveers and not due to any reduction in the minimum age of intake which has remained the same viz, 17.5 years.

Also read: Do We Need a New Department of Military Affairs and Integrated Theatre Commands?

The point here is that, we have gone about these very vital tasks of achieving savings and also achieving a reduction in the average age in the worst possible manner. It would have been much wiser and simpler to synergise the manpower needs of the armed forces and the CAPFs/AR/Coast Guard and then induct their recruits (with a lower age profile) progressively into the armed forces up to a maximum of 25% of our strength for a tour of duty of five to six years, before reverting them back to their parent organisation for which they were originally selected.

This induction of recruits from the CAPFs would however run parallel to the regular (but proportionately reduced) armed forces recruitment intake. By such a method not only will the armed forces save on their pension bill to the extent of the intake from the CAPFs but there would be a spin off leading to savings in basic training costs that would accrue to these CAPFs as well.

It is well known in the armed forces that ‘Bullshit baffles the Brain’, implying that when your case is low in ‘substance’, you pad it up in ‘form’ by adding flowery jargon and presenting in a colourful file cover.

Giving such a “high-sounding” name like ‘Agnipath’ to a scheme that was simply a change in the military recruitment policy, and calling these new recruits ‘Agniveers’ instead of ‘jawans’ speaks volumes of the nature of the scheme that is being literally pushed in a tearing hurry instead of the more mature method of first running a pilot project.

The armed forces are also making a big deal of the fact that they will be returning well-trained and disciplined citizens to civil society as part of a larger nation-building process. Such spinoffs are good but this was always inherent in the case of all retiring servicemen. However, this new plan of releasing a soldier back to society after just four years of service is not only fraught with several imponderables but it also completely ignores the priority of job security in the minds of our people given the harsh socio-economic realities existing in the nation.

Simply put, the biggest drawback of the new system is related to this uncertain future of the Agniveers being released from the armed forces. It makes little sense to say that they will be given priority for selection or have a 10% reservation in the CAPFs and other organisations. There is just no guarantee here unless, the numbers are clearly spelt out and all of these Agniveers are allotted their individual parent organisation on whom they will fall back on after their release.

Anything falling short of such an iron-clad guarantees will lead to a situation where they could soon earn the tag of being ‘rejects’ of the armed forces and treated as people cutting into the vacancies of these CAPFs/other organisations. So it would be in our national interest if the scope of this Agnipath scheme is amplified so as to have the Agniveers recruited into the armed forces in some form of a deputation from the CAPFs and other organisations earmarked to absorb them.

Such a system alone can enable the released Agniveers to lead their post armed forces life with pride and honour in the new organisation. Further, such an arrangement should not in any way deny an Agniveer the option to get back to the civil street to seek private employment or continue his education. The vacancy kept for him in the organisation from where he was on such a deputation would however lapse and go to the benefit to that particular organisation.

In a nut shell, therefore, this new armed forces recruitment policy is going to disrupt the time-tested organisation of the armed forces at the grassroots and also adversely affect the human resource efficacy of the armed forces.

We have already damaged our Higher Defence Structures at the very top by accepting a retrograde reform where, instead of creating a tighter and more accountable organisation by merging the armed forces Chiefs Of Staff Committee and the attendant Integrated Defence Staff with the existing Department of Defence so as to create a truly integrated Department of Defence/Ministry of Defence, we further divided ourselves and created another separate (and rather curiously named) Department of Military Affairs.

We are now also seeing our seniormost officers sporting designations of the civil services even when such a designation is lower than that particular military rank in the warrant of precedence. The point may appear minor but it is important that the military insists on using its own rank appropriate designations which in this case could be ‘Deputy Chief of Defence Staff’; and if the stumbling block is on a question of having certain financial/administrative powers, the requisite government notifications can always be modified/amended to include military ranks when military officers are posted in government departments.

The larger question before every thinking Indian should be whether we have chosen the correct path to nurture the grass oot health of the armed forces at one level and also guide them to achieve their rightful destiny at another level. Both destiny and health are in our hands but while health may be forgiving enough to give us a second chance, our destiny will not.

Ravi Dastane is a veteran Lieutenant General who commanded the strategic High Altitude 14 Corps at Leh. He retired as the Deputy Chief, HQ IDS. He has also authored a book titled India’s Armed Forces: Tempering the Steel.