Here's What Veterans Have to Say as Training for First Batch of ‘Agniveers’ Begins

Over the past fortnight, 19,000 Agniveers shortlisted for the Indian Army, and 3,000 each for the Navy and Air Force, began receiving instruction at various institutions that is expected to last around 31 weeks.

New Delhi: The Indian military has begun training some 25,000 personnel below officer rank (PBOR) recruited as Agniveers under the contentious Agnipath scheme announced by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) last June.

Over the past fortnight, 19,000 Agniveers shortlisted for the Indian Army (IA), and 3,000 each for the Indian Navy (IN) and the Indian Air Force (IAF), began receiving instruction at various service training institutions that is expected to last around 31 weeks. Official sources said these new recruits would be sent to units in August with distinctive Agniveer insignias to distinguish them from other serving PBOR.

These Agniveers also include 100 women for the IA, who will eventually be inducted into the Corps of Military Police and 341 for the IN. The IAF, for its part, is expected to begin recruiting women in subsequent Agnipath enrollments later in the year, when an additional 21,000 PBOR are expected to be taken on.

From then on, the annual Agniveer intake for all three services is expected to gradually increase to around 50,000-60,000, rising eventually to around 100,000 recruits per year to make up for routinely retiring jawans, airmen and sailors and to make good personnel shortfalls that have endured perennially. These part-time recruitments are expected to take place each year in May and November, forever replacing the intake of PBOR that had prevailed for nearly two centuries for the army and several decades for the other two services.

The Agnipath scheme centres on recruiting Agniveers aged between 17.5 and 21 years into all three services, for a four-year tour of duty (ToD). Thereafter, 75% of Agniveers from each batch would be discharged, while the remaining 25% would be retained to serve out their full tenure of around 17 more years, following a strict screening process. This would render the latter eligible for full retirement benefits, including pensions, but their previous four years of military service would not be considered in determining these settlements.

The demobilised Agniveers, on the other hand, would receive Rs 11.71 lakh as a tax-free severance package under the Seva Nidhi scheme, to which they would individually have contributed 30% of their monthly emoluments whilst in service. The Agniveers would receive a monthly salary of Rs 30,000, rising to Rs 40,000 in their fourth and possibly final year. Alongside, the government has declared its aim of providing employment to outgoing Agniveers in the Central Armed Police Forces, state and railway police, assorted government departments, public sector organisations and civil aviation, ports and sundry naval establishments.

Agnipath’s primary objective, as envisaged by the MoD and the Union government, is to reduce the ballooning services pension pay-outs to effect savings in India’s declining defence budget to finance long-deferred military modernisation and to stem the services’ high-age profile. In financial year (FY) 2022-23, for instance, service pensions equalled Rs 1,19,696 crore of the overall defence outlay of Rs 5,25,166 crore, or a whopping 22.7%, leaving limited funds for the military’s continually deferred modernisation as the country faces serious security challenges from both its nuclear-armed neighbours, Pakistan and China.

Meanwhile, a cross-section of service officers said that the Agniveers’ ongoing ‘compressed multi-layered training’ would be undertaken at various military establishments and comprise basic and advanced instruction on weapon systems, primarily on simulators, lasting some 24 weeks. Media reports revealed that some 500 weapon simulators had been installed for the Agniveers and existing infrastructure at unit and formation levels where their instruction would be executed, especially for the IA, had been significantly expanded.

The first two training segments will concentrate on augmenting physical fitness, discipline, team work, followed by instruction in battlefield survival and combat tactics and the English language and other soldierly responsibilities the Agniveers would encounter. These two phases would be followed by the third and final seven-week long ‘on-the-job’ stint, mostly in units, establishments or arenas to which the jawan, airman or sailor would eventually be assigned for his ToD.

Special facilities have been installed for female Agniveers, especially by the IN at INS Chilka in Odisha. Apart from accommodation quarters, sanitary pad vending and disposal machines and a separate dining area have been installed. Operational instruction for naval women recruits, however, would be conducted jointly alongside their male colleagues and include swimming, drill and parade, weapon firing and servicing instructions amongst other related activities. Training for IAF recruits is being undertaken at the Airmen Training School at Sambra Belgavi in Karnataka, whilst that of the Army equivalents is currently ongoing at some 40 locations across the country.

Veterans say training ‘unsatisfactory’

However, many retired officers dubbed the Agniveers’ truncated 31-week training spell as ‘inadequate’ and ‘unsatisfactory’, as it normally needed 3-5 years for all military PBOR – after an initial 18-24 months of instruction – to be deemed ‘battleworthy’ and ‘suitably proficient’. This is especially true of those in the tech-oriented IAF and IN, they said.

“There is no way to fast-forward training in the services,” declared military analyst Major General (Retired) Amrit Pal Singh. He said that an Agniveer joining a front-line IA unit after just 31 weeks of rudimentary weapons and battlefield training would “definitely end up becoming a burden” on other grizzled troops in his battalion who, for their part, had undergone extensive instruction in varied high altitude, desert and jungle terrain. “Besides, by the time the Agniveer does gain operational capability and proficiency, he will be de-mobilised and his departure would only jumpstart the entire sequence all over again,” the two-star officer added.

Other veterans concurred.

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risks consultancy group in New Delhi said the training Agniveers were being provided was inadequate in intensity and scope to prepare them for eventual operational preparedness on the ground. They could also end up becoming a liability if deployed in ‘hot’ locations, he added.

“Few, if any, in most regiments will be willing to invest in Agniveers for fear of something going wrong in the army’s rigidly enforced error-free milieu,” said a retired three-star IA officer. All and any inquiries launched into slip-ups would be jeopardised, he added, by 75% of Agniveers being demobilised with little or no accountability, in addition to generating additional administrative and operational concerns for the army to resolve and formulate new standing operational procedures. “The entire Agniveer scheme appears ill-conceived,” he claimed, declining to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Considering these obvious inherent drawbacks in the Agnipath venture, other veterans too anticipated the bulk of Agniveers being employed on menial tasks like sentry duty, amongst others, and possibly even assigned as orderlies – or ‘sahayaks’ and ‘buddies’ – to sustain army officers in a feudal practice inherited from the force’s British Colonial antecedents.

“For India to deploy part-time soldiers is not a good move, as it continually faces the prospect of a two-front war with collusive allies Pakistan and China, and an additional half-front internally from diverse militant groups,” said a former one-star IA officer who was posted on both disputed borders and closely involved in counter-insurgency operations. It could eventually be a burden than an asset as the Agniveer would have no allegiance to the army’s ‘naam, namak, nishan’ (honour, loyalty and identity) ethos. This constitutes the fundamental tenets of platan (unit) soldiering and preserves its izzat (respect),” he declared, also requesting anonymity.

Besides, of the initial 48 months that each Agniveer would serve, five months would be taken up by training, four months on leave, a month for ‘young soldier’s cadre’ or orientation upon joining his unit, and yet another month in acclimatising, for deployment to high altitudes. And if any Agniveer displayed potential as a sportsman, he would be entitled to another 30 days per year – or some four months – to indulge and sustain his talent for his unit.

This estimated timetable totalled up to an approximate aggregate of 15 months, leaving the Agniveer a balance of just 33 months of active service. However, in the absence of hard data by the MoD, these statistics remain informed estimates, and the eventual time an Agniveer eventually served, could well be higher, but not significantly so.

The Agnipath scheme triggered countrywide protests and rioting in several states like Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana last year, in which at least one person was killed, several others injured and public property, including trains and busses, burnt. But employment opportunities being scarce, the run on Agnipath recruitment seems to have justified the scheme for the MoD, despite its numerous shortcomings and inherent problems.

And, as the adage goes, not all problems have solutions; but all situations do have outcomes.