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Agnipath: A Bold Initiative

We have seen some very unfortunate violent protests, since mid-June, involving the burning of trains, buses and cars across the country since the ‘Agnipath Yojana’, a transformative reform in the recruitment policy of the Armed Forces, was announced to be implemented in the Military Services. Most of the violence was based on half truths and a general lack of understanding of the scheme and its dimensions. However, that the Indian Air force received, almost 7 lakh applications inside a couple of weeks of its announcement appears, a vindication of the belief that the services have.


Under the scheme more than 46000 posts titled ‘Agniveers’ will be filled this year. Qualification for this post will be 10th, 12th and ITI. They are entitled to a reasonably good monthly package along with risk and hardship allowances as applicable in the three services in the total engagement period of four years subsequent to which, they will be paid one time ‘Seva Nidhi’ of Rs 11.71 Lakhs. This will comprise their contribution, the accrued interest and a matching contribution from the Government which will be equal to the accumulated amount of their contribution including interest. Seva Nidhi is expected to tide over at least a part of the financial woes one may have.


Though ‘Seva Nidhi’ is exempt from Income Tax, there will be no entitlement to gratuity and pensionary benefits. Of course, a non-contributory Life Insurance Cover of Rs 48 lakhs for the duration of the engagement period in the Indian Armed Forces will help tide over any emergencies. The biggest advantage is that the four-year training, coming in the prime of youth will ensure self-discipline and personal development. They would form a distinct rank in the Armed Forces, different from any other existing ranks. The scheme is expected to provide much more youthful and technically adept war fighting force to the services. Agneepath is a recruitment process for individuals below the rank of officer and will deploy fitter, younger troops on the front lines.


The main purpose is service to Nation. Hence, they will be trained in various military skills, discipline, physical fitness, leadership qualities, courage and patriotism, all essential in both the Military and the Civil world. That the civil world, sometimes is found wanting in imparting these skills is a little unfortunate. When they come back to the civil society subsequent to the services stint, they are expected to contribute to the nation building process. These skills also stand in good stead for further employment.


Based on organisational requirement and policies of the Armed Forces, the ‘Agniveers’ will be given an opportunity to apply for permanent enrolment in the Armed Forces. Whereas 25% of such trained youth will eventually be selected for enrolment in the Armed Forces as regular cadre, they would be required to serve for a further engagement period of minimum 15 years. They then would be governed by the existing terms and conditions of service of Junior Commissioned Officers or other Ranks in Indian Army or equivalent ranks in Indian Navy and Indian Air Force.


One of the reasons the scheme came about, was to streamline recruitment in the armed forces and reduce the average age. In the main, youth in the age group of 17.5 to 23 years will be taken into different disciplines of the armed forces as ‘Agniveers’ for a period of four years, subsequent to which 25% of them will continue as regular employees of the military. The rest will have to leave the forces with a one-time, tax-free gratuity of around Rs. 12 lakhs. They will also be not entitled to pensions or benefits as employees of the forces.


Why did the youngsters protest? What were their concerns? Why did the political parties join the protest? Was it only because the ruling BJP implemented it? There can be any number of reasons for the protests. Does the scheme turn army work into contract work? Is the scheme meddling with the National security and its priorities?  Is the concern that there is no job security after the four-year training real? Whatever be the reason, in a democracy, there cannot be a place for stone-pelting, arson and unruly behaviour, though one would have expected a little more discussion and participation of the civil society in the design of the scheme.


One reason proffered is that the pension burden must be reduced. The armed forces in the Country are our pride and are one of the best in the world. There cannot be an argument that money could be saved, if it is at the expense of national security. When a war is waged, the only consideration is that of protection of people, men, material and security of borders. Nothing else. Be it, ‘Operation Rakhsak II’, ‘Operation Goodwill’, ‘Operation Good Samaritan’, or ‘Operation All Out Kashmir’ or any other, all prove this.


Having said that, a democracy allows a multiplicity of viewpoints. Those viewpoints must result in healthy debate and seek answers to the really vexed problems or concerns and not take convoluted or motivated positions.


Some big and respected businessmen have said that they will prioritise the hiring of ‘Agniveers’ over others since the training and skills that are imparted to them would be superior to what they would otherwise have gotten in the civil world. That may be true. That said, they also need to introspect on the number of ex-servicemen they employ in their premises each year. Yes. Trained and skilled youth do help in Nation building. But so are 65% of our youth are in the age group of 20 to 35. They all need to be good citizens, well trained and skilled.


The scheme is certainly innovative and transformative. The larger questions however are, would the youth drafted in the program lose out on interest, motivation and pride to serve since they know that they would probably be there only for four years? If they do not manage to find a meaningful employment after returning back from training, would they be disillusioned with the system? Would that not be a waste of training effort and cost incurred in four years? Would the forces not lose out on experienced soldiers? Afterall, they are given technical training to support ongoing operations. Rather, would it not be more prudent to train only a little more than the 25% of the numbers that the forces seem to actually require?


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