In recent years, the Modi government has given special attention to defence and national security by taking a number of meaningful steps to enable the Indian armed forces to evolve rapidly into a modern fighting force with cutting edge technologies to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The Government of India’s announcement of the Agnipath Scheme for recruitment of soldiers, the majority of whom will serve for four years, is another positive step in the right direction. The proposal entails recruitment of Agniveers between the ages 17.5 to 21 years old, for all the three services based on “All India All Class” (AIAC) from recognised technical institutes like the Industrial Training Institutes through a centralised online system with specialised rallies and campus interviews. Medical eligibility and rigorous training standards will be maintained and their selection will be the exclusive domain of the Armed Forces. The Agniveers will have a distinct rank. The best among the Agniveers, upto 25 per cent in each specific batch, will be selected for regular cadre to serve for another minimum of 15 years, based on an objective, transparent and merit-based assessment.
The scheme is both generous and attractive in terms of the emoluments and pay-outs. Upon release from service, the Agniveers will revert to civil society as holders of a special qualifying certificate and become the backbone of confident and disciplined human resources available across the country. Their integration into society and livelihood, including placements in alternative jobs, will be actively facilitated, including through credits for higher education. Apart from drawing a composite package of Rs. 40000 per month in the fourth year, they will each get Rs. 11.71 lakhs through the Seva Nidhi package in which their contribution of 30 per cent of the monthly salary will be matched by an equal amount by the Government. In effect, they will have a sizeable lump sum, exempt from income-tax, to pursue their dreams after the service, in addition to individual savings.
Life insurance cover of Rs. 48 lakhs, ex-gratia payment of Rs.44 lakhs in case of death and payment for the remainder of the 4 years of service in case of death, are huge plus points. Disability compensation of Rs.44/25/15 lakhs respectively for 100/75/50 per cent disability is most reassuring.
This path-breaking initiative by the Government of India will open up a regular intake and availability of youthful, patriotic, physically fitter and highly-motivated youth who wish to don the uniform with pride and serve the nation for short periods. In all, 46,000 Agniveers will be recruited this year.
The “colour service” of 17 years for soldiers may have resulted in an experienced and battle-hardened army as some say, but it also led to an ageing army in which more than 60 per cent of men are above 30 years of age.
By way of example, it is pertinent to note that the Indian army in 1978 was more youthful than at present at the level of Other Ranks (ORs), with Sepoys comprising 72.6 per cent of a total of 8,45,025 men, and Subedars 1.6 per cent. Today, the number of Sepoys has fallen below 40 per cent. This is not a desirable mix when it comes to physically strenuous deployments, especially in high-altitude areas. India’s armed forces need to be leaner, fitter and more youthful. Currently, the number of Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and equivalent ranks is disproportionately higher due to regular promotions. Recruiting ever greater numbers simply to keep the armed forces youthful is clearly unsustainable. The Agnipath Scheme will help keep in check the absolute numbers while ensuring a constant stream of young recruits.
All major militaries in the world are undergoing reform. There is a trend towards reduction in the number of personnel and emphasis on increasing capital expenditure on modern weapons and equipment. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) underwent a massive demobilisation from the 1980s onwards, bringing down total numbers from 4.5 million to about 2 million, with focus on modernisation.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Indian Armed Forces today is the overall budgetary constraint. This is despite the fact that the Modi government has spared no effort to provide the Armed Forces with necessary weapons and equipment particularly following the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. Ballooning salary and pension bills have placed enormous stress on the availability of funds for military modernisation.
The emphasis of the Agnipath Scheme in India is on ensuring a youthful and tech-savvy profile of the armed forces while reducing the overall burden on pensions and gratuities.
Though the human being continues to remain at the center of warfare, contactless warfare in the digital era ensures that future wars will be fought differently, with artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, stand-off weapons, cyber space and space-based ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) playing a key role. Given their technical background, the Agniveers will inject numerous additional skill-sets into the Indian Armed Forces, besides bringing down the average age by 4-5 years.
In many modern armed forces around the world, the service period ranges from 2 to 8 years with options for active and reservist service. The argument that shorter duration service could compromise on training, morale and commitment rings hollow. The Israeli army has service of 30 months and 22 months respectively for men and women, yet enjoys a reputation for being among the best in the world. The US and the UK also have shorter duration contracts. France even has short duration contracts of between one and ten years depending on specialisation. The training for Agniveers will be comparable to the timeframe prevalent in many world-class armed forces.
Fears that the Agnipath Scheme will result in demobilised young soldiers posing a violent threat to society are misplaced. Demobilised soldiers in their 30s regularly leave the army at the end of the mandated “colour service” and do not pose a threat to society. There is no reason to believe that those even younger with better skill-sets and motivation should act differently.
The AIAC composition of various army units such as the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), the Guards and the Parachute Regiment has worked well. There is no reason why the infusion of Agniveers from all over India into the various regiments of the Indian army should not work equally well. One of the big advantages of the Agnipath Scheme is that it will open up myriad opportunities for the youth and boost civil-military fusion, with demobilised youth becoming worthy representatives of the best regimental traditions of the Indian Armed Forces.
During the colonial era, the British deliberately frequently used a divide-and-rule policy to create interest groups aligned with their interests, including in the armed forces. Mixed regiments based on AIAC intake are definitely in keeping with the changing times. National unity, camaraderie and bonding, including in the Indian armed forces, should not be predicated on caste, community, religion, language or provincial affiliation but on the more equitable notion of being a patriotic Indian. The Agnipath Scheme fully addresses that requirement.
(The author is the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)