Agnipath scheme: An initiative that can truly transform India and its armed forces

The violent protests against the Agnipath scheme just after the announcement made by the defence minister along with all the three Service c...

The violent protests against the Agnipath scheme just after the announcement made by the defence minister along with all the three Service chiefs have raised a number of questions, including the articulation of objectives and mandate of the scheme in an effective manner — and whether the populace of India have really understood the larger benefits of this scheme. An attempt is being made to push the narrative that the Agnipath scheme will undermine the armed forces’ professionalism, ethos and fighting spirit, as well as potentially lead to the militarisation of the civil society. Such understanding obviously is not in commensurate with the larger objective of the Agnipath scheme.

The Agnipath scheme will initiate a new recruitment process for individuals below the rank of officer. The main goal will be to deploy the younger troops on the front lines which seems to be the need of the hour. The deployment of the younger troops on the front lines seeing India’s geographical location and topography perhaps would add value in terms of swift responses and agility. India may not look prepared for it but slowly and steadily it has to grapple with the changing situations as well as from various learning experiences in the past.

The Central government must have done a comprehensive assessment on such changes and it should be taken in a good spirit by the populace of India. It is so well designed that the youth of India will get opportunities to serve in the armed forces as well as if they wish to pursue their higher studies, they will be given Class XII equivalent certificates. Those wanting to become entrepreneurs will get a financial package and also bank loan to pursue their interests. The modalities for those will be worked out and will be in the interest of these individuals.

As an exception, the Central government has extended the upper age limit for the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme from 21 to 23 years. It will be valid only for the 2022 recruitment cycle. Such a waiver for Agniveers will be a good step forward for the aspirants. Agniveers will also be given priority in the recruitment of Central Armed Police Forces and State Police. Hence, even if the contract will get over after the completion of four years in the armed forces, these Agniveers will have ample opportunities. Moreover, opportunities for the younger generation to work with the Indian armed forces will increase because of these changes.

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There is no denying the fact that the Agnipath scheme has been designed mainly to enable a youthful profile of the Indian armed forces. It is a highly innovative scheme where a lot of thinking seems to have been given. Even at the Officers’ Cadre, there are age restrictions for the promotion and the retirement. A Colonel in the Indian Army is superannuated at the age of 54. Likewise, for every level there is a different age for retirement.

As the whole scheme is in its nascent stage, it is essential that the Agnipath scheme is explained to the masses in a simple and positive manner. The unveiling of this transformative scheme meant for the recruitment of soldiers into the Army, the Navy and the Air Force largely on a short-term contractual basis should have been debated so that any confusion on insecurity in the services among the youth would have never arisen. It could have helped build a confidence among the youth who seemed to be not understanding enough on the benefits of such a scheme at this juncture.

The benefits of this scheme for the country and the younger generation can only be realised after 10 years. Any change in such recruitment process will have ramifications for the civil society. But, these should not be taken as a negative action of the government. The process of recruiting 46,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen this year will begin on an “all-India, all-class” basis under the Agnipath scheme. The educational requirement for becoming a General Duty (GD) soldier is Class 10. After completing the four years of their service, 25 percent of the Agniveers will be retained in the regular cadre based on merit, willingness and medical fitness.

It must be emphasised here that the Indian armed forces have also been witnessing the ongoing pension problem. A parliamentary committee report in 2020 said that there are 3.2 million defence pensioners with about 55,000 added on annual basis. At least 26 percent of India’s defence spending is distributed among pensioners. There is a rising share in the ‘pension’ on a yearly basis which is seemingly causing a source of concern. Though the volume of money has increased, India’s defence spending has been constant for decades. It is roughly 1.8 per cent of India’s GDP.

The Indian military needs to maintain its young profile, and hence the announcement of the Agnipath scheme is in the right direction. India shall engage with the civil society and provide a rationale for such changes in the existing situation and how the Indian armed forces can get a new and young look.

The author is a Professor at School of International Studies and specialises on national security and foreign policy issues at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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