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The Government has unveiled a new Agnipath scheme for recruiting soldiers across the three services. This new defense recruitment reform has been cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security and will come into effect immediately. The soldiers recruited under the scheme will be called Agniveers. The changes in the recruitment policy of non-officer personnel to the armed forces is being termed as a radical shift. The scheme is expected to make the force leaner and reduce the defense bill. However there are some challenges and concerns which would require redressal.
What is the Agnipath Scheme?
It is a short-service manpower model under which around 45,000 to 50,000 soldiers will be recruited annually. Of these, 75% will leave the service in four years. 25% will be allowed to continue for another 15 years under permanent commission.
Eligibility Criteria: The new system is only for personnel below officer ranks (those who do not join the forces as commissioned officers). Aspirants between the ages of 17.5 years and 21 years will be eligible to apply. The recruitment standards will remain the same, and recruitment will be done twice a year through rallies.
Post Selection Scenario: Once selected, the aspirants will go through training for six months and then will be deployed for three and a half years. During this period, they will get a starting salary of INR 30,000, along with additional benefits which will go up to INR 40,000 by the end of the four-year service.
30% of their salary will be set aside under a Seva Nidhi programme, and the Government will contribute an equal amount every month, and it will also accrue interest. At the end of the four-year period, each soldier will get INR 11.71 lakh as a lump sum amount, which will be tax-free.
They will also get a INR 48 lakh life insurance cover for the four years. In case of death, the payout will be over INR 1 crore, including pay for the unserved tenure.
There shall be no entitlement to gratuity and pensionary benefits.
What is the significance of the Agnipath Scheme?
Leaner and Younger Force: The move will make the permanent force levels much leaner for the over 13-lakh strong armed forces in the country. As only 25% recruits will be allowed to continue for another 15 years under permanent commission. Further, the average age in the forces is 32 years today. It is expected to go down to 26 in 6 to 7 years with the implementation of the scheme.
Notably, the Indian army in 1978 was more youthful than at present at the level of Other Ranks (ORs), with sepoys comprising 72.6% of a total of 8,45,025 men. Today, the number of sepoys has fallen below 40%. This is not a desirable mix when it comes to physically strenuous deployments, especially in high-altitude areas.
Reducing Defense Bill: A leaner force and reduced benefits will considerably decrease the defence bill, which has been a major concern for governments for many years. This year’s Budget estimate on defense pension is INR 1,33,826 Crore which is 4.4% of total expenditure (0.6% of the GDP). Pensions made up 28.4% of this year’s defense budget.
Source: Indian Express
Further, the saved money can be utilized to buy state-of-art technology and equipment which are the backbone of modern warfare.
All India, All Class Recruitment: The scheme will ensure ‘All India, All Class’ recruitment to the services. This is significant for the Army, where the regiment system has region and caste bases. These would be eliminated with time to allow anybody from any caste, region, class or religious background to become part of existing regiments. National unity, camaraderie and bonding should not be predicated on caste, community, religion or provincial affiliation but on the more equitable notion of being a patriotic Indian.
Adhoc Buffer Force: The ex-agniveers could act as an adhoc buffer force who may be called to serve again for boosting national security in times of external/internal threats.
Economic Benefits: The skills and experience acquired during the 4-year service will allow the soldiers to get employment in various fields. This will also lead to availability of a higher-skilled workforce to the economy which will be helpful in productivity gain and overall GDP growth.
Global Parity: 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 demobilization from the 1980s onwards, bringing down total numbers from 4.5 million to about 2 million, with the focus on modernisation. Similarly, 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 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.
What are the challenges associated with the Agnipath Scheme?
First, The government hopes to hire 46,000 “agniveer” this year. Although with the age limits, the recruitment may not include those who have been waiting for the hiring freeze since 2020 to end. More than a lakh vacancies have built up in the Indian Army alone over the last two years, but under the new policy, not all may be filled.
Second, the Indian Army’s experiments so far with diversity in closed regiments have yielded mixed results. There is a probability that the new scheme may do more harm than good in diversifying the static regiments.
Third, ex- agniveers may have to face hardships in getting employment after 4 years of service. Especially when meaningful employment opportunities in significant or adequate numbers still elude an ever-increasing number of graduates. Further, ‘trained-to-kill’ soldiers being demobilized every year could prove dangerous if they remain jobless and frustrated. Many believe it may lead to militarisation of society.
Fourth, Many experts believe that shorter duration service could compromise on training, morale and commitment in comparison to the permanent recruits. Critics argue that agniveers may turn out of to be risk-averse with the bulk looking to secure an alternate career. Moreover, the Government should have tested this scheme as a pilot, before scaling it up further.
What lies ahead?
First, the impact of changes such as hiring without the promise of lifelong benefits, the shortened training, and the opening out of regiments to AIAC can only be assessed in the coming years.
Second, in more immediate terms, when recruitment begins under the Agnipath Scheme in September, the response will show to what extent the absence of a pension acts as a spoiler.
Third, the Government should help rehabilitate soldiers who leave the services after four years. They can be provided with skill certificates and bridge courses that will help them in finding gainful employment.
No reform can be fool-proof and without teething troubles. But as Agnipath Scheme concerns national defence and security, the Government will need to have a plan to anticipate and address the problems that lie beyond the bold step forward.