Path to disaster

Agnipath, the short-term contractual scheme for the recruitment of soldiers in the Indian army, was one such issue that agitated many voters in rural India

July 03, dmanewsdesk: Narendra Modi’s third term as prime minister, this time as the head of a coalition government, has not begun on a good note. There has been bad news galore. The leaks of examination papers of entrance exams conducted by a Central agency have created a furore that is unlikely to subside soon. Then came the news of a train accident where the safety procedures had failed. The roofs of three airports have come crashing down. Ayodhya, the centrepiece of Modi’s 2024 election campaign, witnessed collapsed roads, waterlogging inside the railway station, and complaints of leakage and poor drainage in the under-construction Ram temple.

After the election results which have dented and diminished his image as a political leader, Modi would have hoped for better news in his new stint as the prime minister. He is, however, lucky even now. Imagine, if this bouquet of bad news had gone viral during the election campaign. Not that Modi has acted upon any of the pressing issues raised by the Opposition during the polls that damaged his prospects at the hustings.

Agnipath, the short-term contractual scheme for the recruitment of soldiers in the Indian army, was one such issue that agitated many voters in rural India. Since youth unemployment in India has remained at high levels under Modi, the loss of any permanent job opportunity hurts the young aspirants even more. But Agnipath is not merely about the vo­ters who turned against Modi, or the spectre of unemployment, or the Modi government’s inability to create jobs. It is about India as a country because this four-year contractual scheme imp­acts India’s national security, that too at a time when it faces a major military challen­ge from a powerful China at its borders.

In his yet-to-be-published memoir, the former army chief, General M.M. Naravane, has recounted that he mooted the idea of a “Tour of Duty” scheme for recruiting a limited number of soldiers — around 5,000 of the 60,000 army recruits every year — on the pattern of short-service officers for five years. The soldiers, enrolled on the same terms as regular soldiers, would be “released after the completion of their ‘tour’ with the option of re-enlisting for another tour, if found to be fit.” Naravane’s proposal was meant to save some funds which could be used for the army’s much-needed modernisation. A study found that for a batch of 60,000 Agniveers, the total saving on salaries would amount to Rs 1,054 crore besides massive cuts in the pension bill in the medium to the long term.

The Prime Minister’s Office grabbed the idea and increased its scope and applicability. It said that the complete intake would be short-service based and it would also apply to all the three services. General Bipin Rawat, who was then the Chief of Defence Staff, then got involved. For the Indian air force and the Indian navy, the whole thing “came like a bolt from the blue.” Under Naravane, the army had asked for the retention of 75% of the recruits while Rawat sought a 50% retention. Eventually, Modi’s PMO brought it down to 25%, much to the chagrin of the armed forces.

The political leadership never took ownership of the scheme, pushing the military leadership to front the proposal when it was launched in June 2022. There were spontaneous protests by aspirants at numerous places in North India but they were soon brought under control. With the mainstream media acting as the handmaiden of the Modi government, voices of anger and frustration went unreported and unheeded till Rahul Gandhi announced that his party, if elected to power, would cancel the Agnipath scheme and revert to the original recruitment methods that had stood the test of time. The defence minister, Raj­nath Singh, was forced to respond that the government was willing to consider some changes to the scheme if such a need arose during a review.

After nearly two years, there is ample proof that the short-term contractual scheme has been a disaster for the armed forces. No formal testimony has been released by the armed forces but anecdotal evidence and media reports have highlighted the poor quality of intake, low training standards, lack of integration of Agniveers with regular soldiers, pressure on units in field areas to depute soldiers for extra-regimental postings and a loss of ethos that has served the Indian army for nearly two centuries. The air force and the navy have suffered even more; their expert manpower requirement, with technical and specialised training, is under greater pressure. There are questions about their operational readiness if radical changes are not made to the scheme.

As the Modi government had no discussion with Nepal before implementing the scheme, the longstanding arrangement of Gorkhas serving with the Indian army has stopped. Those units have been compelled to recruit Garhwalis and Kumaonis from Uttarakhand to make up for the shortfall. Last year, the army chief even considered a proposal to start disbanding Gorkha battalions. These young men from Nepal are already fighting with the Russian army in Ukraine and may take up an offer to join the People’s Liberation Army if the Chinese Communist Party were to make such a move.

After the election results, the National Democratic Alliance government has formed a group of secretaries from 10 key ministries to review the Agnipath scheme and suggest ways to make the armed forces recruitment programme more attractive. Bureaucratic in nature, the committee is unlikely to suggest any fundamental restructuring of the flawed idea. Its recommendations are likely to have a bigger pension — like payout to families of Agnipath recruits who die in service — and better incentives for re-employment after the young recruits are demobilised.

Meanwhile, after their own review, the armed forces have told the defence ministry that the Agnipath scheme needs changes in four aspects. These comprise providing financial support in case of death or disability of soldiers, deciding on a longer tenure of contractual service, an increase in percentage of those being retained after the four-year tenure and a specialised agency handling job-placement for those demobilised from service. The government’s response to the suggestions is not yet known but additional monetary benefits will only ward off public pressure and buy the political leadership some time.

Meanwhile, the army’s manpower shortage has reached critical levels. During the pandemic, the Modi government stopped recruitment till the armed forces accepted the Agnipath scheme. That led to a deficiency of 1,80,000 soldiers in a 1.3 million-strong army. The army is recruiting 28,000 Agniveers every year, which translates to 7,000 regular soldiers per year, while 60,000 retire every year. The army is overstretched on the China border, is deployed against Pakistan, and is fighting militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. The status quo is not sustainable. Something will have to give.

The military leadership is silent, dancing to the tunes of its political masters as a hallowed institution pays the price. The joint secretary in the PMO dealing with the subject told a retired lieutenant-general, “Sahib ko sab malum hai.” When the top political leadership believes that it knows it all, the price is often paid by the country. India must do everything to escape such a fate.

Source: The Telegraph online