Guest column | There’s need to tread with caution on Agnipath
In today’s geostrategic environment, the army needs battle-hardened soldiers, instead of contractual soldiers who are likely to count their DLTGH (days left to go home)
Through this piece, I do not intend to criticise an otherwise positive scheme, but provide a dispassionate and balanced analysis, to foresee requisite mid-course corrections.
The Union Cabinet on June 14 had rolled out a transformative scheme, Agnipath, for recruitment to the armed forces, under which ‘Agniveers’ will be enrolled in the army for four years with a provision to retain 25% of them in the regular cadre. Soldiers recruited under the new scheme will draw a salary of ₹30,000 to ₹40,000 and a one-time Seva Nidhi package of ₹11.71 lakh will be paid on completion of the engagement period. They will also be entitled to non-contributory insurance of ₹48 lakh. Around 46,000 Agniveers are slated to be recruited this year.
While the scheme has its advantages, it also presents some challenges, which need to be tackled head-on.
Firstly, the scheme will have a major impact on the character of pure regiments such as the Sikh Regiment, Punjab Regiment, and Madras Regiment. Retention of 25% of recruitees from an ‘all-India, all-class mix will eat into the basic demographic character of such regiments, where the region or the state the troops belong to is the major battle-winning factor. The supreme sacrifices made by these pure regiments to uphold the honour of their paltan (platoon), state, or quaum (community) have been recorded for posterity.
Objectives at odds
This brings us to the objectives of the scheme, which cannot be contradictory. If the aim is to cut down the pension bill, it is a meticulous scheme. But, if it is to infuse ‘josh’ and ‘jazba’ in the troops, then sadly, it does not meet the bill. Regular entry, which promised a pensionable future with job security, did a better job in ensuring zest for the job, and effective operational performance.
Sending the ‘Agniveers’ to guard the borders, handle sensitive weapons, or carry out counter-insurgency operations merely after six months of training is another cause for concern. At present, those who enter the National Defence Academy (NDA) undergo four years of rigorous training before they are barely ready to perform operational tasks. However, under Agnipath, their career will be wrapped up in four years, including training them as soldiers, extracting their contributions, and giving them a severance package.
‘A pack of Agniveers, please’
How this grandiose scheme will translate at a remote company post, which may be fighting insurgency, is best summed by this joke doing the rounds: A company commander receives intel that some militants are hiding in a village and asks his subordinate to get the quick-reaction team ready to move. Tired of receiving such inputs daily, the junior commissioned officer retorts, ‘ Sahab, is this information a hard intelligence input or is it a run-of-the-mill input. If it is hard intelligence, I will get the permanent soldiers ready, else I could give you a pack of Agniveers.”
Protect sensitive data
In today’s geostrategic environment, a two-and-a-half front war may well be a reality, which means battling China, Pakistan, and a proxy war. Therefore, in these times, methods should be tried with caution. In other words, a pilot project to test its efficacy by covering just one infantry regiment would be a better option. The army needs battle-hardened soldiers who are motivated to fight for the country, instead of contractual soldiers who will just count DLTGH (days left to go home).
Now, with the formal decision behind us, the commanding officers must exercise caution while enlisting these Agniveers to their battalions. It would be wise not to trust them with highly sensitive data, which may be put in the public domain after four years of service. We need to be wary of the colossal amount of operational data and the information they may be privy to. When the same Agniveers return to civil society, they will be vulnerable to inimical elements from all over the country –Naxalites, insurgents, militants, anti-social elements and gangsters – who may enlist these well-trained men into their cadres to fulfil their nefarious designs.
The Agniveers will be youngsters who have tried their hand at every possible career option, which guarantees a confirmed job, but have failed miserably. Will they be motivated enough to fight on the Siachen Glacier or the Line of Control? The soldiers on the battlefield have always derived comfort from the fact that their parents, wife, and children will be taken care of under the special family pension. As the Agniveers are not covered under it, their motivation is likely to be abysmally low.
Not fit for real soldiering
At the end of their contract, they will be approximately 25 years old, and their prospects of getting a job will be low. We must ensure that they get jobs after their discharge. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that the tenure of an Agniveer is 1,460 days, of which the training period will be 180 days, the annual leave amounts to 240 days, and casual leave 80 days. Deduct 28 days for young soldiers’ cadre. If the unit is at a high altitude, subtract 30 days for acclimatisation. If an Agniveer turns out to be a good sportsperson, deduct another 30 days per year. Therefore, Agniveers will only have an active tenure of around two years.
No wise commanding officer will use these Agniveers for real soldiering when it is a matter of life and death. A high wastage rate of 75% after every four years will be a regular feature. No operationally committed unit can sustain such turbulence and yet maintain high standards. We need to surmount these challenges to implement Agnipath properly.
( The writer commanded 15 Punjab on a United Nations assignment and was DIG of Assam Rifles. The views expressed are personal.)