Agnipath: Design imaginative solutions for life post-service - Hindustan Times
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Agnipath: Design imaginative solutions for life post-service

Jun 27, 2022 08:37 PM IST

It is not just the responsibility of the armed forces to rehabilitate ex-servicemen. This is a national effort, which requires us to put our money where our mouth is, for their dignity, for they have great potential to serve. 

Agnipath is positioned as a ground-breaking reform by its advocates, while its detractors prophesise it to be an unmitigated disaster. And like any polarised debate, only time will tell which faction was more right. Analysing a fait accompli decision serves little purpose, however, what could add value is going beyond the minutiae and examining the situation from a different perspective.

the deeper potential of a body of troops is not just their individual technical skills; instead, it is their problem-solving ability, teamwork and a “can do together” attitude as a well-led unit. (File Photo) PREMIUM
the deeper potential of a body of troops is not just their individual technical skills; instead, it is their problem-solving ability, teamwork and a “can do together” attitude as a well-led unit. (File Photo)

Even without the Agnipath scheme, the Indian armed forces retire approximately 30-40,000 soldiers every year with decades of productive potential ahead of them. However, our society leverages them largely for security guarding purposes only.

The fact that private guarding is the second-largest vocation in our country is a cause of concern in itself but that is not the point. The point is that the Indian armed forces are arguably our country’s most expensive training academy because as a “per head” expenditure, it costs more to train a soldier than possibly any other professional at that level. And this is not just about the ordnance, man-hours and overheads expended during the training; it is also about live battle experience – which is paid for in human lives, devastated families and at times, lost territories and national humiliation.

It is ironic that the very troops whom India deploys to the United Nations to rebuild war-torn countries, or in aid to civil authorities, or even entrusts our nuclear assets to, are considered fit only for guarding duties by the corporates when they retire. The alumni of such an expensive institution are grossly underleveraged by the nation.

Those who compare the technical skills of a soldier with private sector counterparts or who call out CEOs asking for the number of ex-servicemen they employ, are missing two essential points.

First, the deeper potential of a body of troops is not just their individual technical skills; instead, it is their problem-solving ability, teamwork and a “can do together” attitude as a well-led unit. Troops are not formally trained for handling earthquakes, floods, landslides or forest fires. They are not trained to operate the railways, man civilian air traffic control, the Indian postal service, rehabilitate broken communities or handle pandemics and yet our armed forces have done all of the aforementioned tasks splendidly. Their real potential is the ability to create a force stronger than the sum of its individuals.

The primary focus of the CEO of a private sector company is to create wealth for her shareholders. Put bluntly, she has to reduce the costs of her inputs and maximise profits. If a job can be done by lower-wage personnel, or replaced by technology, there is no reason for the CEO to grant largesse by employing a higher-cost resource. As any security agency will testify, every corporate has been systematically reducing the number of security personnel, negotiating their salaries downward or replacing them altogether with technology. Matter of fact, most of the security guards already do 12-hour shifts contravening labour laws. Placing the onus on the corporate to re-employ ex-servicemen at a higher than the market rate for a commodity service like guarding, is unsustainable.

That onus of creating a more “valuable” ex-serviceman lies with the armed forces and society as a whole. Ironically, the solution lies in the fundamentals of soldiering and imaginative thinking.

It is a golden rule in the armed forces, that no soldier is sent for any task alone. Even the smallest operating unit is a buddy pair. That is the mantra followed for 20 years of a soldier’s service until he is retired. At that point, he is sent to wage his war of resettlement – alone and piecemeal. Sure there are directorates of resettlement which try to reskill the soldier with some purported civilian skills and pretty much leave them to fend for themselves - individually.

What if this was handled imaginatively?

Let’s take the example of one of the corporate leaders who tweeted his eagerness to re-employ ex-servicemen. His company has hundreds of dealerships and workshops. This means they need at least that many workshop foremen and technical supervisors. A soldier who has been trained to operate and maintain sophisticated imported platforms like tanks, missile systems, engineering equipment etc, can strip a jeep or motorcycle and rebuild it blindfolded with some re-training.

Why can’t the Directorate General of Resettlement have strong relationships with every corporate and actively source such combined unit opportunities and in conjunction with that corporate, create training programs which enable hundreds of ex-servicemen to move as a single unit to the said company in locations all over the country?

Consider the advantages to the company. They get a unified workforce which has a natural command structure with common operational vocabulary; without cannibalising internal or external talent pools. These ex-servicemen are localised after retirement in their respective towns and villages with little desire to move towards a larger metro and hence will have low attrition. And finally, since they already have some savings, pension, medical benefits and are staying in their hometowns, they will probably be satisfied with a lower mark to market.

Similar opportunities exist in telecommunications, infrastructure, hospitality, medical, tourism, education, and eldercare, and must be mandated into Atmanirbhar defence projects where a body of troops, trained in conjunction with the host organisation leverages their combined might, instead of being frittered away piecemeal.

The factual efficacy of the Agnipath scheme will bear testament only five years from now. However, the establishment and corporates can enhance the value of existing ex-servicemen by imagineering creative solutions. If that suction is created in the private sector, not only will the current crop of ex-servicemen be better leveraged, but they will act as brand ambassadors and landing pads for the Agniveers when they are discharged.

And meaningful absorption of discharged Agniveers is critical for internal security. There are lessons to be learnt from the disastrous US decision to disband hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers with no livelihood, dignity or hope. Even now, the police is combating tens of thousands of jobless youth agitating violently all over the country on several issues including Agnipath. Unless given an alternative career, five years from now, those agitators could include former soldiers who have been honed to lethality by one of the most combat-experienced armies of the world.

Lastly, it is not just the responsibility of the armed forces or some ostensibly patriotic CEO to rehabilitate our ex-servicemen with dignity. This is a national effort. It is a national hypocrisy that citizens who advocate compulsory military service don’t send their own children into the NCC. It is a national irony that children of armed forces officers don’t want to join the army anymore. It is a national duplicity that citizens receive their military education from jingoistic Bollywood films. It is a national shame that despite orders of the Supreme Court, thousands of our disabled ex-servicemen are dragged through courts for years, by their own ministry to get their due. And its a national disgrace that bereaved families of fallen soldiers are left to fend for themselves.

Soldiers don’t fight because they hate the enemy in the front; they fight because they love their countrymen in the back. And if we expect our soldiers to lay their life on the line — for our safety, we need to put our money where our mouth is — for their dignity.

Raghu Raman is founding CEO, NATGRID, and a former soldier

The views expressed are personal

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