The Agnipath scheme needs a pause and rethink
Such a fundamental churn should have been implemented in stages through pilot projects, just the way short service commissions and the entry of women was done in different branches.
The turmoil caused by the Agnipath scheme is not ebbing yet, and it is sad to see the violence. For those backing the scheme, the advantages include India’s youth being exposed to a disciplined life and a pool of young talent available for the defence forces, among others. In my view, it is time to take a dispassionate view of the plan.
Agnipath has struck at a basic fundamental of the armed forces — how does a nation equip its fighting forces? It is a radical departure from a methodology that was arrived at over two centuries for the Indian Army and many decades for the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF). Such a fundamental churn should have been implemented in stages through pilot projects, just the way short service commissions and the entry of women was done in different branches.
Of course, there is likely to be no dearth of volunteers, considering the unemployment, and this may be seen as a success of the scheme. But spare a thought for the 75% of new young recruits who will be looking for a new job after four years. Lateral movement into the police forces and government departments has, till now, been a mirage – I retired after 40 years in service listening to such promises. It can be done only if the government issues orders with enforceable, judicially acceptable reservation quotas, not preferential consideration for the agniveers. A good first step is the government announcement of 10% reservation for agniveers in the Central Armed Police Forces, Assam Rifles, and MoD.
Let’s talk about the professional upliftment of the forces that Agnipath is supposed to bring in. Ask any field commander who his go to people for executing tasks are — they are personnel with four to five years of service who have the right mix of training, experience and youthful exuberance. In Agnipath, 75% of such agniveers would be bid goodbye; the armed forces would be losing human resource at a stage when combatants would be ideally placed to form the business end of the stick.
In IAF, at the four-year service stage, an aircraft technician is barely reaching the expertise of signing for the servicing of an aeroplane – till then he is an apprentice working under the tutelage of a senior. Thereafter, he undergoes training again for the more specialised second-line servicing and comes back to add experience to the unit pool; any short-cut here would be disastrous. The same would hold true for the other two services.
Sometime in the beginning of this century, IAF tried the Just in Time Training (JITT) concept. At the training stage, airmen were given basic aircraft knowledge and sent to flying units. These JITT airmen were to work and learn in the field under experienced tradesmen and after some two-odd years go back to training institutions for the next qualification – just in time. But, practical realities required airmen to do guard and escort duties and other routine unit tasks; experienced technicians could not be spared so JITT airmen were detailed, resulting in them not being trained in the field. To cut a long story short, no commanding officer wanted a JITT airman under him and IAF had to recall this profile; a new idea failed because it was not well thought through.
The Agnipath scheme is much more complicated – it may have a raft of social ramifications when a large body of weapon-trained men and women are sent back into society, many of whom without a stable job for the next four to five decades of active life. The talk of having instilled discipline, valour, nationalism and jazba or passion (as stated by the government) during the four years in uniform will weigh heavily against the pressures of an unemployed existence. Would any corporate firm hire a person seen as a reject of the armed forces?
A key aim of this whole exercise appears to be reducing the ballooning pension bill of the armed forces. But this is shortsighted. The way Agnipath has been constructed brings to mind a statement of Indian Navy veteran, Commander KP Sanjeev Kumar, “ If you think pension is expensive, try defeat.”
Postscript: At present, a recruit is called a soldier, sailor or airman. Why, under Agnipath, should he or she be called by a different name if the nation expects both to be combatants ready to offer the supreme sacrifice? Why should there be a different class of soldier (wearing an identifying insignia) in the only organisation where there is a common solitary dharma — service before self? Please pause and rethink.
Manmohan Bahadur is a former air-vice marshal, and former additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies
The views expressed are personal