The Agnipath scheme, which was announced on June 14, has sparked violent protests across the country. As agitations gained momentum in the past week, trains were set on fire, railway stations were vandalised, many were injured and two people were killed.
So what is the Agnipath scheme and why has it sparked a row?
In a nutshell, the Agnipath is a four-year contractual employment scheme to recruit 45,000 to 50,000 youth in the age group of 17.5 to 21 years to the Indian Army, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force. A monthly pay of Rs 30,000 is offered to the young recruits, called Agniveers, but without gratuity or pension benefits.
But here's the catch: only 25 per cent of the recruited personnel will be retained in the Armed Forces after 4 years.
The protestors have cited two reasons for their agitation against the Agnipath scheme: job security and pension. On one hand, the existing 17-year service has been replaced by a mere 4 years of service for a majority of the recruits. On the other hand, there won't be any life-long pension benefits. In fact, there is no pension or gratuity after you exit the defence forces if you were recruited under this radical scheme.
“Their concerns are legitimate. Youth from villages in the North like UP, Bihar, Haryana look at the Army as a source of major employment. It gives them prestige, good marriage alliances, job security and a good pension. So this is a dramatic change for them,” says retired Air Force Pilot Vishnu Unnithan while speaking to Onmanorama.
However, proponents of the scheme argue that the new programme is in the best interests of the protestors.
“As the information percolates they are going to realise that this scheme is in their best interests. The monthly pay, the lump-sum package and the reservation benefits in paramilitary and PSUs announced by the government show that it is a good scheme,” retired Colonel S Dinny said during a podcast session with Onmanorama.
Why Kerala witnessed muted protests?
“In northern parts of India, Army is the primary source of employment. In Kerala, this is not the case. Also, the state has a more educated profile and better opportunities. So we have lesser number of people looking at the armed forces as a job opportunity,” said Captain Unnithan.
Col (rtd) Dinny says that though Kerala may have lower number of applicants, it does not have a smaller representation in the Armed Forces.
“According to the Army statistics the average intake into the army is 37 personnel for every 10 lakh people. For Kerala, this figure is 36. So, the state does not have lower representation in the overall scheme of things.”
“In Northern India, there is a huge business of coaching institutes. The number of such centres are limited in Kerala which is partly why the agitation is less in the state.”
“I think the protests were mainly fuelled by those aspirants who were awaiting their written examination after clearing their physicals. They were genuinely worried and frustrated. In Kerala, this number is limited to about 4,500 aspirants scattered across the state. This could be the reason why a consolidation of the protests did not happen,” he said.
Will the quality of the Armed Forces take a beating?
The Agnipath scheme offers six months of training followed by three-and-a-half years of service. Experts have expressed concern whether the new scheme will reduce the quality of the defence forces.
“The quality of the Defence Forces will improve with the implementation of the Agnipath scheme. Only 25 per cent, or the best of the recruited lot will be selected to serve in the Army for the next 15 years. This will certainly improve the standards of the Army personnel. Six months training is adequate. Besides training is an integral and ongoing process in the Army,” says Col (retd) Dinny.
The recruitments under the scheme will begin within 90 days and it is expected to bring 'all India, all class' recruitment to the services.
“The Indian Army is much more complex than other countries like Singapore and Israel which demand compulsory enrolment. The fighting unit in the Army is like a battalion comprising of people from a certain caste, religion or class like the Sikh Regiment or Gurkha Regiment. The basic structure of the Army will be affected by the scheme. It remains to be seen how they will integrate once the scheme comes into place,” says Captain Unnithan.
“The Army may do well with the 'all-India, all-caste' basis. But it will involve a lot of changes and change the way the Indian Army has functioned so far,” he added.
Having a lot of combat trained, unemployed youth in the society after four years is a risky prospect if they end up in the wrong groups.
Captain Vishnu Unnithan, Former IAF fighter pilot
Preparation versus results: An unfair bargain?
Getting enlisted into any of the three services is a tough process which involves preparation from a young age. Many of the anguished aspirants feel that putting in 2 to 4 years of prep in a job that has an early expiry date is unfair.
Col (rtd) Dinny argues that the priority of the scheme is defence, and the primary objective of the scheme is to reduce the age of the military personnel.
“The primary objective is to reduce the age profile of the armed forces so that they are better equipped to deal with the conflict in Kashmir and other places. But that said the youth needs to be looked after. They need to be adequately motivated to join the Armed Forces. There is a balance which needs to be maintained.”
What next for Agniveers?
Seventy five per cent of the men recruited under the Agnipath scheme will be left without jobs after four years. Though the government has also announced a 10 per cent reservation in the paramilitary forces and PSUs for these recruits, the scheme will leave a large number of arms trained, unemployed youth in the streets.
“The government's move to provide reservation to Agniveers is a good one. But even with these reservations, there will be a huge number of trained personnel left without jobs. At least 30,000 to 40,000 will be relieved every four years even if the number of jobs increase.”
“Having a lot of combat trained, unemployed youth in the society after four years is a risky prospect if they end up in the wrong groups. It will also be difficult for them to rejoin a course when others of their age are settling into their permanent careers,” says Captain Unnithan.
Isn't younger age profile beneficial for the Army?
The government aims to reduce the average age of military personnel from 32 years to 26 years through the scheme. Even opponents of the Agnipath scheme argue that this is a much-needed reform in the Armed Forces.
“Life at the border is tough. Working at high altitudes of 20,000 ft above sea level with rarefied air and carrying around 6 to 7 kg of luggage demands a good level of physical fitness. A lower-age profile is preferred,” he added.
Is the scheme aimed at reducing the huge pension bill?
“We have a huge pension bill. Almost 53 to 58 per cent of the Defence budget is spent on revenues. And a huge portion of this goes for pension. Less than 50 per cent is left for capital expenditure,” says Col (rtd) Dinny.
India is spending about $76 billion for defence as opposed to China which spends $293 billion.
“What do we so in such a scenario? The Chinese incursions are real threats. We need to cut down on our pensions and other revenue expenditure to increase capital expenditure. Since we have a budget constraint, our only option is to reallocate the resources in a better manner,” says Captain Unnithan.
But he dismissed the suggestion that the Armed Forces will resort to a major downsizing through the Agnipath scheme.
“We have thousands of kilometres of borders to guard. Though we can improve the surveillance aspects, we need men to guard the borders,” he said.