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Agnipath: Addressing the Manpower Challenges of the Indian Armed Forces

Col (Dr) D.P.K. Pillay is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 21, 2022

    The ‘Agnipath’ scheme has been baptised by fire even before it has been launched and has turned into an ‘Agnipariksha’ for the Government of India. Given the ‘out of the box’ nature of the proposal, many have raised questions about the scheme negatively impacting the ethos of the armed forces that have brought glory to the country.

    Army recruitment policies over the years

    To understand what the future holds and if indeed the Agnipath is as radical as it is made out to be, one should place in historical perspective the recruitment policies of the armed forces. In the armed forces, especially so in the Army, soldiers have traditionally come from the same socio-economic strata. Until 1977, soldiers were enlisted only for seven years, plus eight years in reserve, which was then changed to 17 years. In other words, all the major wars fought by the army were won by soldiers on seven-year terms of active duty.

    The selection of soldiers then was based only on a certain standard of physical fitness. The written test for examining standards of literacy got introduced in the 1980s. The literacy standards of the recruits were not uniform and they therefore went through lengthy processes of training, as compared to other armies, to bring them up to certain minimum levels of education. The training also helped in improving the health and physique of the soldiers, given the rigorous physical training and better diet provided to them. It was in the 1980s that the army extended the basic training from 36 to 52 weeks, at the end of which they were granted an Army Third Class Certificate of Education. The soldiers also got introduced to specific subjects such as map-reading and other necessary skills.

    Defenders of the lingual/caste-based/regional recruitment model overlook the fact that some of the most battle-hardened units in Independent India’s military history had All-India, All-Class compositions. The most notable among these are the Brigade of Guards and the Parachute regiments (Special Forces) as well as the Artillery and Armoured Corps. No doubt, the overall recruitment practice did throw up some anomalies. Personnel from less than 200 districts of India were supplying soldiers to the armed forces. Also, certain classes/communities had higher representation in the military, fuelled no doubt by such concepts like martial races, stemming from the prejudices and biases nurtured by the British.

    Current protests in context

    It is important to understand why the current protests against the Agnipath recruitment model have gained steam. Unlike the protests against the farm laws that impacted nearly 46 per cent of the population, or the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that generated the angst of a particular community, it was not anticipated that a sector that employs less than 0.5 per cent of the workforce or one per thousand capita of population would lead to such widespread protests.

    It is important to highlight that the appeal of the armed forces as a profession lies in the fact that the armed forces is open to all Indians purely on a merit-based entry. Secondly, joining the military service is seen as being honourable and patriotic, given the status soldiers have always enjoyed in Indian society. No one can deny the riveting and mesmerising hold of military power and even war itself, on society. Membership of the armed forces is not just an identity but also an opportunity to escape from the anonymity of the rural socio-economic strata of society which supplies the majority of men in uniform. Last but not the least, this profession afforded a security for a lifetime which included a lifetime pension, including medical cover.

    The current demonstrations on the street are, therefore, fuelled in part by concerns that the aspirations of the aspirants may not be fulfilled, concerns which are no doubt being fanned by the political opposition, which sees an opportunity to challenge the decisions of the government.

    Options before the Government

    It is pertinent to highlight the previous instance of the roll-back of the government’s policy on farm laws, on account of the opposition which charged that such laws were anti-farmer and pro-business. Instead of tweaking the laws, the government was forced to withdraw the laws. Subsequently, the Supreme Court-appointed Experts Committee report revealed that a majority of the stakeholders were in favour of those laws while only around 13 per cent were against them. The recall, in effect, stalled reforms in the farm sector.

    The current government’s many successes in reforming the national security system include the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), fulfilling the principles of One Rank One Pension (OROP)—which was pending since 1972, the establishment of the National War Memorial, pioneering initiatives to strengthen self-reliance like Make In India, among many others.

    In the current context of the protests against the Agnipath scheme, it is a challenging task to set right the narrative that the recruitment policy is against the interests of the youth of the country. It is to the credit of the government that several amendments have been made which indicates that the scheme is not set in stone.

    However, what can make the scheme more trustworthy and appealing is changing the method of selection to a national-level examination instead of focusing on regional recruitment. The testing has to be at a national-level, similar to the Combined Defence Service (CDS) exams and a common merit list must be prepared. The qualifying candidates then need to be subjected to an intelligence and aptitude test at the testing centres. This will call for a major change in the existing practice. Based on the various matrices that should include allocations for physical fitness, qualifying marks and medical fitness, a hierarchy of selection criteria can be decided for allotment to various arms and services.

    There are apprehensions that biases and prejudices may set in for identifying the soldiers to be retained, four years after recruitment. To address such apprehensions, the percentage considered for retention may be increased to anything between 33 to 50 per cent and the term may be extended to five years, instead of the current four. Furthermore, the retained soldiers have to be again on an all-India merit list, that will take into consideration the achievements and progress made by them, which not only includes the annual appraisals but also the standards of fitness and individual accomplishment, all of which have to be quantified.

    As a spin-off, the current agitation has succeeded in kindling interest in post-military employment of soldiers. Many additional benefits, including on the long-standing demand of assured entry into the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and other organisations, have been announced. This demand has been routinely aired, and was also highlighted by the Group of Ministers report following the Kargil War. The option of lateral entry has to be streamlined and an added commitment could be shown by enrolling all Agniveers to the National Pension Scheme (NPS), with the government footing the additional burden for the service. Their NPS accounts could then be transferred to the CAPF or other organisations that the Agniveers subsequently join.

    Finally, there is a need to change the narrative that the government is looking to abdicate its responsibility to soldiers. It needs to be highlighted that the government is looking for a talent pool that is not just qualified, but also capable of being absorbed into the needs of a futuristic army. The fact that the Agnipath is not a short-term contract needs to be emphasised. History has always shown that forces that fail to keep up with technology have been overwhelmed by smaller, more agile and lethal forces. This scheme provides an opportunity for the armed forces to leap into the next generation of warfare with a manpower that can embrace the technological challenges.

    The government should also launch public outreach programmes showcasing the advantages that will accrue as a result of its implementation. Instances of youth preventing mob rampages whose sole purpose is to destroy national property have to be highlighted, as they gel with the ethos of soldiering, which is that a true soldier will give his life than destroy what his country stands for.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.