With Huge 'Agnipath' Protests, The Centre's First Compromise

Critics say that the new recruits will miss out on entitlements enjoyed by existing personnel, including government pensions, unless they are retained after the four-year programme.

With Huge 'Agnipath' Protests, The Centre's First Compromise

Agnipath protests: Mob set trains on fire in several states today.

New Delhi:

Violence raged today across seven states against the new recruitment scheme for the army, despite an important change announced by the government on the age limit for those eligible for a four-year tenure.

The "Agnipath" scheme was announced by the centre on Tuesday; it led nearly instantly to demonstrations across the country which have included at least 30 trains being attacked in Bihar and the storming of the BJP's offices in states like Bihar.

As the violence entered the third day, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted, "The recruitment process in the army was affected due to the Covid epidemic for the last two years, so Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji, in the Agnipath scheme, sensitive to the needs of the youth, gave a two-year concession in the upper age limit in the first year, from 21 years to 23 years.  It is a sensitive decision to take this step".

The decision by the government is its first big give on the scheme in the wake of the anger against it. The Agnipath scheme introduces short-term military recruitment; those who qualify will serve for four years. Critics say that the new recruits will miss out on entitlements enjoyed by existing personnel, including government pensions, unless they are retained after the four-year programme.

Young adults between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 21 were listed as the original beneficiaries of the scheme; now, the government has raised the upper age limit from 21 to 23, after protesting crowds pointed out that there has been no military recruitment for the last two years on account of the pandemic and lakhs of young men and women would be unfairly ruled out if they crossed the age of 21 during this period.

PM Modi's government has pitched the new military recruitment plan as a pathway to modernise the armed forces with a younger and leaner soldier corps while also creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs and cutting the costs that pile up with lifelong posts including pension.

"Four years is a little on the shorter side and feels exploitative," said Retired Major General Birender Dhanoa in an interview to AFP. "We have to examine whether it works well for the armed forces too," stressing that the 1.4 million-strong military is "bloated" and in need of reform, but the Agnipath scheme may not be the remedy.

This year, the scheme is meant to recruit 46,000 people.

The government says that critics are overlooking the potential of the scheme to deliver quick and important results: after their four-year tenure, "Agniveers" will be prioritized for jobs with the central paramilitary forces and the railways, for example; they will get access to special educational programmes which will give them college credit for their time spent with the military;  25% of the best recruits will, at the end of their four-programme, be retained for full tenure; and the military will benefit from a younger and more dynamic employee base.  Industrialists have said they too will help employ "Agniveers" upon the completion of their military roles.

Critics including army veterans say that the military will be damaged by what they describe as the contractual nature of short-term roles, that the motivation and morale of the forces will be hit, and that four years is insufficient to develop the sort of training and skills that are imperative for the armed forces.  Those protesting also say that despite the government's assurances, they are concerned that they will be left unemployed once they graduate.

The Opposition has asked the government to suspend the scheme and hold extensive discussions on it; the government says that it held consultations on the matter for two years before shaping the scheme and is confident of its advantages.