Opinion: An Army Veteran's 5 Suggestions For Agnipath Scheme

The die was cast days ago for future recruitment in the Indian Armed Forces with the announcement of the 'Agnipath' (or "Tour of Duty") scheme by the Ministry of Defence, which is a radical change to how young people have been inducted into the armed forces as soldiers, sailors, and airmen thus far.

From an earlier long-term commitment of 15 years (or more), as per details given in a comprehensive press briefing by the three service chiefs in the presence of the Defence Minister, the new policy entails inducting young people, in the 17 and half to 21 years age category, for a four years' short employment in military uniform.

Of these four years, their training would be for just six months, the remaining time being taken up for deployment as needed, including in operationally-challenging assignments. Attractive pay, special allowances, and a severance package on leaving, without obligation to any gratuity or pension would, according to the authors of the policy, give an opportunity to patriotic youth to serve the nation, earn credit for likely future employment and help bring in greater young blood into the armed forces.

This bold (some would say controversial) move to make the new scheme the only future route for serving in the armed forces has not been well-received by potential entrants it would seem, as they have taken to rioting and arson in many places.

The questions on many peoples' minds (including a vocal veteran community) have been many, especially as to why tinker with a time-tested system that is doing well in catching young volunteers, shaping them as needed, and utilising their service and expertise gained for an optimum period of time. With the largest volunteer army in the world, paying an increased salary and pension bill, given rising incomes all around, has steadily eroded the capital side of the defence budget. This seems to have been the main catalyst in evolving the Agnipath scheme, with other benefits seemingly added to make it look like a win-win situation for everyone.

But process matters. How the armed forces select, train, and induct human resource talent into their units, squadrons and frontline ships is a critical component in how well these perform in peace and war. Thus far, there has been no major letdown on this account. So what led to the necessity of now changing the very bedrock of unit cohesion and esprit de corps (especially for the Army) that would entail a faster churn of young basic trained recruits in all three services, when the very nature of future wars seems to be headed in a direction that demands greater expertise and technical skill in operating sophisticated systems by all three services? Yes, the need for motivated and well-equipped 'boots' will remain for our security concerns. And yet, having stepped into the arena and taken a bold step to alter the very nature of the nation's contract with the soldier, we should be looking at the whole issue of reform within the military much more holistically. Changes to HR policies should be the last but necessary step in a series of reformative moves to prepare a 21st-century military. Creating the post of the CDS or Chief of Defence Staff along with the Department of Military Affairs, is an apex-level reform, which should have led to a clearer enunciation of our national security objectives by now, from which would then flow future missions of the armed forces, their structure and equipping perspective plans, budgetary support for these, and finally, the HR policy needed to ensure the right man/woman for the task for an ideal length of time.

But now that the government has announced a new policy for military recruitment, it would be worthwhile for all involved in drafting the fine print and implementing its execution to consider a few well-intentioned recommendations. A good sign of that the powers that be are listening is the one-time age waiver just announced to accommodate candidates who've not had a chance to appear for recruitment over the last two years due to the pandemic. The list of suggestions is not very elaborate, yet it covers many of the sore points in the new policy.

First, make the period of the contract for new recruits longer than four years. Issues of not wishing to pay gratuity, etc. is a miserly way of asking a person to commit to possible loss of life or limb, and still not compensating them adequately for such a willingness to serve.

Second, please do relook the 25 percent re-enlistment at the end of the contractual period. Ideally, it should be over 50 percent retention for long-term posts, but there are ways and means of ensuring a higher than 25 percent re-enlistment through identification of select trades or mission occupation specialties that require longer terms of service. A blanket application of this rule should be avoided.

Third, for those leaving after their short service, do obtain a binding commitment from CAPFs (Central Armed Paramilitary Forces), states' police forces and other organisations that they are willing to absorb this trained military manpower.

Fourth, continue with existing regular enrolment, in reduced numbers, and gradually shift to the Tour of Duty once it stabilizes after five to ten years.

Finally, the new entrants can even be placed under a contributory pension scheme to reduce the burden of pension payout if other recommendations are accepted.

A nation should never compromise with the personnel who make up the fighting sinews of its armed forces. The best way to prevent such an impression is to look upon them not as a burden to the exchequer, but as rough diamonds, to be cut and polished to their maximum capabilities and then deployed in the defence of the nation. A diamond is forever, our future men and women in uniform too deserve to serve to their maximum for the betterment of the nation and their own lives. 

(Major General BS Dhanoa is a retired Armoured Corps officer, with over 36 years of experience, who is interested in issues related to war and the conduct of warfare.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.