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Will a Renewed Agnipath Scheme Meet Organisational Goals?

For an all-volunteer military, the Indian armed forces have been an attractive option for thousands of youth from across the country despite harsh operating environments ranging from super high altitudes over 4500 metres to the hot and torrid deserts in Rajasthan. The Indian armed forces the Army in particular is known to be famously ‘forever in operations’ fighting enemies across the borders to diverse insurgencies spread from Jammu and Kashmir to the North East.

To compensate for the hardships the state was committed to the principle of care from ‘womb to tomb’.

The downside is the huge burden of pension which had become too steep cutting on funds for capital acquisition and modernisation and thus an alternative was called for.

Thus, in June 2022, the Ministry of Defence announced a revised scheme of service - the Agnipath where legacy terms of service for soldiers in the military were reviewed ostensibly for maintaining a youthful profile of the armed forces.

While the traditional system entailed a minimum service of 15-17 years for soldiers and an “up or out,” option thereafter implying those who were qualified would go up the ranks to attain Non/ Junior Commissioned Officers with a percentage also having a shot at commissioning as officers. On completion of terms of engagement personnel were granted life long pension apart from medical and other benefits.

The Agnipath scheme on the other hand cut down the period of service for an initial period of four years for the Agniveers, thereafter which only 25 percent of these would continue in service and 75 percent are discharged.

Those discharged were assured of lateral absorption in the Central Armed Police Forces, State police as well as corporate sector with percentages reserved for the Agniveers.

Perhaps to the surprise of the Ministry of Defence, which failed to prepare the grounds for such a revolutionary shift in terms of engagement of soldiers particularly for those who have had a tradition of military service for generations, the Agnipath scheme was instantly unpopular with a hue and cry by military veterans and prospective youth seeking to join the military.

However, the Ministry of Defence went ahead with the same nonetheless and now almost two years later there is a rethink.

This is due to feedback from the military particularly the Army and a political backlash during the Lok Sabha elections in April May this year.

Political Resistance

Allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Janata Dal (United) amongst others strongly called for reconsideration of the Agnipath scheme.  This was not surprising as there were riots in Bihar the core base of support of the State.

JD(U) spokesperson KC Tyagi emphasized the necessity for a review of the Agnipath scheme. “There is a need to have a fresh rethink on the Agnipath scheme,” Tyagi stated in an interview on  a prominent television channel repeated in mainstream and social media.

This comes as the opposition INDIA alliance turned the scheme into a major electoral issue, especially in states with high military recruitment like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.

The government deployed the Chief of Defence Staff who visited regimental centers to claim that Agniveers were not just soldiers but also leaders and technical experts. This apparently did not convince the public in any way.

Military Feedback

The  military particularly the Indian Army had commenced a review of the Agnipath scheme with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh having stated in March that the government was “open for change”.

In the review it is believed that concerns were raised over lack of training and expertise among newly recruited soldiers and the possibility of shortage of personnel in the lower ranks in the years to come.

There was insecurity of jobs for 75 percent despite the assurance of reservations in Central Armed Police Forces and other avenues.

The Agniveers initial four-year period also did not count towards pension or other financial benefits.

Proposals for Revision

The proposals that are under consideration as per media reports are attempts to keep the objective of a youthful profile and yet ensuring a better trained soldier, sailor or airman particularly for the technical stream.

Amongst the proposals under consideration is believed to be increasing the percentage of Agniveers, who join regular service after completing 4 years, from 25 percent to 60-70 percent and even increasing the period of initial service from 4 to 7 or 8 years.

Ex-gratia for disability during training and management of those who leave the service through a professional agency has also been proposed.

A subsistence allowance is also proposed for the Agniveers to lost their lives in operations.

What Next for Agnipath?

Given the feedback the government is expected to review the scheme. Whatever be the outcome a balance between operational requirements and the commitment of the government to those who opt for profession of arms and conditions of service which are perhaps one of the toughest faced by any military in the World in a No War, No Peace posture needs consideration.

Another new factor is experience of hundreds of former trained soldiers from Sri Lanka who due to lack of adequate compensation post discharge from service have joined the War in Ukraine lured by unscrupulous agents also needs consideration.

Similarly Nepalese youth who had formed an important component of the Gorkha regiment of the Indian Army denied entry through the Agniveer scheme ended up fighting in the War in Ukraine.

A holistic review after widespread consultations with the principal stakeholders for ready acceptance in meeting with the organisational objectives balanced with aspirations of youth is thus called for.


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