The Government Should Withdraw the 'Agnipath' Proposal
Govt says it will bring younger army, lower pensions and facilitate reabsorption
The government's move to bring about change in the manning pattern of the defence forces has resulted in countrywide protests. Organisations have to periodically carry out reviews of their content and working based on 'on the job experience' to improve operations and their efficiency. Any attempt to bring change for the sake of change, or change with an ulterior motive in mind, or one which may eventually have a negative impact must be avoided.
Change must be based on past experience, be well thought through and the outcomes diligently and objectively assessed. All this seems to have been overlooked in working out this scheme, for which the higher command of the military cannot absolve itself of blame.
In the instant case, the alleged aim appears to be to have a young army, though the existing terms and conditions of service in the army are already aimed towards that end, even though it puts a soldier at great disadvantage: early retirement and less pension. What we need to examine is whether the new service conditions – initial four years and up to 25% retained to serve for additional fifteen years – will result in the required change!
These four years will not be included in the later 15. It is difficult to see the logic behind this rule unless it is contended that these are wasted four years. Those who join at age 21-23 and are retained after the initial four years will serve up to the age of 40-42. Presently soldiers serve up to the age of 35/37 years. So with this Agniveer and Agnipath program we do not get any younger army. While the proportion of older soldiers will be less, the number of raw soldiers (four years type) will be more.
This new scheme impacts all arms and services (including the navy and air force, though to a lesser extent) but bears more heavily on infantry and to a lesser extent on armoured corps. Younger infantry soldiers are at an advantage when operating at high altitude and moving up steep slopes. However, infantry operates in platoon and company groups, and their speed of movement during forced marches, attacks etc is determined by the slower moving group. Youngsters do not break away from the group and move well ahead of others during such operations! So the alleged advantage of younger soldiers (four year types) offers no great advantage. Older seasoned soldiers are a greater asset to units than raw recruits on short term engagement.
The claim that this proposal will bring about a younger profile for the defence forces (the military in particular) is obviously baseless. The second professed claim is that youth after spending these four years in defence services will spread a disciplined and orderly culture amongst the youth of the country. On the other hand those rejected after four years will hold a grudge against the defence forces for their ejection from service and should not be expected to speak well of defence services and spread their culture.
What has been an issue of much discomfort to the politico-bureaucratic combine is the pay and pension of defence services alone! One needs to see the catch and bureaucratic chicanery in this 4 years initial service and then the next 15 years, as it adds up to only 19 years, while to get 50% of pay as pension one has to have served 20 years. So it ensures that even if at some future date the courts rule for the inclusion of these 4 years, it still will not add up to 20.
Defence services pay and pension appears excessive because it takes up a good part of the defence budget. It is inexplicably overlooked that the defence budget itself is a mere 1.5% of GDP. And with this kind of allocation, proportionally less would be left in the capital part of the budget.
What is less known is the fact that periodically as a sort of bureaucratic jugglery (between the defence and finance ministries) thousands of crores of rupees from the capital component of the defence budget are surrendered and merged with the Consolidated Fund of India. This is done by the MoD not finalizing within the financial year, some proposals for purchase of weapons and equipment. As for the pay and pension of the defence services, these are lowest compared to those of the state police, Central Police Organisations, defence civilians, railways and civil services.
What exactly has been the motivation for introducing this scheme of Agniveer? Were there any glaring shortcomings in the defence forces (particularly in the army) due to the assumed older profile of the army? During the 1965 war the Indian military in spite of inferior weapons and equipment, particularly in fighter aircrafts and tanks, gained the better of the Pakistani military and when the war ended it was decidedly on top. Indian tank crews were seasoned soldiers with considerable experience and even while manning far inferior tanks compared to the state of the art Patton tanks with the Pakistan army, proved to be their nemesis.
In the 1971 war the Indian military gained a stunning victory and so also was the case in Kargil operations. During Kargil operations Indian troops demonstrated their physical toughness and unmatched offensive spirit and determination to evict the enemy from Indian soil.
If we are to go by past experience there is nothing to show that the existing age pattern of the Indian military is in any manner a handicap. Some defence analysts have quoted the Kargil Review Committee, constituted after Kargil operation, pitching for a younger army. Admittedly this committee did recommend 10 years' service for soldiers, but only in passing. During its deliberations nowhere did the issue come up that the age of attacking troops had come in the way of their performance – even though most of the troops had to be inducted and launched into operations without adequate acclimatization.
Then there are verbal assurances by some central ministers (the defence minister in particular) and chief ministers of states governed by the BJP that those demobilized after 4 years of service will be absorbed into Central Police Organisations and civil jobs. The defence minister has offered to absorb 10% of recruits into civilian jobs in the MoD. What he seems to miss out is that their pay will again be out of the defence budget itself. This promise of absorption of ex-servicemen, who retire early, is already there, but is only on paper. No more than 2 to 3 percent are re-employed in a government job and only through some contacts .
And there is palpable opposition to accepting these ex-servicemen in the CPOs. Recently one DGP from a CPO in one of the TV shows stated that we do not want these ex-servicemen because they are used to using maximum force, while we moderate the use of force etc. Moreover for these jobs in the civil services, there is much to gain from direct recruitment.
The ongoing protests and vandalism on display by youth of the country is the result of frustration and anger at the large scale disemployment in the country. This proposal for bringing in Agniveers etc has been a mere catalyst, which ignited this simmering anger and frustration.
The proposal will do no good to the defence services. Their pay and pension bill is not all that much and in any case is much less than that of many other government agencies. The government should withdraw this proposal.
What is being missed in the ongoing debates on this subject is the added proposal to do away with one-class units and subunits. These units have an enviable war record, stretching back many decades. Their past performance plays on the psyche of troops. Their composition over time builds camaraderie, mutual trust and team spirit.
India's military will deliver even as it is being handicapped in many areas such as outdated weapons and equipment, early retirement and no job after departure from service with much less pension.
There are many other ways and avenues to garner votes. It is best to just leave the military alone.
Lt General Harwant Singh is retired from the Indian Army. His views are personal