If a name alone could deliver, then all else would become redundant, in fact superfluous. Will the term ‘Agniveer’ serve a purpose?

To bring in a change, in an existing system, particularly any drastic recasting of it, some drawbacks or failing should have surfaced in the prevalent system. Before an existing system of recruitment and service conditions, which has been delivering well in the past, is dumped, it must be properly assessed and analysed.

At the same time when we adopt a new system of recruitment in the military, such as the Agniveer system, the underlying rationale for the change should be spelled out. Did those recruited under the previous system not perform well during 1965, 1971 and Kargil war?

If those recruited under the existing system and service conditions measured up to the required standards, then there can hardly be a requirement for its change. A whimsical attempt at change can result in failures.

During the early 80S, a view was projected that the officer selection system required change. Army Headquarters did not go in for any change before examining, in detail, the existing system: its drawbacks and failings if any.

A committee was formed to examine the officer selection system and recruitment of other ranks, under the chairmanship of the Central Army Commander.

I was the Chairman of the sub-committee tasked to examine the officer selection system and recommend changes, if so required. I spent time with, Selection Boards, Commandant Indian Military Academy and a number of commanding officers.

Then a questionnaire (with a couple of dozen questions) was forwarded to 300 officers, who had commanded units during 1965 and 1971 wars.

The questions related to performance of young officers both during peace and war, their probity, leadership skills and competency. To avoid subjectivity, commanding officers were not to note the names of their units in response to the questionnaire.

The feed-back from commanding officers, IMA and Selection Boards was positive. They called for ‘no change in the selection system’.

I gave a presentation to the Chief of Army Staff at Army Headquarters on the outcome of my study, which resulted in the status quo of the existing system. The point is that no change should be brought about for the sake of change.

Unfortunately, a drastic change in the enrolment of other ranks in the defence services have been brought about without proper and known examination of the existing system, its efficacy in terms of performance of those inducted into defence services through it, during various wars and peace time. Nor was the issue adequately debated within the services.

Soldiering is unlike any other profession. It calls for total dedication, commitment to a cause, acceptance of extreme hardships and ever willingness to sacrifice one’s life. Camaraderie, and regimental spirit are essential requirements in a soldier. Building these requires time, good leadership, right motivation and an appropriate environment.

Under the changed recruitment system, an Agniveer is to serve for a period of four years (including one year of training ) after which only 25 percent would be retained. The remaining 75 percent would be discharged from service with a one time monetary grant of Rs 11 lakhs.

Those retained would serve for another 15 years only. So far it appears that the first four years would not be counted. The catch in this being, that if at some future date courts were to order the inclusion of these four years, the total service would be 19 years. This would be one year short of earning 50 percent as pension of last pay drawn.

The much talked about background to the decision for bringing in this system, is the excess burden of ex servicemen’s pension. If that is the underlying reason for this drastic change (whose efficacy is suspect) then it shows a pronounced bias towards a soldier.

The pension bill of all Central Police Organisations ( CPOs ) and state police is many times that of soldiers. When both a soldier and a policeman (from CPO) reach 60 years of age, the policeman would have received Rs 18 lakhs more than a soldier, (at the existing rates of pay and pensions). The policeman will continue to draw his pension for another seven to eight years, the soldier's life would have ended by then.

It would be in order to note here that the life expectancy of a soldier in India, is around 59-61 years, while that of policemen and others is around 67-68 years. The life expectancy of those from the railways is 71-73 years.

The main reason for the shorter lifespan of a soldier is early retirement, less pension and increasing financial worries due to added expenditure on children’s upbringing and education. Many Members of Parliament and MLAs draw not one but six to seven pensions. Why should any country baulk from paying soldiers their legitimate pension, more so when he is retired at 35-37 years of age?

On an average around 60,000 retire every year. Therefore, that is the number to be recruited each year. However, last year only 50,000 Agniveers were recruited. Therefore, this year the vacancies would be 70,000 (against those retiring 60,000 + 10,000 who were not recruited last year. )

After four years, when 75 percent of these Agniveers from the first batch will be discharged, the vacancies will be 60,000 + 38,500. That works out to 98,500.

During next 12 years these figures will keep increasing. Therefore, facilities for training such a large number of recruits will have to be created. All that will cost a substantial amount, in terms of facilities and training staff.

Therefore, after 12 years of introduction of this system there would be 3 to 3.5 lakhs Agniveers in their first four years of service. And 75 percent of these will subsequently be due for discharge.

Some of them would be looking forward to receiving Rs 11 lakhs on discharge, and therefore be averse to putting their life on the line. Others may be busy dealing with cutthroat competition, so as to be in the 25 percent who will be retained.

What sort of camaraderie and team spirit will develop amongst them? In the event of operations this will have its own impact on their performance and consequent outcome.

Given the state of unemployment in the country, finding an alternate or second career will be a problem for the Agniveers discharged after four years. The present promise of reservation for ex-servicemen in various government departments is only on paper. The actual absorption of servicemen against existing promises of 10 percent and more is less than one percent.

This is essentially so because there is much to be gained by direct recruitment in these organisations. More recently one Director General of a CPO stated why they should take ‘those rejected by the army’.

The efficacy, and consequently the wisdom, of bringing in the Agniveers enrolment system, will come to light in the next war, as and when it occurs. Whatever be the underlying idea of this proposal, it should have been first tried out with the Central Police Organisations (CPOs).

If funds for pensions of ex-servicemen alone were the reason for bringing in this new system, then it is better to enhance the retirement age of soldiers to 42 years. This step alone will substantially lower the pension bill of other ranks. The military is far too serious a field to adopt any trial and error proposition.

Lt General Harwant Singh is an Army veteran. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.