The government on June 14 unveiled an ambitious scheme which aimed at giving a youthful look to the armed forces under which about 46,000 youth — boys and girls aged between 17.5 years and 23 years — would be recruited for a four-year tenure called Agniveers under the scheme named Agnipath. On completion of the tenure, 25 per cent would be absorbed into the armed forces while the other can join the paramilitary forces or with the financial package envisaged under the scheme and a bank loan can become entrepreneurs. The scheme is expected to cut the ballooning salary and pension bill which would help in the modernisation of the armed forces.
“For those wishing to study further, they will be given class 12 equivalent certificate and bridging course. For those wishing to obtain jobs, they will be given priority in CAPFs and state police,” said a government fact sheet.
Under the scheme, the Agniveers will a get a decent pay of Rs 30,000 per Month which will go up to Rs 40,000 per month in the next 4 months. However, out of this, 30% of the salary will be deposited in the Agniveer Corpus Fund, and additionally, the central government of India will be depositing another 30% in the same fund. And by the end of the 4th year, the Agniveer will get all that fund along with the interest back in his bank account.
The Agnipath scheme will train the youth of India with war tactics with the help of modern technology. And with this scheme, all the three major armed forces of India are planning to reduce the training period to 6 months. Also with the help of AI, the defence forces are going to create a better and more efficient training method for the Agniveers.
Even as violent protests spread across the country with strong opposition to the scheme which saw trains, cars and other government property destroyed, the scheme received mixed reactions from Defence veterans with some critical while others welcoming it.
Former Army Chief General (Retd) Ved Prakash Malik thanked Home Minister Amit Shah for the announcement that the recruits, after completing their four-year tenure, would be given priority for induction in the Central Armed Police Forces and Assam Rifles. He tweeted: “ Agniveer induction has to be based on the annual number of retirees plus deficiencies, if any. This is a small number at unit level. It will be a slow induction process.”
Lt Gen Abhay Krishna (Retd) described it a “well-thought out and farsighted initiative,” which would help protect our increasing assets across the world, where optics of having Indian Army as boots on ground may not be taken well. He said the Ukraine conflict has shown how a similar model has worked in the country. Since 2014, on the basis of rotation, Ukraine had employed over six lakh personnel for short duration to fight in the restive Donbas region. “This helped to create a huge combat experienced reserve which came in handy when Russia invaded,” he added.
“Agnipath may help in raising private military companies in the same way as the US had deployed Blackwater in Iraq or the Russians had used the Wagner group in Syria or how the Chinese are using Academia in Xinjiang,” said Lt Gen Krishna.
Another retired senior officer, Lt General Rakesh Sharma (Retd) said Agnipath will prove “transformational” for the Defence services. “The scheme will bring about a national balance in Army recruitment. It has many positives (for Agniveers) such as financial package, concern for battle casualties and disabilities. There is also a decent severance package. Agnipath should be dynamic. As the process moves ahead, it should be tweaked where necessary,” he said.
However, Union Minister and former Army Chief General V.K. Singh said he was not involved in formulating the scheme and that he did not know much about it. He said things would be clear after it was implemented on the ground. Lt General Vinod Bhatia (Retd), former director-general, military operations (DGMO), Director, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, tweeted, calling the ToD “a death knell for armed forces”. Major General (Retd) B S Dhanoa said while the scheme has been conceived and implemented with cost cutting in mind, it may turn out to be a catalyst to larger reforms needed in a 21st-century military.
“If our top brass and political leaders are capable of looking beyond short term gains, we may still achieve a lot,” he wrote on Twitter.
Major General (Retd) Yash Mor criticised the Agnipath scheme, stating that more than anything else, he feels for the lakhs of youngsters who had lost all hope of recruitment in the last two years. “Service headquarters too appear to be reluctant to implement this,” Mor said in a tweet.
Major General (Retd) Satbir Singh said the Agnipath scheme for the armed forces is not in keeping with the erstwhile military tradition, ethos, morals and values. “It will adversely affect efficiency and effectiveness of military,” he added.
In his blog, Lieutenant General (Retd) P R Shankar said, “Many senior veterans have written with the wisdom of their experience. A common voice has emerged. The tour of duty does not seem to be a good idea. Proceed with caution.” Shankar said the Tour of Duty proposal expects a superman from a kindergarten student.
“We might be producing an Abhimanyu but he will not get out of the Chakravyuh. After five years of tour of duty, Arjuns will not be available in our next Mahabharata. The cutting edge units will not be able to fight. There are no runners up in war,” he wrote on Twitter.
Complementing the Defence Minister, Baba Kalyani, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Forge Limited and the Founding Chairman of Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM) described the unveiling of the Agnipath Scheme as a very innovative and transformational initiative.
“In Agniveers, we will find a ready pool of highly motivated and disciplined resources having a sense of nationalistic fervour with a ‘can-do spirit’! “I personally believe, the Nation will be the biggest beneficiary with Agniveers joining the workforce in our efforts to build an Aatma Nirbhar Bharat!” he said.
Supporting the scheme, the Central Association of Private Security Industry (CAPSI) said disembodied ‘Agniveer’ will be employed as security officers in private security sector on priority basis. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chairman of the apex body of private security industry K. Vikram Singh said “private security sector requires huge numbers of qualified Security Officers for quality service delivery for corporate, community security and hybrid security engagements with CISF…Disembodied ‘Agniveers’ shall be employed as Security Officers after skilling them as per BIS Standards which are being developed keeping in view the future employability of ‘Agniveers’.”
Congratulating the Prime Minister, Singh said: “Agnipath is a strategically planned scheme which will not only augment our defence preparedness but will also usher new ‘suraksha’ culture among youth. This national project will prove to be a game-changer in strengthening the security of our nation.”
“This proposed project will also generate huge employment opportunities for youth and help our country in ushering in a new social economic environment for the rural poor and middle class communities. Their induction in police organisations will bring a new culture of discipline, commitment and trust which is the need of the time. This national project has the total support of the Private Security Industry,” Singh added.
It is indeed interesting to note that when the idea was first mooted by the defence ministry, ASSOCHAM had lauded it and industrialist Anand Mahindra had said that he would only be too happy to welcome such a well-trained and disciplined work force in his companies after their exit from service.
– The writer is a senior journalist and media consultant. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda