Agniveer or Tour of Duty: Not to Reject but seek Improvement!

The Agnipath scheme is futuristic but it needs modifications. It should have been tried out first in the TA or NCC. If directly implemented in the armed forces, the service tenure should be increased to six years as the four-year period of Tour of Duty (ToD) soldier is insufficient. Besides, there should be an assured promise of alternative jobs after retirement

By Col Rajinder Singh

Opinion

In its bid to reduce the sky-rocketing defence pension bill and also to keep the armed forces young, the Government of India has announced a policy of Agnipath recruitment. The policy envisages that recruits serve for four years. Thereafter, only 25 per cent will be retained and 75 per cent would be released. The age limit has been put from 17.5 years to 21 years, extendable by two years for recruitment in 2022. Those who get released after four years will get a lump sum amount, called ‘Seva Nidhi’ of Rs 11.7 lakh, which will be non-taxable.

This policy has led to violent agitation all over India, particularly in Bihar, UP, Haryana and Karnataka. The sore point of the policy is the retirement of Agniveers after four years and without pension. What has been more agonising is that there has been no recruitment for the last two years and youth had been awaiting enrolment after having cleared the tests, both written and medical. 

Most of the veterans have spoken against the clumsy way the scheme has been launched by the government. One of the main points of criticism is that it was launched post haste, without seeking suggestions from the environment concerned. Veterans point out that the defence budget for pensions of 12 lakh soldiers comprises only 46 per cent, while it is 54 per cent for the civilian defence employees, with a strength of 3.75 lakh. 

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Thus, the average annual pension of a Defence Civilian is around ₹5.38 Lakh against the average annual pension of a soldier is around ₹ 1.38 lakh. So, veterans do not understand this ‘bulging pension bill logic’ of the government. It is more so questioned when compared with pensions of the MPs and MLAs, who get four to five pensions. The genuine question, therefore, is as to why the Defence pensions bill was such an issue, while others lead more luxurious and comfortable lives?  

Training time 

Another point raised by the veterans is about the technical need for more time for training soldiers on the job due to the advanced weapon systems and equipment having made entry into the weapons inventory of the armed forces. A soldier of armoured corps or Artillery or even Engineers might need five-six years to graduate as a qualified soldier. The four-year period for Tour of Duty (ToD) soldiers would be insufficient. This is so for the Air Force and Navy as well. Thus, before a soldier acquires the requisite skills, he would leave. 

The annual wastage rate of soldiers is 50-55,000. If annual intake is based on wastage rate, then after four years only 12,500-13,000 soldiers will be left behind, who would need other two/three years to acquire desired skills. This would then leave the armed forces with ‘Skill-deficit’ soldiers for a considerable period, which is dangerous for the combat preparedness of the armed forces. 

The armed forces will inculcate the spirit of ‘Sarav Dharma Sthal – philosophy’ as practised by them. It makes soldiers believe that all religions are equal and that religion is a private affair for each individual. It will develop a true national integration of various communities

Having brought out the lacunae in the hastily announced ToD scheme, it may be noted that, principally speaking, the theme is not bad. It would cater for the much-needed cutting out the flab for not only ‘Lean and Mean Army’ (LAMA) but also do the same to Air Force to make it SDF (Space Domination Force) and Navy ODF (Ocean Denial Force). It may be noted that the emerging concept of war-making has shifted weightage from Land warfare to SAS (Space and Seas). This is all due to the modern weapon system, which has heralded an era of ‘Non Contact Wars’. BVR (Beyond Visual Range) weapon systems such as missiles, drones, Lasers, Robotics, EMP Guns, Cyber systems, and bio-weapons make soldiers ‘dispersed’ and using ‘invisible platforms’.  

Desirable changes 

All this demands cutting of flab, which ToD can achieve, if some desirable changes to the present scheme are carried out. In the long term, it is going to be a good move. There is a need to take veterans’ suggestions seriously. It would make the proposal more effective. I am of the opinion that the scheme should have been first discussed openly in the public and then systematically introduced in the armed forces. In its present shape, it suffers from the principle of fixing a thing before it was broken. 

There was a need to try the proposal first with TA (Territorial Army). Those of the Agniveers, who were not found fit after four years could be released with the same ‘Seva Nidhi’.  Those of the ToD soldiers who get selected after four years could be further despatched to their respective Arm and service, whether in the Army, Air Force and the Navy. The advantage of this was that a suitable second-line of civil defence would be created. 

Veterans point out that the defence budget for pensions of 12 lakh soldiers comprises only 46 per cent, while it is 54 per cent for the civilian defence employees, with a strength of 3.75 lakh

There should be another option with those Agniveers who get rejected to get an extension of 4-5 years of service. This would help them to prepare themselves for a likely career in the civil domain. The ‘Seva Nidhi’ can be enhanced to ₹15-16 Lakh from ₹11.7 lakh. Most of them would acquire requisite qualifications in the said period to pursue a civil career. Also, it would provide continuity of properly trained soldiers for future military conflicts, besides a pool of manpower with basic training of soldiers. 

Fears unfounded 

Of course, the youth, thus having gone through a tenure of four years would provide a disciplined citizenry with a nationalistic outlook. Armed forces can inculcate in them the spirit of ‘Sarav Dharma Sthal – philosophy’ as practised in the armed forces. This philosophy makes soldiers believe that not only all religions are equal but also religion was a private affair for each individual. It would help imbibe a true national integration of various communities. The fears that trained manpower let loose in the civil life would lead to ‘trained criminals’ is unfounded. We have had Short Service Commission (SSC) and Emergency Commission (EC) cadres, who have done well outside. Such apprehensions need to be ignored. 

Finally, at the time of enrolment of Agniveers in TA or directly even in the armed forces, an assured promise of alternative job be given, based on his qualification, after four or eight years as applicable. In fact, in order to ensure this, he should be asked to give out four options of disciplines in Civil life, he would like to join after he was rejected for a further career in the armed forces. This would remove the connected ‘post-release’ insecurity, which goes with the present form of scheme. Most of the criticism of the scheme is because of this insecurity. In fact, if the cause of this insecurity is removed, there would be more volunteers who would like to leave after four years. This is why I had suggested that it should be tried with TA first or even with NCC with some modifications. 

In conclusion, I would say that there may be some serious lacunae and teething problems with this proposal initially, but in the long run, it would be more beneficial for the nation as well as the armed forces. In order to make it more effective, some drastic changes to the current scheme need to be made. 

Smart soldiers

Why do I say the scheme with modifications could prove beneficial for the nation is because of two reasons. First, everyone must understand that in the Indian context, the very doctrine of war has undergone a change. The availability of WsMD in the region and technology-driven BVR (Beyond Visual Range) weapon systems have necessitated the need for the implosion of an adversary rather than aggression on the borders. Technology has emphasised the need for cutting out the flab and making armed forces lean and mean. This scheme would not only produce ‘Smart soldiers’ but capable of multi-tasking. 

The scheme should have been first discussed openly in the public and then systematically introduced in the armed forces. In its present shape, it suffers from the principle of fixing a thing before it was broken

The second reason is of the concept of WOM (War by other means). It might be noted that Militarily Equal nations do not want to get involved in MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). To subdue one’s adversary, the answer lay in exploiting the internal vulnerability of your adversary. This is called WOM. China calls it ‘Unrestricted Warfare’, which aims at gaining a victory without firing a bullet. Readers might note that in September 2009, a Chinese defence expert had written an article to suggest that India must be broken up into 20-30 states. And it has been pursuing it with great vigour. North East is in flames because of this. China is also nudging Pakistan to do so in J&K, Punjab and the rest of India through religious connections. 

It is this kind of war India would continue to face in the near future. It is in this context that we need to generate nationalistic fervour amongst the youth of India. While pursuing a civil career they would be available to tackle WOM. While a percentage of them might go haywire, most of them would stay on course. This is one lesson one can draw from the ongoing Ukraine war, where the trained Civilian army of Ukraine was giving a tough time to the Russian army.  Should the need arise, Agniveers could make the backbone of Civil defence.  

It is in this context I recommend that proposal be tried out for four years in the TA or NCC. If it is to be directly implemented in the armed forces, then the service level should be increased from four to six years. Besides, an option of extension should be given to Agniveers to prepare them for their future career. These modifications would go a long way to popularise the scheme, which is futuristic.

-An ex-NDA and Wellington Staff College graduate, Col Rajinder Singh is a renowned author and security analyst. He has authored four books, two individually and two in collaboration. His best-selling books are Kashmir – A Different Perspective and The ULFA Insurgency. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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