What should be questioned is the basic principle of the launch of the system, which was to lead to a reduction in tax expenditures.
Much has been said and written about the new Agnipath enrollment program in the Indian Armed Forces. Essentially, the program is a sea change from past practices as from now on, all enrollments will only be through the pan-India merit-based Agnipath scheme. Selected individuals, called “Agniveers”, will serve for a period of four years, which includes a six-month training period. Entry is restricted to persons aged 17.5 to 21 (later raised to 23) with a 10/12 pass diploma. As no recruitment has taken place for two years due to the Covid pandemic, a one-time derogation was granted for the year 2022, in which the upper age limit was raised to 23 years.
The financial package is reasonably attractive. Agniveers will be entitled to a risk and hardship allowance and a death and disability pension. They will pay 30% of their monthly emoluments, with the government paying an amount equal to a lump sum bonus which will be granted to each individual after four years of contractual service. This equates to Rs 11.7 lakh. At the end of the contractual period, an option will be exercised for permanent entry into the armed forces, which will be limited to 25%. Selection procedures are well defined and transparent. Commanders will have a major role to play in the same.
It has been stated that the Agnipath program will give a younger profile to the military and will result in better combat readiness through more trainable and resilient young people. But the army already has a young profile and the soldiers are well trained, so it will make little difference. It is also proposed to exploit the advantages of Skill India. It is hoped that those not selected will form a group of disciplined, motivated and physically fit young people who will be inducted into civil society. Some of these young people may be employed by the corporate sector on the basis of their skills or by the central government in the central armed police forces (BSF, CRPF, ITBP) or in the paramilitary forces (Assam Rifles and the Coast Guard). . State governments can also absorb some of these people. It is also hoped that all those who are not so employed will become small entrepreneurs with the skills they have acquired and the financial package they will receive after four years. Most of what has been said is more of the nature of a promissory note than a concrete proposal, but even so there is merit in the same.
What should be questioned is the basic principle of the launch of the system, which was to lead to a reduction in tax expenditures. Annual expenditure on pensions was deemed very high and unsustainable in the long term, necessitating this measure. However, a more holistic course of action would have been to look at force effectiveness, based on a fixed budget. There is a large civilian workforce numbering over 3.5 lakh people, who are paid from defense estimates and have been left outside the scope of this structure. The productivity of munitions factories and defense public sector enterprises (DPSU) as well as the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) was also not taken into account. A qualitative improvement in the operation of all these government-owned research and production facilities will, by itself, generate enormous revenue for the modernization of the army. Decision-making at the top level is also slow, leading to delays and cost overruns. Streamlining will again lead to reduced costs and increased force efficiency. The usefulness of a large civilian bureaucracy is also debatable. The Agnipath scheme is modeled in some way on the US military, so it would make sense to model upper defense management along the same lines. One could thus envisage placing the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Defense Production and the DRDO under the CDS, which would be the sole interlocutor for all military questions with the Minister of Defence. This would not be easy to accomplish as the bureaucrats will fight tooth and nail to preserve their territory, though they contribute little to improving the forces.
THE UGLY ONE
In terms of military effectiveness, the regime will raise some uncomfortable realities when fully operational. One of them is the fact that approximately 60% of an infantry battalion’s profile will be made up of Agniveers in the 0-4 year service bracket. Armour, Artillery, and Engineer regiments will also have a similar profile, as shown in the diagram. The Army will no longer have a uniform profile of soldiers evenly distributed over the years, but a layered structure, with soldiers in the 0-4 age group occupying more than 50% of the operational space. This will have adverse consequences for the army, as evidenced by the performance of young soldiers in the war in Ukraine.
More importantly, the ratio in rifle companies will be even more skewed. Training and induction into specialist platoons like 81mm mortars, medium machine guns, anti-tank, signal and pioneer platoons will only be for permanent inductees, meaning rifle companies will have most of the Agniveers in the 0-4 years of service bracket. This ratio could be as high as 80-90% and does not bode well for force effectiveness, whether in a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism (CICT) or hot war environment.
Many other imponderables also arise. How much time will the unit now spend constantly training a group of raw soldiers? What will be the impact of the Agnipath program on traditional unit activities such as sports and professional competitions, which are so necessary to develop esprit de corps and bonds between units and sub-units? What will be the impact on the level of motivation of young inductees in the fourth year of service?
The questions are endless and too countless to address in a short opinion piece, but the challenges are mind-boggling. The military command would certainly have thought through all these questions, but the devil really is in the details. Perhaps the Agnipath program will be more palatable if the ratio of permanent inductees in the military is increased to 50% and the service length of Agniveers extended to six years from the current four. This would give better operational results and eliminate most of the infirmities discussed here. Also, it would be preferable that lateral induction into the CAPF and paramilitary forces be guaranteed to 25% of Agniveers. Then only a quarter of Agniveers would need rehabilitation in the private sector, which is a more manageable task. This would meet both the operational needs of the military as well as the needs of people who want to pursue a career in the military.
Only time will tell if the tax expenditure reduction program has been a worthwhile experience. In its current form, it will most certainly result in savings for the public purse. But one shudders at the thought of the price that the nation will have to pay in the event of defeat on the battlefield.
Dhruv C. Katoch is an army veteran who is currently the director of the India Foundation.