Agnipath scheme needs to be more convincing

Short service is at best a quick fix for prevailing shortages in cadre strengths of officers and enlisted personnel. Making short military service compulsory for all govt jobs and reducing short service to five years (as was the tenure earlier) have been suggested. This would give the exiting men and women a better chance of competing with peers in the corporate world, where most of them are expected to be rehabilitated.

Gp Capt Murli Menon (retd)

We never seem to learn lessons from goof-ups in policies related to military personnel. And what was the so-called steel frame of bureaucracy doing while rolling out the Agnipath scheme? Surely, the intention should not be only to score brownie points politically. The entire exercise has been Tughlaq-like, virtually becoming a ‘government versus the rest’. Those in service obviously cannot voice their opinion beyond a point. It reminds me of the Pay Commission fiasco of a while ago, wherein the IAF sought to push through some rather controversial pay structures for flying and other branches, leading to a blowback mainly from the technical branches. As someone commanding a key fighter base at that time, I know how it hurt the day-to-day functioning and esprit-de-corps at the ground level. Committed honest professionals helped in dousing the fire on that occasion. The government has now chosen to bring in some drastic changes in key areas of the military’s recruitment format. It is natural for veterans to criticise the proposal to induct Agniveers for a four-year short service stint with a quarter of them getting permanency, because the proposal has not been subjected to trial on a smaller scale (rather than the entire military).
Targeted at cutting down the government’s pension bill, and ostensibly having more monies for equipment upgrade and other development works, the proposal clearly does not pass muster, as apparent from the reactions, especially from the veteran community. Catering for lateral mobility into the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) was only one important rider that needed to be explained in a tangibly convincing manner, to make the proposal viable. We are not a country like the USA where military conscription could be introduced with sops such as accelerated citizenship doles and university scholarships. The majority of our expected Agniveers come from mofussil and agrarian stock and the security offered by a fauji career means the world to them, including considerable social standing and boosted elan once they manage to get recruited. The impact of a short service, almost mandatory military service, on this strata of Indian society has become clear now, what with the agitation on the streets. However noble the intention may have been to push through such a drastic reform, it smacks of poor military leadership in decision-making, besides an attempt to seek political mileage. As has been evident to many successful democratic nation-states since Chanakya, the military is indeed the last bastion and any tinkering, especially with critical ingredients of its organisation, is fraught with danger. If pensions are indeed seen to be a drag on the budget, losing a war through a messed up military structure could be even more painful. Let us not forget the measures adopted in our own country such as during the 1962 China debacle, like “emergency stamp” and the like to generate funding and beef up the defence budget. As a general policy, the “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” rule should apply to all military matters, especially those related to personnel. The Agnipath scheme is in danger of adversely impacting the role, risks and morale of the soldier, by infusing avoidable large-scale job insecurity amongst the youth in the country.
Attempts by well-meaning nationalistic industrialists such as Anand Mahindra to absorb some of the retrenched Agniveers would not cut much ice, as there are already a large number of ex-servicemen seeking employment and they could start by offering them jobs, with coordination by the Director General of Resettlement. Besides, short service is at best a quick fix for prevailing shortages in cadre strengths of officers and enlisted personnel. Especially for enlisted personnel, short service seems anathema. Also, with more women proposed to be inducted across ranks, other challenges in billeting and discipline considerations would arise. Besides, a recent study into induction of lady officers has clearly brought out the adverse aspects of the measure. Making short military service compulsory for all government jobs and reducing short service engagement of officers to five years (as was the tenure earlier) have been suggested and are worthy of consideration. These would give the exiting men and women officers a better chance of competing with peers in the corporate world, where most of them are expected to be rehabilitated. Increasing Army retirement age to 56 or 58, without compromising the combat readiness of the troops and reducing CAPF retirement age to 55 may help in lateral mobility of these personnel to other avenues.
Another great disadvantage of Agnipath would be the very limited time a short service soldier would be available in a fighting unit, especially in high expertise areas such as the armoured corps, maritime tasks and aviation duties, which call for extended training schedules. Especially for a vast nation such as ours, any drastic change in the recruitment format needs to also aim for nation-building by way of inculcating discipline and civic sense in the citizenry. Care needs to be exercised not to compromise our gross national military capability. The Tour of Duty (ToD) model of part-time soldiering is one that will affect the Army, more so with the infantry, Air Force and Navy’s technical personnel being exempt from ToD. If the intent is to augment the youth’s contribution to national security, the same could also be achieved through measures such as an expanded and already proven NCC and Territorial Army.
Our country is in dire need of a tri-service MoD-sponsored re-evaluation study of defence management aspects (a la the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the USA), to be carried out once in five years or so, to keep the services in trim organisationally and operationally.