Glaring chinks in the Agnipath armour

It had been held repeatedly that the modernisation of defence forces is slowing down for want of funds since the revenue budget is disproportionately high. In this, defence pensions were cited to be the main villain that allegedly drained the funds that otherwise could be used for modernisation. The Tour of Duty scheme was supposedly conceived to ameliorate that problem since short-duty soldiers wouldn’t be given pension.

Lt Gen raj Kadyan (retd)

The recently introduced Tour of Duty (ToD), or Agnipath scheme, has drawn strong protests from the youth who had been awaiting their turn to join as regular soldiers, recruitment for which had been put on hold some two years ago due to the Covid pandemic. The protests spread across many states. A peaceful protest by citizens is their democratic right. But violence and destruction of public property need to be condemned in the strongest words. The protests are against the government but the property belongs to the country, to us all.
It had been held repeatedly that the modernisation of defence forces is slowing down for want of funds since the revenue budget is disproportionately high. In this, defence pensions were cited to be the main villain that allegedly drained the funds that otherwise could be used for modernisation. The ToD scheme was supposedly conceived to ameliorate that problem since short-duty soldiers, the Agniveers, would not be given pension, and savings would accrue. However, the government subsequently clarified that Agnipath is not inspired by the need for curtailing military pensions.
The other propagated reason is to keep the military youthful. But how young is youthful; at what age does youthfulness start losing its sheen? The argument that lowering of mean age from 32 years to 26 will become a panacea to improve the Army’s efficacy is more arithmetical than pragmatic. Such a conclusion ignores the experience and psychological benefits that age brings. Even a retired Army Chief speaking to the media in support of the Agnipath scheme cited the example of the Kargil war having been fought by very young soldiers. But the fact that those soldiers had a lifelong bond with the Army and had the assurance that if something happened to them, their kin would get pension and other related benefits from the government, which would not be the case for Agniveers, seems to have been overlooked to support a pre-determined decision. It may be relevant to mention that after 1962, the Army had prescribed certain annual physical efficiency tests. The standards laid down were the same for all up to 35 years of age. We had to pass the same tests of endurance, strength and agility etc at 34 that we had passed at 20. It was obviously based on the premise that the physical attributes required for a soldier do not materially degrade till the age of 35. Significantly, the Assam Rifles jawans serve till 58, spending almost their entire life in North-East hills. Having commanded the Assam Rifles, I can empirically say that age never came in the way of their duty.
It is rightly argued that the Agniveers would acquire the Army ethos and culture that would benefit the country at large. However, the adverse impact of the scheme on the operational capabilities of the defence forces does not seem to have been factored in. With our volatile borders on two fronts and with the Army having been perpetually engaged in war-like situation, the need for tinkering with the ethos and functioning of the Army is ill-advised. The dedication that comes with the permanent bonding cannot be expected from a short-term contractual soldier.
Yet another argument being advanced is that the induction of advanced technology can substitute soldiers, may be partially true and only in some specific cases. It needs reiteration that the ultimate aim of war is to subdue the enemy’s will. It is debatable that keyboards and radars can be suitable substitutes to intimidate an enemy. Nor does the experience of US — indisputably the most technologically advanced in the world — in Somalia, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. lend support to that argument. Even in our context, if technology could be an effective substitute, we won’t have deployed 50,000-60,000 soldiers in eastern Ladakh for so long and in an open-ended commitment.
It is being claimed that by ultimately selecting only 25 per cent of the Agniveers for service, the Army will get the best. But that is already happening through our recruitment system where for a single vacancy, thousands line up and the selection is through a vigorous process involving multiple tests.
The implementation of the Agnipath scheme may have been in the planning for long. But for the affected youth, it came too suddenly. Their anger was further fuelled by abruptly cancelling the recruitment process that was suspended two years ago due to Covid and for which the aspirants had already passed certain tests. The protests could have been minimised if the suspended enrolment was completed and the Agnipath scheme was implemented from next enrolment cycle. That would have also given time for the benefits of the scheme to be announced and understood more deliberately. As it happened, the new benefits being announced by the government somewhat hurriedly appeared reactive and did not inspire the needed confidence. Even the corporate heads making promises for employing the Agniveers did little to soften the anger. It was clear that they were doing so after a government nudge to seek their support. After all, even now nearly 55,000 soldiers retire annually. They are in the 35-38 year age-group, are disciplined, skilled, and have relatively lower ambitions to give job stability. It was strange to see some corporate spokespersons claiming that they would prefer a young man of 25, who has been rejected by the Army, over a soldier 10-12 years older who has successfully completed his military engagement. The corporate pronouncements carry no conviction.