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Approach :

  1. Introduction about Agnipath scheme.
  2. Briefly mention the key provisions.
  3. Point out the main criticisms.
  4. Mention the budgetary issue with modernization vs manpower.
  5. Mention the favoring views.
  6. Conclusion.

Indian cabinet has recently cleared the Agnipath scheme, terming it as a transformative reform in India’s armed forces. It will provide “unique opportunity to the youth to serve and contribute to nation-building”, making the armed forces youthful and dynamic. By recruiting ‘Agni veers’ in the age group of 17.5 to 23 years, it will make the Indian military “young & fit”. It also offers attractive financial package and adequate re-employment opportunities for those returning to society. The policy reads, “it will ensure availability of well-disciplined & skilled youth with military ethos in civil society”.

About Agnipath Scheme: the scheme is for personnel recruitment below officer rank for 4 years. Upon completion of 4 years, based on organizational requirements, Agni veers can apply for permanent enrolment in Armed Forces. Up to 25% of each batch will be enrolled in regular cadres. They would be required to serve a further engagement period of 15 years. Agni veers will be given an attractive customized monthly package with “Risk & Hardship” allowances as applicable. Each month they will contribute a fixed sum to a corpus fund with equal match by government. Upon completion, Agni veers will receive a one-time ‘Seva Nidhi’ package (approx. 11.71 lakh) comprising their contribution & govt contribution along with interests accrued. It is tax exempted. However, there shall be no gratuity or pensionary benefits.

Criticism Galore: many veteran armed personnel have criticized against the Agnipath scheme.

  • They raised concern that combat soldier cannot be trained in 4 years, and that the scheme can potentially compromise national security. The idea of shortened training indirectly trivializes the skill-sets for which the armed forces train their cadres so diligently.
  • Also, retrenching youth from the armed forces after 4 years can create security problems. Given the lesser experience, Agni veers are difficult to get absorbed into paramilitary forces. Mostly, the retired personnel cannot find respectable employment and hence, are entirely dependent on their pension and post retirement benefits to sustain; the Agni veers will lose that too. At a tender age, if unemployed, they can fall prey to crime syndicates, radical political outfits and rouge foreign intelligence agencies.
  • Trained in handling weapons and having basic knowledge of military establishments’ functioning, they can be real security threat; some more enterprising can join overseas mercenary groups and private military contractors.
  • No attention to detail, political logic overriding institutional sanity.

The move’s prime inspiration: the government is concerned that manpower costs are eating into the capital allocation of the armed forces to cover revenue demand. India’s defense budget is 5.25 lakh crore of which 1.2 lakh crore goes for pension component, let alone salaries. Estimates say, of the 44.37% earmarked for services’ revenue expenditure, 29.01% goes for meeting capital requirements, and 22.79% for defense pensions. The salaries + pensions account for 55.3% of the total revenue budget. This salaries & pension component has been steadily increasing.

Arguments in favor: Advocates argue that National defense budget management is essential for modernization of forces. There has to be a significant % for capital acquisitions. No major country can afford to have adverse capital to revenue expenditure and pension bill ratios. So, they say, the best way to achieve this is to reduce the workforce. Taking inspiration from all major armed forces across the world like China, Great Britain, US – who have cut their workforce in the last 25 years, India has embarked on downsizing its armed forces for ‘leaner, meaner army’.

But mean does not imply weaker military. The reduced workforce will leave more resources for capital expenditure towards new technologies and more intelligent systems like ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and unmanned systems to reduce casualties. With these, Indian armed forces can become more agile, flexible, lethal and innovative. Its extended technological edge can be more destructive than numerical strength.

The Armed Forces need support and reform. Agnipath may have come at a right time. A shift from reliance on personnel to technology and a younger age profile of soldiers are laudatory goals. But reforms should be governed by a sound sociological, professional, institutional and strategic logic.

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