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Volume IconHow will Agnipath affect the army's modernisation drive?

Govt will recruit 45,000 soldiers every year under 'Agnipath' scheme. Of them, 25% will be retained after 4 years of service. But the scheme is also drawing criticism. Here's both sides of the story

Army combat uniform

Special Forces commandos march past during the Army Day Parade, at KM Cariappa Parade Ground, in New Delhi. The Indian Army unveiled its new combat uniform on the 74th Army Day (Photo: PTI)

Putting yet another status quo to rest, the government announced a big structural reform in the armed forces this week. The consequences of this shake-up will take a few years to manifest, but the radical move has taken even defence experts off the guard.

On Tuesday afternoon, fresh from a meeting of Cabinet Committee on Security -- which was led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- a beaming Rajnath Singh dwelled into the details of the project before media persons. He was flanked by chief of three Services – who head the world’s second largest standing defence force.  

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Under the scheme, named ‘Agnipath’, Defence Minister Singh said that “patriotic and motivated” youth will be given the chance to serve the three forces for a brief period of four years. Starting this year, about 45,000 youths between the age of 17.5 and 21 years will be recruited. They will almost hit the ground running after a basic training of six months.

After completion of their four years of service, 25% of the ‘Agniveers’ will be selected for regular cadre, where they will serve for another 15 years before retiring with pension and other benefits.

The remaining 75% ‘Agniveers’ will be demobilised with an exit package of about 12 lakh and a certificate. About half of the exit package money will come from their own contributions as a portion from their salary which will be between Rs 30,000 to 40,000. Those who join the services after Class 10 will get the certificate of 12th standard after the job completion. But they will not be entitled to any pension or other post-retirement perks which regular soldiers avail. Currently there are about 1.4 million personnel on active duty.

In their first year, ‘Agniveers’ will be paid a customised package of Rs 30,000 per month, rising incrementally each year to Rs 40,000 in the fourth year. In addition, they will be paid risk and hardship allowances on a par with the three services. Throughout their service, 30 percent of their salary – a sum of Rs 9,000 per month in the first year, rising incrementally to Rs 12,000 per month in the fourth year – will go into Agniveer corpus fund.

So why did the government take this step?

In this year’s Union Budget, India allocated ₹5.25 trillion for military spending. And in this ₹1.19 trillion went towards paying the pensions of ex-servicemen. According to experts, over 70% of the defence expenditure goes into salary and pension. As of 2020, India has about 32 lakh defence pensioners and every year this number goes up by 55,000. It leaves little room for the army to spend on capital expenditure, including buying of big-ticket weapons, modern military systems, fighter jets etc.

In 2015, the government gave the nod to implement one-rank-one-pension scheme. It ensured equal pension to military personnel retiring from the same rank with the same years of service, irrespective of the date of their retirement. The then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had said that it added a “huge fiscal burden” on the state. So through the ‘Agneepath’ scheme, the government obviously wants to cut the pension budget in the long run.

Another benefit of the scheme, cited by the government, was that it will bring down the average age of the army. India has the world’s largest youth population. About 40% are between 13 to 35 years. Rajnath Singh said that with the scheme, the average age of soldiers will gradually come down to 24-26 years from the existing 36.

But the scheme drove a wedge between defence experts. Some are favouring it, while others saying that it may hit the combat effectiveness of the armed forces.

Meanwhile, according to some reports, there was a sense of gloom among army aspirants across the north Indian towns. Most of them asked what they would do after four years of service. In rural belts of UP, Haryana, Punjab, Bihar etc. an army job is tied to honour. Job security and pension after retirement offered youth some solace even as job avenues in other sectors are coming down.

Several ex-army men were also critical. They said that bonding was the core of any combat. And it is built over the years. The ‘Agniveer’ cadets may be treated as guest, or worst tourists. They also said that comparison with other countries was not right. Some nations have short tours of duty because there is a shortage of recruits there. While in others, there is voluntary enlistment.

So only time will tell if the government scheme is able to turn the Indian army into a more professional and better equipped force.

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First Published: Jun 16 2022 | 7:00 AM IST

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