agnipath agniveer

Can you train a man( or a woman) to kill in 6 months? Definitely yes. In fact, our crime records would indicate that a majority of killers in India; don’t require any training at all. When the time comes and the need occurs, the trigger is pulled or the dagger is thrust in, quite effortlessly.

But in the armed forces, where the killing is not random but tactical and goal driven and subject to orders and courts of inquiry, some orientation and onboarding are necessary. And killing is not all that training is all about.  In my military training decades ago, the motive was to turn out an Officer and a Gentleman. I was a doctor in the Air Force and under the Geneva Conventions not permitted to engage in aggressive frontline combat but was still taught to kill in self defence. Similarly, sepoys, sailors, and airmen were also taught to be good human beings with integrity, honesty, and a sense of camaraderie which because it could never be perfectly translated was and is always referred to as esprit de corps.

Albeit, the foundations were laid during the initial training, these qualities were eventually embedded and exemplified through seniors, peers, and subordinates over years and decades of serving together.  But the recently introduced Agnipath scheme, like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book, thinks that all these can be condensed into a 6-month course. Agniveers, as the short-term soldiers are being called will be recruited at the age of 17 and a half, trained, and then deployed for service as they turn 18 for a tenure of 4 years, and then most would be set free without any pension or social security.

While it is a fact that the services are no longer as lucrative a career as it once used to be, this is mostly among the Officer Class. In the British era, the Officer cadets were usually from the Indian aristocracy or the landed gentry for whom serving the Army was a symbol of valour. The aura of being an officer added to the identity of being a raja or a Yuvaraj. After the abolition of the privy purses and the decline of the aristocracy, who increasingly needed jobs and good jobs at that, the perks of being an army officer were no longer enough and the profile shifted to the urban educated in the bigger cities. Gradually even they began to feel that life was better invested in an MBA than sweating it out in defence academies. Today the profile has further shifted to youth from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities and shortages in the Officer cadre still persist. In fact, the move to induct women is as much about gender parity in a heavily macho service culture, as much to at least partially deal with the shortages by tapping into an untapped pool.

While this is the case with officers, for the nonofficer ranks, the armed forces have remained a lucrative employment avenue for the not-so-educated rural youth. There was a time when at least the Army even inducted illiterates and then put them through some rudiments of formal education through the Army Education Corps.  Although the army now accepts only those with at least a High School certificate, the fact is it was and is seen as a pathway to long-term employment with pay and benefits that would be unavailable to anyone with that level of education. The Agnipath programme kills that opportunity by sending the youth out after just 4 years of duty with no foreseeable employment opportunities and no social security at all.

The employment opportunities available to an Agniveer with only an Agniveer certificate to show are dubious. The notion that they could be employed as security guards and would even otherwise provide a disciplined workforce look and sound hollow.  Most of the security guard and related jobs – be it in offices or factories or residential complexes exist in urban contexts or industrial estates on the fringes of the cities. But the bulk of the Agniveers is likely to come from rural India -(as evidenced by the places where the agitations took place) where such employment opportunities are nonexistent.   The possibility of frustrated youth in their thousands, who have enjoyed some financial security albeit briefly is real. There are no shortages of recognised militia – identified like the Maoists or the ones in the North East as well as numerous private militia who would pay to have trained soldiers who know the basic tactical ways of the Army in their ranks.

The unstated reasoning behind the introduction of the Agnipath scheme is the ballooning pension bill of the Armed Forces personnel over time which is becoming unsustainable. This was true of civilian government employees too. But the National Pension Scheme introduced in 2004 for civilian employees, made them a stakeholder in their retirement benefits. The scheme is contributory along the lines of the existing EPF, except that the NPS has the potential of delivering higher and market-linked returns, unlike the EPF where the interest rates are determined by the government and have shown a consistently declining trend.

The armed forces personnel were kept out of the scheme. This was because the working condition of the armed forces personnel was different from the civilian workforce of the government. And hence they cannot be clubbed together. However, the central armed police forces (CAPFs) personnel were included in the NPS, even when their work is way different from their civilian counterparts and they get postings in extreme terrain and climatic conditions.

Undoubtedly the rising pension bill is a concern. Out of a total outlay of Rs 30.42 lakh crore in Union Budget 2020-21, Rs 4.71 lakh crore has been earmarked for defence, including pensions. This defence budget hence is about 15.5 percent of the central government’s entire expenditure plan. The fine print is shocking. In the ongoing budget, the pensions, one of the biggest expenditure components of the defence ministry, stand at a whopping Rs 1.33 lakh crore — 13.6 percent more from the revised estimates of Rs 1.17 lakh crore. What is even more troubling is that the increase is higher than the hike given in revenue (which takes care of daily expenditure and salaries) and capital funds (modernisation and acquisition) for the forces.

Perhaps the answer to the rising pension if indeed that is a key reason for the introduction of the Agnipath scheme, the answer lies in introducing the NPS for the Armed Forces too, if necessary with some modifications and that should be considered. But training teenagers for 6 months, employing them for 4 years, and then setting them free with no financial or other incentives or schemes to help them fund and incentivise higher education and enhance skills is literally playing with fire.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.


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