‘Agnipath’ a Frontal Attack on Rural India
MODI promised one-rank-one-pension (OROP) to the armed forces personnel in his quest to capture Delhi in 2014. After eight years all he has ended up giving is no-rank-no-pension (NRNP). He has administered another rude shock to the Indian armed forces by launching the ‘Agnipath’ scheme of recruiting 46,000 soldiers for a short period of 4 years.
The maverick policy thrust down the institution's throat has left the armed forces leadership in a state of stupor and sent shock waves through rural India. The youth are up in arms at the government's highhandedness in first cancelling the recruitment and then making the military service unattractive, by withdrawing the job security and post retirement pensions.
On an average the army has been recruiting around 50,000 men every year since 2015. The process of recruitment in the army was expediently stopped in 2020 using the pretext of Covid-19 pandemic. However, during this period the naval and air force continued to enlist sailors and airmen. In the current year, under the Agnipath scheme only 40,000 would join the Army, leading to massive shortfalls at the unit level. The Air Force and Indian Navy will get 3,000 Agniveers each.
“We know best and you don’t understand’ approach, a hallmark of the Modi government is once again displayed in defence of an indefensible policy. A similar approach was adopted to tackle the backlash after announcing the lopsided policies like the demonetisation, GST and farm laws. Such audacity and arrogance first destroyed jobs in the small and medium scale sectors and now Modi is hell bent on destroying the armed forces, the best performing institution in the country today.
The government is trying to hard-sell the scheme through massive media campaigns but the unemployed youth of the country remains unconvinced about its motives and intentions in pushing the scheme.
There is utter confusion in the government as the youth, across the country, are out on streets protesting against the government's decision to suck jobs and social security provisions in an era of high inflation and rising unemployment.
One arm of the government is busy contradicting the other. A few serving admirals, generals and air marshals have been deployed by the government PR machinery to sell the scheme, but the arguments put forth by them in defence of Agnipath are at best flimsy and illogical.
A serving general says, in a press conference, that downsizing the armed forces is a long pending reform and the service have been contemplating a leaner profile since 1984. While the ministry of defence (MoD) says that the number of volunteers being recruited under the scheme would rise from 46,000 volunteers in each of the first four years, to 90,000 volunteers in the fifth year, and to 125,000 in the sixth year.
Some say that this would help the armed forces save money which could be better utilised for modernisation, a euphemism for fattening the coffers of western military-industrial complex and the new-born private defence industry in the country. Others in the establishment claim that the scheme is not designed to prune pay and pension bills, it is only to make the forces look youthful by reducing the average age of a jawan from 32 to 26. This is a specious argument because a 32-year-old person is by no stretch of imagination unfit to perform military duties. Virat Kohli is 33-years-old and is at the peak of his fitness. A military training program and routine that cannot keep a soldier fit in his/her early 30s needs to be scrapped.
The challenge before the armed forces is optimal utilisation of sailors, airmen and jawans trained under a fast-track structure, something akin to the “Rapidex English speaking course”. Many have expressed the fear that ‘Agniveers’ could prove to be an operational hazard in a challenging environment. The commanding officers of the units and formations would be wary of using the ‘Agniveers’ to maintain and operate the state-of the art equipment. Therefore, ‘Agniveers’ utilisation for critical operations or even for manning critical posts will remain limited.
In all likelihood, the Agniveers would end up doing sundry jobs in the forces. For example, in a warship, throughout the 4-year tenure (of which one year would go in annual leave) an Agniveer would at best be employed for lookout duties, or for basic seamanship duties like painting and chipping of the deck. The captain of the ship would think twice before handing over the ship’s wheel to an Agniveer. Such apprehensions will not only hamper the professional growth of a young person but would also put extra strain on the trained manpower engaged in operating the warship or an airplane.
The defenders of ‘Agnipath’ argue that since the nature of warfare is changing and disruptive technologies like drones and Internet of things (IoT) are going to be increasingly used in the services therefore it is imperative to have a small teeth-to-tail ratio. On the other hand, the government is claiming that after completing four years the Agniveers would either be absorbed in central para military forces or big industry. If new age technologies are going to reduce jobs in the military then how does one expect them to grow in the civilian sector?
Agnipath is also an assault on unit cohesion within the army. A unit will now have two sets of jawans one with pension and the other without it. The jawan serving for 15-years will enjoy 90-days leave in a year, on the other hand, Angniveer would be entitled to just 30-days of annual leave.
The person below the officer rank (PBORs) basically hail from poor rural backgrounds. The 15-year pensionable service not only helped the jawan but also contributed immensely to the rural economy. A PBOR’s child got the best urban education facilities in the schools and professional colleges run by the armed forces, which in turn ensured upward social mobility for poor families. The government’s decision to splinter the armed forces community and its withdrawal of support to rural India will adversely impact the social structures in the long run.
Under whose pressure is the government introducing Agniveers’? If the pressure is financial the government could reduce expenditure in many areas before targeting the most revered institution of the state. But the Modi government has no such inclination because it represents the rich classes that hate pensions and the very idea of social security. Modi is not just committed to a frontal attack on social security but to a broader privatisation agenda that sounds the death knell for the national forces.
Most Indians love social security, the rich don’t. And the Modi government that represents the rich classes hates pensions. Modi's policies are enfeebling the Indian State by making private corporations consume not only the capital budget but also a large chunk of the defence revenue budget. It is the fruition of this very idea for which Modi is aiming. And this premeditated design is the cause of the collective trauma experienced by the armed forces today.