Agnipath: Scheme to Create ‘Low Cost’ Jawans
EMPLOYMENT in the armed forces has been one of the most desired careers for a large section of early entrants in the job market in India. Primarily because of the prestige such jobs carry and also because governments provide salaries, allowances and retirement benefits that are unmatched by any other jobs with similar eligibility. Since jobs in these segments involve life risks and often demand ultimate sacrifice in protecting the normalcy of civilian life, every government considers these jobs as extremely important and crucial for building long-term military capacity. In spite of the fact that in many advanced countries defence operations are highly automated with an increasingly declining human interface but ultimately it is the professionalism and commitment of the defence personnel that enables facing combat exigencies.
The Agnipath scheme proposed by the central government undermines the importance of this crucial service. It is nothing but a move to create low-cost jawans packaged in the rubric of ‘Agniveer’ and marshalling of grand rhetoric introducing casualisation of workforce in the defence sector. It essentially means creating a dual-mode of core and peripheral workforce in the defence sector similar to the process of casualisation pushed for other sectors of the economy. But the significance of the scheme is a wider message to the entire workforce of the country and that if such casualisation is acceptable in the defence sector where people are expected to be ready to make ultimate sacrifice, then it should be applicable to all sorts of jobs that involve lesser risks and pain! In other words, Agnipath not only introduces ‘hire and fire’ in the crucial sector such as defence but also aims to create social sanctions of contractualisation and casualisation in all segments of employment.
CONTRACTUALISATION IN CENTRAL SPHERE
The grand idea behind casualisation and abandoning the permanent nature of employment follows from the misbelief that people would perform better under situations of threat and insecurity. In such situations, employees tend to internalise subordination of all sorts, would not have the thinking space of raising their voice and also would be ready to accept remunerations lower than those belonging to a work regime based on defined rights and claims. In fact, such a labour regime actually increases the alienation of labour from the work process and the creative engagement of the worker in the production process suffers.
Contracting short-term workers and temporary modes of employment in India is not limited to private sector alone. Contract workers in the ‘Central Sphere’ increased from 13.64 lakhs in 2019 and 13.24 lakhs in 2020 to 24.3 lakh contract labourers/workers as on March 2021. Major employers in the central sphere are Railways, roughly accounting for 40 per cent of total employment followed by Home Affairs (almost 30 per cent), Civil Defence (almost 12 per cent) Department of Posts (5.5 per cent) and Department of Revenue (more than 3 per cent). According to the annual report of the department of expenditure, there are about 40.78 lakh sanction posts in various central government departments and roughly about 21.75 per cent of these posts remain vacant. In a recent reply by the minister of the state, department of personnel and training, as many as 8.72 lakh posts were vacant in central government departments as of February 3, 2022. Most of the vacant posts are in Group B and C category services. Besides these, roughly 22 thousand teaching and non-teaching posts remain vacant only in central universities.
Recently the central government made a grand announcement of a plan to recruit 10 lakh people within a period of one and a half years, which even if materialises will simply fill up the vacant posts that currently exist. But the track record suggests something else. During the period 2006 to 2014, the average annual recruitment was a little higher than one lakh. Hence the government seems to promise to recruit roughly ten times what they use to do in previous years. During the period 2017-18 to 2021-22, that is over a period of five years the total recruitment of staff selection commission and union public service commission was roughly two lakhs. In many vacant posts, the government employed fresh recruits or re-hired retired staff on a contract basis over the past years leading to a high share of contract workers within the central sphere.
In a similar design under the Agnipath scheme, 45 to 50 thousand soldiers annually will be recruited on the basis of the contract and after four years only one-fourth of them will be included in regular defence service. This will over time reduce the share of permanent service personnel within the armed forces. During this four-year period the contracted soldier will undergo training for six months and will be receiving 30 to 40 thousand rupees salary per month along with some insurance benefits and if not continued after four years will receive a lump sum tax-free amount of Rs 11.71 lakh which includes the contribution from the employee as well as of the government and the career of the young entrant ends at an age of 21 or 22. What it boils down to is a regular addition of job seekers in the labour market having attained some skill and training within the defence structure and effective annual recruitment of only about 12-13 thousand within the armed forces. Facing rejection at an early age and also having some taste of regular service is likely to create frustration within the dejected lot.
High voltage rhetoric on the sacrifice of jawans has been one of the major tools of right-wing politics in the recent past in India. These orchestrations of mass sentiments often led to national jingoism giving electoral benefits to ruling parties who could use genuine sacrifices of jawans as a means to distract public discontent on several internal issues towards an external enemy. But when the question comes how do we value the life of the jawan? It is once again the cruel neoliberal logic of cutting down government expenditure and reducing labour costs that seem to dominate government decisions. Agnipath is nothing but the pathway to create low-cost jawans with the pretentious name ‘Agniveer’.
What is even more important is that it completely reverses the usual practice of recruitment in government departments. Usually, people are recruited for various posts undergoing a proper selection process including written examination, interviews and also physical capability tests depending on the nature of the job. Generally, there are defined periods of probation and barring a few exceptions almost all of the new positions are confirmed beyond a stipulated time period. In the case of Agnipath, this order is completely reversed. The recruitment in regular service is only one-fourth of the total number of Agniveers recruited. If final absorption depends on ‘on the job’ training for four years and three-fourths of the trainees are ultimately dropped out, then this might be one of the most flawed systems where the post- training probability of rejection is much higher. Most importantly this might breed feudal loyalty often soaked in preferences relating to religion, caste and ideology instead of professionalism and impersonal commitment to the norms and discipline of the defence service.
It is widely acknowledged in many studies that for jobs that demand long-term commitment and efficiency, short-term employment embedded in the threat of job loss hardly ensures such goals. Instead, employment contracts that ensure long-term reciprocal responsibility of owning the outcome fetch better results even in profit-seeking enterprises. The Nobel laureate American economist, George Akerlof argued how wages and norms of employment affect workers’ efforts and for long-term goals market determination of wages does not offer desirable results.
While the neoliberal State is hell-bent to establish a completely flexible labour market where labour or jawan becomes completely disposable. The Indian neoliberal State institutes such a norm in its core service rejecting three-fourths of the new entrants at a very young age when we are expected to reap the benefits of the ‘demographic dividend’. This would increase alienation and dejection within the armed forces which is likely to hamper our defence capabilities in the long run. Moreover, this will have a disastrous impact on the youth of India in general and particularly the so-called ‘Agniveers’, the devalued soldiers or ‘low-cost jawans’ majority of whom would be carrying the mark of rejection at a very early age of their career.