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India: Agnipath Lathpath with Fire and Smoke
|by Dr. Jaipal Singh|
While it is yet to be convincingly established if they are prospective and potential Agniveers or the diabolical agents of the same disruptive forces operating within the country and from outside which have habitually made it a routine practice to vehemently oppose every new initiative and scheme undertaken by the Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The new Agnipath Scheme (Tour of Duty) for the Indian Armed Forces had merely been announced on 14 June 2022 and a violent agitation was started in various parts of the country from the following day characterized with arson, loot and violence damaging and destroying the public and private property worth hundreds of crore. While the agents of disruptive forces are engaged in assiduously doing their job, the familiar India baiters and haters in foreign media across the globe too have simultaneously started their usual ill-conceived and atrocious misinformation campaign.
One only hopes that the government of India will handle this issue carefully and effectively, which directly impinges upon the security and integrity as well as morale of the Armed Forces. In Indian socio-political scenario, the farmer and soldier are considered two most important sections of the society: While the first is associated with the farm produce to feed the entire population of the country, the second one guarantees the security and safety of the people and nation by protecting the external border and maintaining the internal peace and order. Only some time back, the government had withdrawn the crucial legislation about the agriculture reforms under the sustained pressure and agitation from a small section of the privileged farmers and vested interests nationally and internationally with the prime minister himself apologetically making admission “shayed hamari tapasya mein hi kami rah gayi thi” (Perhaps there was some deficiency in our own austerity). One only hopes that the government is not found apologetic yet again by letting down the Armed Forces this time.
Country-wide Fiery Protests
No recruitment was done in the Armed Forces for the last two years with the official reason cited as disruptions caused by Covid-19 pandemic. The Agnipath Scheme was publicly announced by the Government on 14 June 2022 in the presence of Defence Minister and three Service Chiefs. The opposition parties, particularly the Congress and Communist parties, immediately started criticizing and demanding the Government to put it on hold for a detailed discussion in the Parliament. The Congress also threatened to start a Satyagraha because in the long run the Scheme would have detrimental impact on the national security while the Communist Party (Marxist) declared it as disservice to India’s national interest arguing that a professional military cannot be raised by recruiting soldiers on contract for a period of four years. Among the socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party president declared the Scheme as negligent and potentially fatal for the country’s future while the party chief of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party said that the men back from four years of service would cause gang wars in the country.
Consequently, just a day after the announcement of the Scheme, violent protests have erupted in several states in India from 16 June 2022 onwards with Bihar becoming the epicenter of arson, loot and violence. For the last four days, the television news are full of ongoing protests showing visuals soaked with fire and smoke everywhere. On face it appears as if the army aspirants are angry and calling for its rollback for cutting short the tenure of service and elimination of pensions. While widespread violent protests and arson have been organized damaging public and private properties in Bihar but such incidents have also occurred in several other states including parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bengal inflicting damages to varying degree. The agitation had initially started in Buxar, Begusarai and Muzaffarpur on 15 June and in just two days spread to almost entire Bihar with rioters particularly targeting Rail communication network and Bhartiya Janta Party offices and their leaders’ houses. In four days of violence and arson, over 350 trains have been adversely impacted, a large number of trains cancelled, and over fifty coaches and seven locomotives have been burnt/damaged. Several other trains have been either terminated short of their destination or diverted to other routes.
Two people are stated to have been killed in police firing and suicide, respectively, while many others including cops injured so far. The railway property has been extensively damaged in the provinces of Bihar and Telangana, several buses and motor bikes put on fire at different places and money looted from cash counters. Mobs have attacked the house of Bihar deputy chief minister, party chief and other BJP functionaries. With the Mayhem created in Bihar, the state government is yet to show their resolve and strength with any concrete plan to control ongoing arson and violence, on the other hand the Uttar Pradesh administration and police have effectively handled rioters during the same period. While arson and violence has continued unabated, the Defence Minister has strongly and publicly defended the Scheme declaring the recruitment for Agniveers would kick off in next few days. Unfazed with the developments, The Army Chief declared that the initial notification for Army recruitment would be made within next few days while the Air Chief announced that the selection process for the Air Force would commence on 24 June 2022.
The way opposition parties, a section of media and left-leaning intellectual-liberals in India have opposed almost every significant decision and new scheme initiated by Mr Narendra Modi led NDA government irrespective of its merit or demerits, the possibility cannot be ruled out that some such elements may also be behind the current mayhem created against the Agnipath Scheme. The critical remarks and call of opposition parties for stalling the implementation of scheme is already known and we will soon also know if there is any link between them and protestors engaged in arson and violence. It is, however, pretty sure that a patriotic person who loves his country would never indulge in sabotage, arson and violence for selfish reasons. Having associated with the Defence sector for long himself, this author is aware how many aspirants look at the military service for a permanent career, not for the patriotic zeal but mainly for permanent job and salary, various in-service allowances and perks, and pensions and associated benefits for life post-discharge or retirement. These elements are prone to such extreme measures if incited or suo moto due their ignorance and selfish interests.
Agnipath Scheme – Salient Features
It is the latest scheme of the Indian Armed Forces wherein the selected jawans will be enrolled as Agniveers for a mandatory four years period. On completion of four years, upto twenty-five percent of Agniveers will be inducted in the Armed Forces as a regular cadre based on the organizational needs and policies while the remaining jawans will arguably return to the society as disciplined, motivated, dynamic and skilled work force ready for employment in other sectors including the paramilitary and police organizations of the Central and States. In essence the schemes opens an avenue for the larger number of patriotic Indian youth willing to serve the country besides enhancing the Armed Forces to a much more youthful and technically adept war fighting force by maintaining an ideal balance between the youthful and experienced personnel. In a joint press conference on 19 June, the representatives of the Armed Forces revealed that the issue has been debated since 1989 but the Scheme launched now after a detailed stjudy in global perspective and careful considerations of pros and cons.
Thus the broad objectives that the Armed Forces envisage about the Agnipath Scheme essentially include the following:
As for the individual is concerned, apart from the opportunity to many in their cherished dream to join the Armed Forces and serve the nation, he will imbibe military discipline, motivation, morale and physical fitness in service. In addition, he will be better equipped with necessary skills, certification and diplomas/higher education for smooth integration with the society after discharge from the military servive. The financial package available to the Agniveers will be as follows.
The first year composite financial package as of now will be approximately Rs 4.76 lakh which shall be upgraded upto Rs 6.92 lakh by the fourth year with gradual and sustained increments. In addition, all Agniveers shall be provided additional allowances as risk and hardship, ration, dress, travel expenses, and so on, as applicable in military services. As part of their sevanidhi, 30 percent of monthly emoluments will be contributed by the individuals while equal and matching amount shall be contributed by the government. Sevanidhi benefits will include a corpus of over Rs 10 lakh plus accrued interest (nearly 12 lakh), exempted from income tax after four years. All these benefits will accrue to the individuals when most of them are still below the age of 25 years in a scenario where the majority of Indian youth finds even an initial employment usually after this age. In addition, death compensations have been separately catered. For illustration, the death compensation itself includes a non-contributory life insurance cover of Rs 48 lakh, additional ex-gratia of Rs 44 lakh for the death attributable to service and in addition entire pay for the unserved portion upto four years including the sevanidhi component. The scheme also provides for disability compensation as one-time ex-gratia of Rs 44 for assessed 100 percent disability, Rs 25 lakh for 75 percent disability and Rs 15 lakh for 50 percent disability incurred owing to the service.
No change is proposed in the present pattern of selection of the candidates into the Armed Forces and the only changes envisaged are in the terms and conditions of the service. As is well known that all the three Armed Forces viz. Army, Navy and Air Force have their well established selection centres across the country and the same centres would continue hitherto fore taking responsibility for the recruitment. Initially, it will be opened for the men and scheme shall be progressively extended to women too in future. The candidates between the age of seventeen years and six months to twenty-one years can be enrolled as Agniveers, although in the year 2022 candidates upto the age of twenty-three shall be eligible for the recruitment as one time exemption. Government also aims to link the Agnipath Scheme with the “Skill India” initiative with a view to harness qualified candidates from ITI/Diploma holders for the technical jobs in three services in due course of time.
The scheme has been launched after nearly two years of brainstorming and detailed deliberations of the pros and cons within the ranks and files of the three Armed Forces and allied civil administration and policy decision makers. The benefits as envisaged for the future Agniveers have already been briefly explained in the foregoing paragraphs, the Armed Forces and nation too are likely to be immensely benefitted on implementation of the Scheme. In a nutshell, possible benefits accrual to the Armed Forces include improved battle preparedness with youthful profile owing to more energetic, resilient, fit and diverse force structure through a rigorous and transparent selection procedure. Nation too may be immensely benefitted with a large number of disciplined and skilled youth serving in other sectors including paramilitary and police organizations after a short term engagement with military. Majority of such well trained individuals are likely to be an asset for the civil society in the events of unforeseen disaster and crisis.
Contemporary Practices in Other Countries
Different countries follow different practices in military service across the globe. For instance some countries have enforced a policy of conscription i.e. compulsory military service for every male, and females too in some cases, at some stage for a certain period. Currently, over one hundred countries including India, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, UK and USA do not have a system for compulsory military service (conscription). Then there are many countries with conscription and/or voluntary military service for varying length including the countries like Israel, North Korea, Ukraine, Norway, Sweden, etc. where compulsory military is prescribed for both the genders. The practice in a few countries is briefly mentioned here only for the sake of illustration. In Russia, joining the military is a serious commitment, where most first-term enlistments require a commitment upto four years of active duty and two years of inactive (Individual Ready Reserve, or IRR).
In the countries like the US, UK and Australia, the full-time military engagement for the soldiers normally necessitates a minimum period of service ranging from two to six years depending on role, branch, and rank. The exception to this rule is a short discharge window that opens after the first few weeks of military training and it closes a few months later allowing recruits to leave the armed force as of right. Upon the expiration of the prescribed active service, the service of a soldier may be extended on a voluntary basis subject to the unit’s mission and overall need of the armed forces. In US, soldiers are eligible for a two-week rest and relaxation leave after six months of deployment. Each soldier is expected to have his or her specialised training to discharge certain critical function within the unit. While in active service, single soldiers usually stay in a military base in barracks equipped with general-purpose washrooms, an apartment-style kitchen area, walk-in closets besides a common area while soldiers with families are provided with a separate house with yard space, appliances, laundry room and a garage.
A careful study and more extensive examination of the practices in military services as followed in different countries including developed West and the analysis has revealed the following general practice and pattern:
In the Agnipath Scheme, the Indian Armed Force with the approval of the Government have adopted somewhat similar model and incentives as applicable in the developed countries. It has also been decided that the existing Regimental system shall continue even after adoption of the Agnipath as the Scheme already caters for selecting the better ones of Agniveers having proved their mettle during the initial period of engagement.
Compulsions and Prospects of Agnipath Scheme
From own long association with the Defence sector and handling of the budget and plans of the Armed Forces for a fairly long period, this author can state with a reasonable assurance that the Indian democracy has always trusted and treated its military with high esteem and, in turn, the military brass too has never disappointed the civilian authority and people of India. Barring a few exception during the last over seven decades, the Government of India has largely allowed the Armed Forces free hand in running their Internal administration and management of the cadre, material and equipment, and operational modus operandi. The Armed Forces have themselves been aware and concerned about their manpower management, and military hardware & equipment acquisition and upgradation commensurate with the global trend and obtaining threat perceptions in the region. One still remembers the initiative of an Army General to mobilize more funds for the modernization by taking a resolve to postpone recruitment of about fifty thousand soldiers as back as 1997-98. Besides, the top generals of the Indian Army have often emphasized the need for a ‘lean and mean’ army and improving upon the ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio’ through various measures. Therefore, it will be preposterous and scandalous to presume, as is being done by critics and baiters of the Scheme, that the Government of India has forced the ill-conceived Agnipath Scheme on the Armed Forces.
There should, however, be no doubt that the two primary objectives of the Agnipath Scheme are 1) to cut down the government expenditure on the military salaries and pensions with a view to mobilize more resources and much needed crucial funds for the modernization of the Armed Forces, and 2) maintain and manage a leaner and young fighting force which is of utmost importance in view of the growing hostility and security threats from two powerful enemy nations in the neighbourhood. This is not for anybody’s guess what Pakistan is doing on the Western border to destabilize and harm India through sponsored terrorism in the region and by manipulating and exploiting internal enemies. Similarly, China is engaged in an aggressive military build up across the entire north and north-eastern border with Tibet particularly after the bloody Galwan clash in 2020 wherein twenty Indian and over fourty Chinese troops were killed in a hand-to-hand combat. The main advantage with the young fighters in any army is their passion and risk taking ability when confronted with the enemy troops.
To illustrate the above points, let’s have a look at the current trend of expenditure on the military pay & allowances and pensions in India. For the current financial year 2022-23, the total budgetary allocations for the Defence are pegged at approximately 5.25 lakh crore. Of the aforesaid provision, the Salaries (25.6%) and Pensions (22.8%) together account for about 48.4 percent of the budget, with yet another 22.6 percent is committed to the Revenue/Maintenance and Defence Civil expenditure, thereby leaving just about 29 percent provision for the ongoing and new capital acquisitions under the modernization programme. Any person with a reasonable awareness about the defence services would know how cost intensive are the military assets and hardware like ships, aircraft, tank/artillery guns and missiles, etc. It is only after Mr Narendra Modi led government came in power at the centre in 2014 that the initiatives like ‘make-in-India’ and ‘skill-India’ have been taken and efforts are on so as the maximum defence needs are met through manufacture within the country, which also needs huge initial investment including technology and manpower.
If we look at the trend of expenditure, the expenses on the pay and allowances have not grown too in percentage terms much during the last ten years (24.2% in 2013-14 to 25.6% in 2021-22), the reason being military brass has not been too keen in numbers and recruitment was withheld during the last two years owing to Covid-19 pandemic. However, there has been considerable growth in pensions (17.9% in 2013-14 to 22.8% in 2021-22) during the same period which is totally a welfare-centric and non-productive expenditure - one significant reason for this growth was the implementation of the scheme of One-Rank-One-Pension by the government. Compared to some other developed and powerful countries of the world, India continues to spend a huge chunk of its defence budget on personnel. As against 48.4 percent in India on salary and pensions, the corresponding percentage expenditure in US is 38.6, UK 34.5, Germany 44.0, France 45.8 and China 30.8 percent. No surprise that the Indian military brass and government are genuinely concerned for minimizing expenses on personnel so as to mobilize more money for the capital acquisition and upgradation programmes; the modern wars in future are going to be more equipment and less manpower intensive.
In fact, many past and present Army generals and their counterparts in the Navy and Air Force have publicly made it clear that the Armed Forces shall not be seen as the employment generation organization or scheme. Only those who join the defence services with genuine patriotic fervour to serve the nation deserve to stay and work in these services. Under the Agnipath Scheme, about 25% of the Agtniveers will continue in the service while others would be released at the young age of 22-23 years with a sumptuous amount of money and credentials at hand with ample opportunities of higher education, job and business depending upon their inclination. Even in the existing system, a large number of youth apply for recruitment as soldier, out of which only about 4-5% youth are picked up as the Armed Forces follow strict selection criterion and qualifying norms that only few aspirants are able to meet. The ex-Army Chief and Union Minister VK Singh too has reiterated that the Armed Forces should not be considered as a source of mass employment as a solution for joblessness as is being now visualized by some experts, public and politicians. Besides, the three services have organized a press conference on 18 June to explain the scheme and associated queries.
Since the announcement of the Agnipath Scheme on 14 June, several state governments have expressed their willingness to offer jobs to the released Agniveers in police, para-military and civil organizations. The Union Home Ministry has announced 10 percent reservation for Agniveers in the Central Armed Police Forces and Assam Rifles relaxing age limit for the recruitment. Similarly, the Defence Ministry too has committed 10 percent quota for Agniveers in the Coast Guards, Defence civilian vacancies, fourty-one Ordnance factories, four shipyards, Merchant Navy and sixteen defence public sector undertakings, including large employers like Hindustan Aeronautics and Bharat Electronics. Several corporate houses have welcomed the Scheme and expressed their desire to recruit Agniveers after they complete their stint with the Armed Forces. These are only few initial announcements and a lot many schemes for their rehabilitation, reemployment, educational and technical incentives, and credit facilities are likely to be made public soon by the state governments, public and private corporate entities and banks.
As reiterated by many senior service personnel and eminent personalities, the defence of a country shall not be taken as a job creation scheme. If some rioters and rowdy elements have misapprehensions, it is also a shortcoming of the education system and educators who fail to teach and inculcate necessary ethics and moral values among pupils at early stages. With the prevailing security scenario and threat perceptions in the region, India needs to modernize its Armed Forces with the latest and state of the art technology and equipment in several high-tech areas including long-range precision missiles, sea and air warfare, electronic and cyber warfare, drones and even space weapons. At best and as of now, the Agnipath Scheme could be taken as an important step in that direction. Currently, the soldiers are discharged on completing 15 years of service, if not promoted to next higher rank, accruing the lump sum terminal benefits with recurring and ever growing liability of lifelong pensions. Even rich and developed countries are unable to afford pensions for their service personnel while it has already been dispensed with in India for the civil employees as back as 2004. Therefore, this may appear harsh to many but such a decision is necessary for the larger interest and well-being of the nation.
It may not be very difficult for the government to handle a spontaneous and sporadic agitation by ignorant and misguided youth in the country, reports have already started coming out about some vested elements at the coaching centres and political parties have indeed incited many of them at some places. The real problem and challenge will be if the covert and overt support from outside and within country leads to an organized front for agitation as it happened in the case of the Farmers’ Agitation in 2021. As the idea of the permanent government service followed by a life-long pension is very tempting, the anger and confusion among the young aspirants is understandable. But to register their grievances and resentment, the constitutional means of peaceful protest and representation are available as widely accepted tools. Indulgence in the criminal and punishable acts of mob violence, arson and loot of the public and private property cannot be justified by any logic and rationale. The point to remember is two most important qualities of a soldier, and every citizen for that matter, are honesty and discipline. It is evident from their ill-conceived indiscretion followed by indulgence in the violent agitation that such aspirants should neither dream to be part of the Armed Forces nor the latter would ever accept such elements to be their part while lacking these essential attributes.
Lathpath (Hindi) = Soaked or Immersed
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