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Agnipath: Playing with fire

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
20 Jun 2022
Given this incident, the government should have been more vigilant while announcing Agnipath.

The way the Agnipath recruitment scheme was announced and the way high-denomination currency notes were banned and a nation-wide lockdown was imposed in the wake of Corona have one thing in common. They were steps taken without any forethought and necessary deliberation. As a result, tens of millions of people suffered, while those who inflicted the misery on them strutted about as great trailblazers.

Take the case of the Agnipath scheme the Narendra Modi Cabinet approved early this week. It sought to change the system of recruitment to the lower ranks in the Indian defence forces that has been in force for centuries. True, a popular government has the right to reform any system that has been in vogue for a long period. However, one of the essential requisites is clarity about what the new system would achieve.

In the case of Agnipath, there was no proper discussion with the defence authorities, both serving and retired, parliamentarians and the stakeholders like those aspiring to join the military services. 

In fact, the announcement came as a bolt from the blue for those who have been waiting for the recruitment process to begin, after it was virtually derailed by Covid-19. They were suddenly told that they will have to appear for a national test to be eligible for recruitment.

It will strike at the root of the regimental culture that served the defence services for centuries.

Only those who were between 17.5 and 21 years of age were eligible to apply. This ruled out an opportunity for those between 21 and 23, who had been waiting for an opportunity for the last two years. 

For once they realised that their ambition of wearing the uniform has been dashed to the ground. Is it any wonder that there was a countrywide protest, especially in the Hindi heartland ruled by the BJP?

That no forethought was given to the scheme was apparent when the government increased the upper age limit from 21 to 23. Why could not the Great Helmsman and his Army of Yes-men foresee that it was an injustice to deny an opportunity to those who lost it for two years and there would be a protest from young men?

It was only recently that young men, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, protested against what they perceived as injustice in the recruitment to various posts in the Railways. The protest was violent and the government had to surrender to them. Fortunately, no bulldozers were used against those who burnt rail coaches and destroyed public property. After all, they were not Muslims!

Of course, a Muslim gentleman from Patna who explained the ridiculousness of the new system through his video channel was labelled as the instigator-in-charge. Incidentally, my grandson is his fan as he has the knack of explaining complicated things in simple language.

Given this incident, the government should have been more vigilant while announcing Agnipath. About 50,000 people would be recruited for the three services each time. They will be given intensive training for six months and then posted as Agniveers. In the first year, they would be given a monthly compensation of Rs 30,000 out of which Rs 9,000 would be deposited in their personal accounts. The government would make a matching contribution. 

The remuneration will increase every year, till they complete four years of service. At that point, each person will have Rs 11 lakh in his account plus interest, calculated at the then prevailing rate. 

About 25 per cent of the recruits would be absorbed in the Indian Armed Forces for 15 years. They would be entitled to regular pay and other perks, including retirement and post-retirement benefits.

The unlucky 75 per cent will have Rs 11 lakh plus interest in their individual accounts. They will also have the whole sky above them and the whole earth under their feet and they can daydream about becoming billionaires like Gautam Adani and political leaders like Narendra Modi. 

The government says they would have opportunities for jobs in the paramilitary forces like the CRPF, BSF, CISF etc. The question is, why should they be given jobs by such forces when they know that they had failed to make the grade in the defence forces? 

The government also says that they would have acquired many skills while serving in the armed forces? What kind of skills would they have gained by attending the six-month training? They can at best run, climb walls, hold guns and fight? Are these skills in great demand in civil society? As regards the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, would they have received adequate training to serve in the forward areas, say in combat situations?

In any case, 75 percent of them would be thrown out of the service. Ask any Army officer and he would tell you that at least six-seven years of service is necessary for a jawan to acquire the skills and competence to serve in the border areas. They will be a misfit there. 

Of course, it has been much bandied about that India has what is called the demographic dividend. Yes, we have a large population of young people. How many of them are competent? Ask anyone who has recruited people for any post and they will tell you how frustrated they are when they find a large army of unemployable people. Employers find that many of the engineers do not have any skills, though they hold degrees in various branches of engineering.

The annual reports released by the NGO Pratham suggest that school students do not have appropriate age-level education. A majority of the students in government schools in, say, Class V or VI, are unable to read and write properly in their mother-tongue.

It is because of automatic promotion that they pass. There is actually no demographic dividend when we have only a large army of semiliterate, who do not have any skills whatsoever. Nothing is heard these days about the Modi government’s skill development programme. It is indeed doubtful whether there is any attempt to improve the standard of education in schools.

Those in power, including political leaders and bureaucrats, are not bothered as their wards attend elite schools in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata and many of them go to England, America, Canada, Australia, Singapore etc for higher education. They will never be found shouting slogans on the street or wielding trishuls and lathis.

These leaders do not have any stake in the Agnipath scheme, as their children are unlikely to appear for the competitive examination and aspire to become jawans.

The question is, what will happen to the young men once they leave the armed forces after four years? Given the socio-economic condition in most North Indian states, most of them would have married by then and they would have a family to support by the time their service is over. Rs 11 lakh will be a smaller sum in 2026. 

As Modi once said, they would be able to become entrepreneurs like the pakoda-makers. He comes from a state where business runs in the veins of the people there. In the US, there are thousands of motels and business establishments run by the Gujaratis. In many African countries like Uganda, they were pioneering businessmen. 

It is a different matter that they were allegedly looked down upon by the local people because of their exploitative nature. Who has not heard about Idi Amin throwing out such businessmen from Uganda? The fact is that the average Gujarati, whether Hindu or Muslim, is better off than the average non-Gujarati. 

It would be worth remembering that when Mahatma Gandhi did not get a job for one whole year after he returned from England, it was a Gujarati Muslim businessman who gave him his first job and took him to South Africa.

Small wonder that among the big states, Gujarat has the least representation in the Indian Army. The point that needs to be noted is that everyone cannot be a successful entrepreneur. The government says that it will give capital to the Agniveers. As of now, there are banks and financial institutions ready to support start-ups, provided they are inspired by good ideas. What is badly needed are ideas. 

During the first half of the twentieth century, an Indian entrepreneur went to an African country and discovered that the value of the metal is more than the value of the local coin. So, he collected a large quantity of the coins, melted them and sold the metal to earn a good profit. Today, his son is one of the richest Indians, if not the richest.

The Kerala government is the oldest and the first to run a lottery programme. Many have become “crorepatis”. Studies have shown that the winners of the lottery, mostly from the poor community, are unable to utilise the prize money intelligently. They end up squandering the money. It is not difficult to foresee many of the Agniveers using the Rs 11 lakh for conspicuous consumption.

Why is the government promoting this scheme? Because it will get cheap labour for four years. The government will not have to bear any liabilities like provident fund, gratuity, pension etc. 

India has one of the best and professionally qualified armed forces in the world. The defence forces have their own system to weed out the incompetent. Not all those who join as a soldier retire as a subedar major. Similarly, not all who join as a Second Lieutenant become a full colonel. 

I have myself taught journalism to serving army officers at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New Delhi. The fees are paid by the Army and they get one-year paid leave to do the course. This is the Army’s way of helping them to settle in civil life once they retire.

I found that the officers were the most disciplined. They would do all the assignments given, unlike other young students. But then they are mature persons, unlike those in the 21-25 age-group, who would have been declared as unsuccessful Agniveers. 

There is also the danger of such young persons becoming a social liability. In two days, the nation saw how disgruntled elements can cause havoc. What guarantee is there that the Agniveers will remain satisfied with the Rs 11 lakh they receive? They will certainly be putting political pressure on the government to demand concession after concession. The courts will also find justification in asking the government to take care of their needs.

If the Modi government thinks that they will remain happy with Rs 11 lakh, it is sadly mistaken. Unlike you and me, they are trained to fight and they can fight the government better. This can lead to a dangerous situation. Those who have read history know that freelance soldiers or mercenary soldiers were in great demand during the colonial period.

They were ready to fight for anyone who pays them better. There will be a large army of trained people, who will be ready to fight for payment. They can also fight for causes like Hindutva and terrorism if they are indoctrinated. What was the view of the Chief of Defence Staff on Agnipath? It is not known as there is no CDS after the death of General Bipin Rawat. More than six months have passed but the government is yet to find his successor. So much for the importance it pays to the post of CDS!

A government cannot stoop to the level of a petty businessman to think in terms of saving some money by way of provident fund and gratuity, while securing the integrity of the nation. National security does not come cheap. We need soldiers who are qualified and are ready to sacrifice their life in the line of duty. 

We do not want half-trained, semi-literates who can only dream of Rs 11 lakh. A few years ago, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that he could raise an Army in a few days. Is the RSS, the ideal for the hare-brained persons who thought of Agnipath? If that is so, then I have nothing to say, except may God save the country!


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