New Delhi: A total of 254 meetings that lasted 750 hours is what it took for the Indian defence establishment to roll out country’s most radical military recruitment policy — Agnipath. The scheme was initially meant as a pilot project, involving 100 officers and 1,000 soldiers, and was called the ‘Tour of Duty’.

Sources in the defence establishment said that the Agnipath scheme has not only been discussed in detail, but that National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and Lt Gen. Anil Puri, Additional Secretary in the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), have said there will be no rollback.

While there has been a focus within the military to bring down the average age of soldiers, especially within the Army, from the 1980s, the actual work on it began only in 2020, from an idea that germinated in 2019.

It was in 2019 that the then Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane, first spoke about a new concept of recruitment — Tour of Duty.

“The Tour of Duty is an idea that we are toying with at the moment,” he had said.

His argument was that many times during visits to schools and colleges, army officers would come across students who were “curious to know what life in the Army is all about, but not necessarily want it as a full-fledged career”.

“This was the germination of the idea. Can we give an opportunity to our youth to experience what army life is all about for a short period of time? It is in this background that we are looking at it. Can we induct 1,000 for three years with a truncated training period of 6-9 months…?” he had said.

Plan Was First For Officers

The scheme was first thought of for officers since the Army felt it will be able to take care of the shortage that it faces. Plus, temporary recruitment meant that the current pyramidical structure of promotion for regular officers would not suffer.

According to sources in the defence and security establishment, the Army went on and made a fully in-house concept paper for a pilot project.

While the Army chief was all for this, then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat was opposed to it. “One year of training costs… Equipping him (a soldier) and doing everything for him and then losing him after four years. Is it going to balance out? It will require a study,” he said.

The CDS was in favour of making the Short Service Commission (SSC), through which officers are recruited, more attractive.

Sources said that, though, initially General Rawat opposed the idea, he later changed it from officer induction to recruitment of Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR).

This was primarily done keeping in mind that the pension bill was rising and eating into the overall defence budget.

“Initially, it was meant to be a pilot study involving 100 officers and 1,000 Jawans. However, General Rawat saw this as an opportunity to make it as the only source of entry for PBORs, which will not only bring down the pension costs significantly in the long run but also bring down the age profile,” a source said.

While the current average age profile of an Indian soldier is 32 years, the Army hopes to bring it down to 26 years through the Agnipath scheme.

“Initially, the Tour of Duty was more like tourism where the people come in for a specific period, get a feel of the Army life and go back. Agnipath became more serious and replaced the existing recruitment process,” a second source said.

It was in 1989 that the issue of older age profile in the Army first came under focus after India Today reported that the real problem remains the 1963-67 recruitment spree.

“The bulge was perpetuated as the Government progressively increased the Jawans’ retirement ages from seven years in the pre-1965 period to 17. As a result, not only has the proportion of older Jawans gone up, the number of soldiers retiring every year has suddenly shot up in the ’80s, steeply increasing the pension burden,” the magazine reported.

The Army brass had then seriously started considering a proposal first made in 1985 — recruits in the combat units would serve for seven years, roughly till the age of 25; those recruited for technical, skilled jobs would serve till 55; of the combatants who complete seven years, roughly half would be reabsorbed in semi-skilled technical grades as drivers and radio-operators.

Multi-Level Consulting Done, Says Senior Officer

Elaborating on the process that began in 2019, Lt. Gen. Anil Puri said that there were detailed discussions at various levels within the services and the government over the Agnipath scheme.

He said there were 150 meetings held within the Services which total 500 hours. Besides this, there were 60 meetings held by the defence ministry, totalling about 150 hours and 44 meetings lasting 100 hours that took place under the whole-of-government framework.

Sources in the defence establishment said that the whole policy has been discussed in detail at multiple levels and several issues thrashed out. They pointed out that NSA Ajit Doval and Lt. Gen. Puri have already made it clear that there will be no rollback of the Agnipath scheme. They, however, said that with time, the scheme could see certain tweaks, depending on the requirement of the armed services.