by Sanju Varma

The Indian Army has rebutted the falsehoods peddled by Rahul Gandhi, post the martyrdom of Agniveer Gawate Akshay Laxman, who tragically lost his life while serving in Siachen. This rebuttal by the army came in response to a recent controversy started by the inept Gandhi scion when he recklessly alleged that no financial assistance was provided to the soldier’s next of kin under the Agnipath scheme. The Indian Army clarified that the emoluments offered to the family include the soldier’s pay for the remaining tenure from the date of his demise until the completion of four years, which, in the current case, amounts to more than Rs 13 lakh. Furthermore, an additional contribution of Rs 8 lakh from the Armed Forces Battle Casualty Fund will be provided to the next of kin. For immediate relief, the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA) is offering financial assistance of Rs 30,000. The financial support to be provided to the martyr’s next of kin also includes the non-contributory insurance of Rs 48 lakh, ex-gratia of Rs 44 lakh and Seva Nidhi of Rs 11.71 lakh among other things.

A martyr’s contribution is priceless and no amount of money can ever compensate for a soldier’s life. But for Rahul Gandhi to irresponsibly run down our Agniveers under the garb of false sympathy, is symptomatic of how the Congress has never ever cared about the dignity of our men in uniform. The Agnipath scheme is a transformational reform for the army and the nation that was long overdue. The Kargil War Commission had way back in 1999 recommended the need to drastically reduce the overall average age of the armed forces and Agnipath seeks to do precisely that, besides of course bringing a paradigm shift in the human resource management of the Indian Army. The Agnipath allows patriotic and motivated youth to serve in the armed forces for a period of four years. A youthful profile of the army will provide a fresh lease of ‘Josh and Jazba’ while bringing about a transformational shift towards a more technically savvy armed force, which is the need of the hour. There will not be any compromise on the standards that the armed forces apply in ensuring the minimum physical, medical and professional parameters for new recruits.

During the implementation and stabilisation of the scheme, the army’s operational capabilities and preparedness will be fully maintained. The army will continue to retain its rich legacy, history, traditions, military values and culture based on the principles of cohesiveness, camaraderie, esprit-de-corps and the core ethos of “Naam, Namak and Nishan”. It is envisaged that the average age profile of the Indian Armed Forces would come down from 32 years to 26 years by the implementation of this scheme. The dividends of a short military service to the nation, society and the youth of the nation are immense. This includes the inculcation of patriotism, teamwork, enhancement of physical fitness, ingrained loyalty to the country and availability of trained personnel to boost national security in times of external threats, internal threats and natural disasters.

After the end of the term, they will be able to apply for permanent jobs in the armed forces, and 25 per cent of them will be inducted. After the four-year service period, Agniveers who are not absorbed in regular commission will be paid a one-time ‘SevaNidhi’ package amounting to Rs 11.71 Lakh. They will also get preference in PSUs, state government jobs and state and Central police forces. While the opposition parties and even some army veterans have criticised the scheme, the fact is that such short service for soldiers was suggested over two decades ago, in the Kargil Review Committee report.

The committee also recommended an integrated manpower policy for the armed forces, paramilitary forces and Central police forces. The report further said, “The Army must be young and fit at all times. Therefore, instead of the present practice of having 17 years of colour service (as has been the policy since 1976), it would be advisable to reduce the colour service to a period of seven to ten years and, thereafter, release these officers and men for service in the country’s para-military formations.” Besides the Kargil Committee, Arun Singh had also recommended lowering the age limit of soldiers way back in 1989 and the 6th Pay Commission too had suggested as much, in 2006.

The committee formed after the Kargil war had suggested that after the end of the service period, they could be absorbed in regular police forces or in a “National Service Corps (or a National Conservation Corps), as provided for under Article 5 lA(d) of the Constitution, to spearhead a range of land and water conservation and physical and social infrastructure development.” The committee had observed that this would reduce the age profile of the army and the paramilitary forces and also reduce pension costs and other entitlements such as married quarters and educational facilities. In last year’s budget, for instance, Rs 5.25 lakh crore was allocated for defence, out of which roughly Rs 1.2 lakh crore was allocated for pensions which means, almost 23 per cent of the defence budget was spent on retirement benefits alone.

The army pension has gone up sharply after the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme. While cost reduction is just a byproduct of the Agnipath scheme, why should anyone have a problem with cost-cutting as long as the quality of our forces is not compromised? Also, spending disproportionately on pensions means that very little is left for modernisation including procurement of modern arms and equipment systems. Under the Agnipath scheme, candidates between the age of 17.5 years and 21 years will be recruited as Angiveers and as they will serve for only four years, the maximum age of an Angiveer will be 25 years. Thus, the soldiers will remain young and fit in their entire term of service.

The retired Agniveers will also be valuable manpower in Central and state disaster response forces and similar jobs requiring physical fitness. Those who wish to work will be given priority in CAPFs, police, Assam Rifles and police and allied forces in several states. So while 75 per cent of the youth will no longer be with the army after four years of service, they will certainly find gainful employment in various spheres in the government and private sector. Around 45,000 to 50,000 Agniveers will be recruited every year, which means substantial savings in pensions under the Agnipath scheme. The amount saved could in turn be used for enhancing capital expenditure in the defence sector rather than spending on revenue expenditure alone.

Not just the Kargil committee, the Indian Army had also proposed a recruitment scheme similar to Agnipath to save on manpower costs. In 2020, the army had proposed a “tour of duty” (TOD) scheme to recruit youth for 3 years, instead of 17 years currently. Ten per cent reservation of jobs for Agniveers in Indian Coast Guard, defence civilian posts and 16 DPSUs for those meeting requisite eligibility criteria has been announced. The 16 Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) are Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL), Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) Limited, Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL), Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders (MDL), Mishra Dhatu Nigam (Midhani) Limited, Armoured Vehicles Nigam Limited (AVNL), Advanced Weapons & Equipment India Ltd. (AW&EIL), Munitions India Limited (MIL), Yantra India Limited (YIL), Gliders India Limited (GIL), India Optel Limited (IOL) and Troop Comforts Limited (TCL). This reservation would be in addition to existing reservations for ex-servicemen. Necessary amendments to relevant recruitment rules will be undertaken to implement these provisions. Required age relaxation provisions will also be made.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has decided to reserve 10 per cent of vacancies for recruitment in CAPFs and Assam Rifles for Agniveers completing four years under the Agnipath scheme. The MHA also decided to give a 3-year age relaxation beyond the prescribed upper age limit to Agniveers for recruitment in CAPFs and Assam Rifles. Further, for the first batch of Agniveers, the age relaxation will be for five years beyond the prescribed upper age limit. The Ministry of Ports, Shipping & Waterways (MoPSW) has announced six attractive service opportunities for Agniveers from the Indian Navy for a smooth transition into the highly skilled and remunerative merchant navy. These schemes for Agniveers include the transition from ratings in the Indian Navy to Certified Ratings in the merchant navy, the transition from electrical ratings in the Indian Navy to Certified Electro Technical Ratings in the merchant navy, the transition from ratings in the Indian Navy to Certified Class IV-NCV CoC holder in the merchant navy, transition from electrical ratings in Indian Navy to Certified Electro Technical Officers in the merchant navy and transition from a cook in Indian Navy to Certified Cook in the merchant navy.

In March 2023, the Union home ministry announced a 10 per cent reservation for former Agniveers in vacancies in the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), after it notified a similar quota for them in the Border Security Force (BSF). The announcement was made through a notification after amending the rules made under the Central Industrial Security Force Act, 1968, (50 of 1968). The upper age limit shall be relaxable up to five years for candidates of the first batch of former Agniveers and up to three years for candidates of other batches, the ministry said. Ex-Agniveers will also be exempted from the physical efficiency test, the notification said.

In May 2023, the Railway Board also decided on a reservation policy for Agniveers in the Railway Protection Force (RPF). The reservation provided by the Railways — 10 per cent in Level 1 and 5% in Level 2, will be in the nature of horizontal reservation as in the case of Person with Benchmark Disability (PwBD), ex-servicemen and Course Completed Act Apprentices (CCAAs). The Agniveers will also be given exemption from physical efficiency tests and age relaxations, subject to terms.

Defence and military reforms always run the risk of early triumphalism, undermining long-term change. But with Agnipath, like with OROP or the decision to go ahead with the Rafale deal, despite scathing pressure to back off, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown he is made of far sterner stuff than what he is credited with. Modi’s Agnipariksha started in 2014 and continues till date but each time he has only emerged much stronger because “India First” has always been his guiding ethos.

The Indian military is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation. These changes are made possible primarily due to the creation, in December 2019, of the post of the chief of defence (CDS) staff by the Modi government with Gen Bipin Rawat appointed as the first CDS, also making him the head of a newly created Department of Military Affairs. General Rawat, who died in a chopper crash in 2021, had also been given an ambitious mandate to create joint theatre commands. This pleasantly surprised military reformists, with Admiral Arun Prakash calling it “the most significant development in the national security domain since Independence.” The Dept. of Military Affairs, perhaps without parallel among democracies, was created to address longstanding complaints against the civilian bureaucracy. Accordingly, 23 sections along with 160 civilian staff were transferred to this office — empowering the CDS on issues pertaining to officer promotions, defence planning, and inter-services prioritization, among others.

Theaterisation refers to placing units from the army, navy and/or air force under one commander. Again, the exact contours of joint theatres and their command arrangement would only be clear in a couple of years, but these debates indicate a potentially massive restructuring, which only a fearlessly progressive leader like Prime Minister Modi had the gumption to undertake.

The Indian military, the world’s fourth largest, has a proud tradition of being under firm civilian control. To be sure, there were some reforms after the 1999 Kargil War. However, structural weaknesses remained. It did not help that, in the 10 years of prime minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure (2004–2014), defence reforms were not a priority and civil-military relations were reportedly not at their very best. Going by the data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India has the distinction of being among the world’s largest arms importer over the last four decades.

Under the “self-sufficient India” (Aatmanirbhar Bharat) initiative, the Modi government has, in a very public way, prioritised indigenous defence production. Despite opposition from labour unions, the government has boldly gone ahead with politically contentious issues like the corporatisation of ordnance factories. Perhaps the biggest achievement has been a mindset change engineered within the military and in the defence industry, toward working harmoniously with each other. Now these stakeholders are encouraged to work together and the private sector is no longer imagined as a den of vice. The government has also pushed the defence industry to focus on exports, which, according to one count, has grown by over 700 per cent from 2016 to 2019 alone. The third element of transformation is in the field of military diplomacy. Previous Congress regimes in New Delhi were hesitant, and unsure, about the proper place of the military in foreign policy, with the military, left second-guessing its roles and priorities. However, under the Modi government, the Indian military is more open to engaging with its counterparts and like-minded partners, whether with the Quad countries or further afield.

In the final analysis, the Agnipath scheme is certainly well thought-out. As the service chiefs pointed out, this was in discussion for almost two years and thereafter it came after deliberations with all key stakeholders. The main objective is to make the forces leaner and fitter and give youth the possibility to serve the country and when they come out after four years, their employment opportunities increase because they are well-trained and disciplined. Agnipath scheme is in fact, a win-win for the armed forces and for those who want to serve the armed forces. So, rolling back something which is a win-win for all, goes against every grain of logic. Hence a rollback is not on the cards, much as people like an ignorant Rahul Gandhi may rant mindlessly against this scheme.

Serving the armed forces, whether for a short duration or a long duration, is an act of valour, an act of nation-building and an opportunity for the youth to serve their country. Let’s not forget that there has always been the Short Service Commission that has existed in the army, which was never for the full tenure in any case. So why this hue and cry now about a four-year tenure? The Congress chief ministers of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have in the past alleged that unemployed, frustrated youth, post-training, could become a severe law and order headache in the future. It is very unfortunate coming from these two Congress chief ministers who have left their constitutional obligation of serving the people of their states and decided to rally around a leader (Rahul Gandhi), on whom there are grave corruption charges and who is being currently investigated by the ED in the National Herald scam.

Agnipath is about imparting skill sets, discipline and nationalist fervour and can’t be seen only from the prism of employment. How many 22-year-olds can boast of four years of world-class training in one of the world’s most reputed institutions, UGC-acknowledged skill certification, a kitty of Rs 11.71 lakh at the end of four years, insurance cover of Rs 48 lakh and access to education and bank loans at highly concessional rates? Agnipath is not for those looking to find stable employment and a guaranteed job. Agnipath is for those Agniveers who wish to selflessly serve their motherland and after a stint of four years, are willing to take on the world in related avenues, in alternative defence-related establishments in the public or private sectors, should they not be absorbed into the regular cadre. If a youngster is not willing to take risks at the age of 21 or 22, when will he?

Pension and gratuity-related benefits should be the last thing on a young man’s mind at the age of 21 or 22 because at that age, one is just setting out and one is expected to have far higher risk-taking abilities than someone who is, say, a 37 or a 38-year-old man. Hence to look at Agnipath from the prism of a routine government job is a disservice to the very concept of this transformative initiative, which is in any case voluntary. No one is being forced to join this initiative. In the era of multi-domain hybrid wars, India, with its rich talent pool of youngsters, has every right to encash the demographic dividend that a young population presents. The youth, in turn, get to serve, learn, be trained, get world-class skill sets and sizeable monetary benefits too. It is a classic win-win for the nation, the armed forces, the youth and the society at large. The only people unhappy are the Opposition parties that have been rattled by this revolutionary scheme, as anything pro-India, has never particularly resonated with India’s frayed and disparate Opposition.

The stamp of having served in one of the world’s largest and most credible forces has countless tangible and intangible benefits. For Agniveers, the world is their oyster!

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP and bestselling author of ‘The Modi Gambit’