While eyeing a lower pension bill, the government will end up spending a huge amount on training for only four years of service by three-fourths of the recruited soldiers, sailors and airmen

It is a common saying within military circles that the Indian Army, the world’s second-largest force, has been fighting four enemies—two outside, China and Pakistan; and two within, an ageing soldiery and rising pay and pension bill.

While the Pakistan and China fronts have existed for decades, ageing soldiering began mounting pressure in the 1970s when the government extended the colour service for soldiers from seven to 17 years. It means a 20-year-old recruit could manage to serve the nation till the age of 37 years, with pension till death. Even after death, the soldier’s wife would be entitled to family pension, free healthcare, quota for children in higher education, travel discount and a monthly quota of liquor at tax-free rates.

The army’s pension bill skyrocketed when in 2015, the government decided to implement the one-rank-one pension (OROP) scheme, which successive dispensations in the past had resisted. OROP ensures that military personnel who retire in the same rank with the same length of service receive the same pension, regardless of their retirement date. This has led to a substantial rise in the outlay for salaries and pensions in the defence budget, limiting funds for modernisation and procurement of weapons.

In June 2022, to tackle the challenges of ageing soldiery and rising pension bill, the government brought in the Agnipath scheme, by which youth would be recruited at the age of 17-and-a-half years to 21 years, trained for six months, and allowed to serve on any front—from the Siachen heights in the Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan.

However, the Agnipath recruitment scheme has invited flak from political and other quarters. Several Opposition parties, including the Congress, have launched a combative attack on the government, accusing it of playing with the lives of the Agniveers (recruited youth). Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is leader of the Opposition in the new Lok Sabha, has gone to the extent of saying: “Agniveer is use-and-throw labour. One jawan is getting a pension, while another is not. You are creating a divide between jawans.”

Rahul even claimed that compensation for the family of 23-year-old Agniveer Ajay Singh, who died in a landmine blast near the Line of Control in Naushera sector of Jammu and Kashmir in January, had not been paid in full. The defence ministry promptly refuted the allegation and said Ajay Singh’s family had received over ₹98 lakh as compensation so far and, after completion of necessary internal procedures, would get an additional ₹67 lakh.

But a section of military veterans have different worries. Former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, posted on his X microblogging handle: “A lot of attention is (rightly) being focused on in-service disparities & poor post-demob prospects of young Agniveers. But is anyone worried about the huge operational handicap imposed on combat units, forced to accept barely trained recruits, fit only for sentry duties??”

Echoing Admiral Prakash’s opinion, another former navy chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, wrote on X on July 4: “The only motivation driving Agnipath is reducing the pension bill. The fact that this scheme will degrade combat effectiveness is known to all who understand national security.”

The short tenure of training of an Agniveer has always been debated in the military, because a regular trooper is trained in basics like weapon handling and fieldcraft for 44 weeks while Agniveers receive only 26 weeks of training. Some military officials feel tasks like repairing of aircraft, ships or radars, sonars, communication equipment, etc. given to soldiers, sailors or airmen on the job often take years to learn.

Major General Yash Mor (Retd), an army veteran, claims it takes over seven years to train a soldier to be capable of handling a tank, BMP (infantry combat vehicle) or air defence and artillery weapon systems. “Technical training is so crucial for handling cutting-edge weaponry. Due to the shorter training period [of Agniveers], this has been ignored, which means we are sending half-trained soldiers to the unit,” he said.

Some in the military counter-argue that in most armies worldwide, soldiers serve for two to three years, and in today’s times, with one week of training, a person can handle drones. Citing the Russia-Ukraine war, an officer noted that Ukrainian soldiers with less than a year of experience are firing missiles at Russian aircraft and tanks.

Critics of Agnipath believe the government is being penny wise and pound foolish. The training costs are indeed significant: the army spends about ₹16 lakh per soldier, the navy ₹27 lakh per sailor, and the air force ₹39 lakh per airman. While looking to cut pension bills through Agnipath, the government will end up spending a considerable amount on training of soldiers, sailors and airmen for only four years of service, with only 25 per cent of the Agniveers transitioning into regular service and the rest exiting after four years.

(With Inputs From Agencies)