The Delhi High Court on Monday asked the petitioners who have challenged the Centre's Agnipath scheme as to which of their rights have been violated and said it was voluntary and those having any problem should not join the armed forces under it.
The high court said the Agnipath scheme has been formed by experts in Army, Navy and Air Force and judges were not military experts.
“What is wrong in the scheme? It is not compulsory….To be frank, we are not military experts. You (petitioners) and me are not experts. It has been framed after great efforts by experts in Army, Navy and Indian Air Force.
"There is a particular policy that the government has framed. It is not compulsory, it is voluntary,” a bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad said.
The bench further said, “You have to show us that a right is taken away…. Don’t join then. There is no compulsion. If you are good you will be absorbed thereafter (after 4 years). Are we the persons to decide it (service in the scheme) should be made four years or five years or seven years”.
The high court was hearing a batch of pleas challenging the Centre's Agnipath scheme.
The Agnipath scheme, unveiled on June 14, lays out rules for the recruitment of youths in the armed forces.
According to these rules, those between 17-and-a-half and 21 years of age are eligible to apply and they would be inducted for a four-year tenure. The scheme allows 25 per cent of them to be granted regular service subsequently. After the scheme was unveiled, protests erupted in several states against the scheme.
Later, the government extended the upper age limit to 23 years for recruitment in 2022.
During the hearing, advocate Kumud Lata Das, representing one of the petitioners Harsh Ajay Singh, said after being recruited under the scheme, the Agniveers will have life insurance of Rs 48 Lakh in case of contingency which is much less than the existing one.
Whatever the armed forces personnel are entitled to, these Agniveers will get them only for four years, the counsel argued, adding that if the service would have been for five years, they would have been entitled to gratuity.
The counsel contended that after four years of service, only 25 per cent of the Agniveers will be considered for being retained in the force and there is no backup plan for the rest of the 75 percent.
On the contention that this scheme has been formed in this way as it is a cost-cutting exercise of authorities, the bench asked where do the forces mention that it is a cost-cutting exercise.
“Where do they state it is a cost-cutting exercise? You want us to infer that it is a cost-cutting exercise? Unless they state so, you statement is of no consequence,” Justice Prasad said.
The bench said that a person is getting a chance to join the armed forces at the age of 17-and-a-half years, “is it not good enough”.
"Is it not a pure domain of policy? Why should we strike down the scheme as bad,” the bench asked.
Another petitioner, who was arguing in person, said he has retired from the Indian Army and now practicing as a lawyer. He said the authorities should be asked to reconsider the Agnipath scheme as the six months of training to be imparted to agniveers is not enough and it is a very short time and it is not easy to get trained.
He claimed that this way the authorities would be compromising national security and that the quality of personnel will be affected.
When Justice Prasad said “Don’t join it then”, the petitioner said, “Is it an answer milord that 'don’t join'”.
The judge shot back, “Yes”.
Advocate Ankur Chhibber, representing another petitioner who has filed a petition concerning the recruitment processes for the armed forces under certain previous advertisements, said in the four years of service a sense of belonging would be absent in personnel.
He said those retained, their first four years would not be counted and they would have to start afresh.
As the bench sought the Centre to clarify this, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati submitted that she would take instructions on this aspect and inform the bench on the next date of hearing on December 14.
After concluding hearing arguments on pleas directly challenging the Agnipath Scheme, the bench will decide those petitions concerning the recruitment processes for the armed forces under certain previous advertisements.
The Centre had earlier filed its consolidated reply to several petitions against the Agnipath scheme as well as those concerning the recruitment processes for the armed forces under certain previous advertisements and has said there was no legal infirmity in it.
The government submitted that the Agnipath scheme was introduced in the exercise of its sovereign function to make national security and defence more "robust, "impenetrable" and "abreast with changing military requirements".
One of the petitions before the high court has sought a direction to the armed forces to resume the recruitment process which has been cancelled due to the introduction of the Agnipath scheme and prepare the final merit list after conducting a written examination within a stipulated time.
A petitioner has submitted he had applied for the post of a soldier (general duty) and his physical and medical examinations were conducted which he cleared successfully, and was waiting for the written examination.
However, he said, he found out on the official web site that consequent to the implementation of Agnipath, the ministry has stopped and cancelled all pending processes including the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) of Indian Army recruitment for the previous recruiting years.
Another petition, seeking that the recruitment process in the Indian Air Force as per a 2019 notification be completed without being affected by the scheme, is also pending in the high court.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had asked the high courts of Kerala, Punjab and Haryana, Patna and Uttarakhand to transfer the PILs against the Agnipath scheme pending before them to the Delhi High Court or keep it pending till a decision from the Delhi High Court is delivered, if the petitioners before it so desire.
The Centre, in its reply, has stated that defending the Indian Territory, which has a "peculiar border situation", from external and internal threats requires agile, youthful and technologically adept armed forces, and the Agnipath scheme aims to reduce the average age profile of soldiers from the present 32 years to 26 years.
Recruitment through Agnipath, the central government has added, involves a "merit-based, transparent and robust assessment process" and a fair opportunity would be provided to all willing personnel to compete for regular cadre and ultimately "nationalist, disciplined and skilled manpower would be provided to society and exited Agniveers will be an asset for the nation and society".