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Agnipath Scheme: As Aspirants Line Up For Recruitment, Experts Say Flaws Remain

The government has defended the Agnipath scheme as a way to lower the average age of soldiers and rejuvenate the Army with 'tech-savvy' youth. But not everyone is convinced.

Agnipath Scheme: As Aspirants Line Up For Recruitment, Experts Say Flaws Remain
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On June 16, 22-year-old Patna-based Army aspirant Michael was at a friend’s house when he learnt of the Agnipath protests on the news. Hundreds of youth, some of whom he knew personally, were out on the streets, rais­ing slogans and blocking roads and rail tracks. Soon, he himself was on the streets.

The Centre’s new Agnipath scheme for recruitment to the armed forces unleashed a wave of violence, vandalism and protests across several states in the country. Bihar, with a high number of defe­nce job aspirants, was one of the worst-hit. From June 16 to June 22, trains were burnt, railway lin­es obstructed, effigies set on fire and roads bloc­ked, as angry protesters clashed with police.

To assuage protesters, the Centre annou­n­ced a flu­rry of changes to the scheme. After minor hicc­ups, it now seems to have found its footing. Reg­is­tration for the first batch has already begun, with the Air Force reporting it has received over 56,000 app­lications in the first three days. These high num­bers are being seen as yet another win for PM Modi, who hailed it as a blessing in the long run.

Proponents have also claimed that the Agnipath scheme will lead to a better set of citizens. Michael doubts that. “Unemployed youth with combat tra­i­ning rarely become good Samaritans,” he says.

According to the government, the Agnipath Rec­r­uit­m­ent Scheme will streamline the process of recr­uitment to the armed forces, which inclu­des the army, navy and air force. Those inducted via Agn­i­path will be called Agniveers, and will serve in livery for four years. After that, up to 25 per cent co­u­­ld be absorbed into the respective military br­a­n­c­hes, while the rest would be let-off with a tax-­free, one-time gratuity of Rs 11 lakh. No pens­ion, no lifelong benefits like access to Army cant­e­ens, etc. “Is Rs 11 lakh enough to take care of my family of six for the rest of my life? Serving the Army is a mat­­­ter of dignity. What will I do after four years—become a security guard?” Michael asks.

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Tinderbox Protesters set Danapur Railway Station afire in Bihar Photo: Sonu Kishan

At first, the cut-off age for Agniveers was fixed at 21. Following the protests, it was changed to 23 for the first batch of recruits. Over the following days, the Centre announced 10 per cent reservation for Agniveers in various central government jobs aft­er completion of their four-year service. An addit­ional 10 per cent reservation has also been made for CAPF and Assam Rifles, with the MHA anno­u­ncing a three-year age relaxation beyond the pres­cribed limit for recruitment in the paramilitaries.

The government has defended the scheme as a way to lower the average age of soldiers and rejuv­enate the Army with “tech-savvy” youth. Lt. Gen. Upendra Dwivedi of the Indian Army told Outl­ook in an earlier interview that “the nature of warfare has changed. The violence has moved to the virt­ual world. This population (Agniveer) will be tec­h­­nologically skilled. We’re getting new equi­p­m­ent, and they will be trained in these.”

Defence experts, however, remain sceptical. “In this day and age, everyone is tech-savvy. Everyone knows how to deal with basic technology like sma­r­tphones, social media and editing photos and vid­­eos. To say that recruiting youth will make the armed forces more technologically elite is somew­hat misleading. In any case, most of the equipm­ent used by the forces costs lakhs, and only exp­e­­rienced members are given charge of handl­ing those devices. Unless it’s some genius techie, young recruits are rarely allowed to handle any elite tech or gadgetry,” former Indian Army officer Maroof Raza tells Outlook.

Critics have dismissed Agnipath as a cost-cutt­ing scheme. Raza agrees it might help the Centre lower its def­ence spending, but adds that it is not the long-term solution. “The armed forces are not immune to inflation. If the economy is suf­fe­ring, the forces too ­will show signs of strain,” he says.

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Tinderbox Protesters set Danapur Railway Station afire in Bihar Photo: Sonu Kishan

Beyond economics, however, Raza worries that the Agnipath scheme might have a deeper and more adverse effect on the psyche and fighting spirit of soldiers. “Hierarchy, leadership and kinship are important aspects of the Army. A soldier may not lay down his life for the country alo­ne, but he will stand his ground to defend his kin, his biradari, and to prove to his family and villagers that he isn’t a coward or a quitter.”  

“There is a reason why the likes of the Sikh and Gorkha regiments have existed and have successfully fought in battles for nearly two centuries. Mes­sing with the structure of the Army without exhaustive consultation of experts on all possible consequences, may prove to be disastrous,” Raza says, adding that the hurried changes made in the scheme since its initial announcement on June 14, prove the government had not thought it through.

Critics dismiss Agnipath as a cost-cutt­ing scheme. Raza agrees it might help Delhi lower its def­ence spend, adding that it’s not a long-term solution.

Maj. Gen. (retired) Yash Mor agrees. “In villages, being an Army jawan means a life of dignity. Also, once a youth gets recruited into the Army, the soc­io-economic life of him and his family improves. That is why you see rural youths working hard to get into the Indian Army. They go for coaching, they run and prepare themselves for the written test. There is pride and dignity attached to these services,” he tells Outlook.

He adds that he isn’t against modernisation of the armed forces or against new ideas. However, he says, he is concerned about the 30-40 lakh you­th, who have been waiting for the past two years for an opening in the armed forces, inclu­ding tho­se who had cleared previous entrance exams and were waiting for call letters. “Joining the Army is the dream of rural youth. But it has been reduced to four years. I don’t think it’s enough for the skill development of a jawan. It takes at least 7-8 years to make a soldier out of a newbie,” he adds.

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He says there is no value in the arguments adv­a­nced by supporters of the scheme, except that they speak in English. “My comment, that their talking points are all just English, is spoken in sarcasm. If the Agniveer scheme is good, why don’t they try it on the officers,” he asks.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Diffused Lightning")

(With inputs from Naseer Ganai in Srinagar)

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