Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday unveiled the 'Agnipath' policy for soldiers' recrtuiment in the Indian armed forces.
Under the new policy, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) will be recruited for a four-year period, out of whom 25 per cent soldiers will be retained for further services on a permanent basis whereas the rest would be let go.
The 25 per cent personnel retained at the end of four years would have to serve for minimum 15 more years, according to the Defence Ministry.
While the government says the policy would transform the armed forces into a younger and tech-savvy military, critics have said it takes away job security and that the 75 per cent personnel released every year would lead to grave consequences for the society as they would be a bunch of militarised individuals without jobs.
Here we explain the idea behind the policy, its features, what the government has said, and critics are saying.
Idea behind Agnipath
The Defence Ministry on Tuesday said that Agnipath policy is aimed at creating youthful and tech-savvy armed forces. The policy has also been called 'Tour of Duty' with the Defence Ministry saying it should not be called so.
"It will provide an opportunity to the youth who may be keen to don the uniform by attracting young talent from the society who are more in tune with contemporary technological trends and plough back skilled, disciplined and motivated manpower into the society," said the Defence Ministry in a statement.
However, it has been reported that the new recruitment policy is aimed at cutting down the ballooning salary and pensions bills of armed forces, which have risen so much in recent years that they leave little money for capital expenses. This is because soldiers released after four years will not be paid any pension and life-long benefits.
In the 2022-23 Budget, the defence component was Rs 5,25,166 crore, out of which pensions amounted to Rs 1,19,696 crore — 22 per cent.
Once the 75 per cent soldiers leave service after four years, the idea is that they would be skilled enough to be employed in the private sector. Moreover, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday said several ministries, public sector undertakings (PSUs), and state governments have said they would prioritise these soldiers for fulfilling vacancies with them.
Features of Agnipath
The Agnipath policy would recruit both men and women in the age group of 17.5-21 years.
The physical, medical, and educational standards would remain unchanged.
Soldiers will be paid Rs 30,000 per month in the first year of service, which would rise to Rs 40,000 in the fourth year. From this, they would contribute 30 per cent and the government would match this amount for a corpus that they would receive at the time of their relase, amounting to Rs 11.71 lakhs.
The exit package of Rs 11.71 lakhs, dubbed Seva Nidhi, would be tax exempt. The soldiers will also have non-contributory life insurance cover of Rs 48 lakhs for the duration of their service.
The recruitment and further absorption of 25 per cent soldiers would be centralised.
"Enrolment will be undertaken through an online centralised system for all three services with specialised rallies and campus interviews from recognised technical institutes such as Industrial Training Institutes and National Skills Qualifications Framework, among others," said the Defence Ministry.
The first batch of Agnipath soldiers, dubbed Agnivirs, would be recruited this year, totalling at 46,000. It will start in 90 days from Tuesday. Notably, the soldiers' recruitment has been suspended for over two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The recruitment will also be on an 'All India, All Class' format in contrast with the British-era caste- and class-based recruitment.
"To explain, the class specific regiments like Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats or Maratha would be affected as these would see youth from other classes being inducted," noted The Tribune newspaper.
The criticism of Agnipath policy
While Union ministers and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries called the policy "revolutionary" which will usher in a "golden tomorrow", critics have said it would sound "death knell" for the military and would lead to many crisis.
Experts have also voiced concerns that releasing 75 per cent soldiers every four years could lead to a shortage of experienced personnel in the forces.
Lieutenant General (Retired) PR Shankar wrote in a blogpost, "In essence, the tour of duty proposal expects a superman from a kindergarten. We might be producing an Abhimanyu but he will not get out of the Chakravyuhu. After five years of tour of duty, Arjuns will not be available in our next Mahabharata. The cutting edge units will not be able to fight. There are no runners up in war."
Former Director General of Military Operations Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia said it would lead to "militarisation" of society as trained, unemployed soldiers are released every year.
He said, "Death knell for armed forces, ToD not tested, No pilot project, straight implementation. Will also lead to militarisation of society, nearly 40,000 (75 per cent) youth year on year back rejected and dejected without a job, semi-trained in arms ex-Agnivirs. Not a good idea. No one gains."
It has also been highlighted that the idea that soldiers released after four years would easily find private sector jobs is flawed.
I ran the placement campaign for 64 tri-service retiring OFFICERS ranging fm 26-54 yrs of age at IIM Ahmedabad. Our hit ratio was 1 reply to ~100 emails approaching corporates for jobs, after trying every marketing trick in the book. This General will learn when he floats his CV. https://t.co/urnaTyRx37— Kaypius (@realkaypius) June 14, 2022
Experts have also shared that four years are too little a time for a soldier to be heavily invested in his unit or to his fellow soldiers.
"The Indian Army fights for 'paltan ki izzat'. For most civilians and/or those who haven't seen combat, if anyone expects a person on a four-year tour of duty to understand, let alone climb 18,000+ feet, under fire, and fight, then they are either delusional or ill-informed," said Saikat Datta, Strategic Advisor at think tank The Dialogue, on Twitter.
Major General (Retired) Yash Mor called it a "non-implementable scheme".
He told Asianet Newsable, "Once we throw them out of the force after four years, what will be their loyalty to the defence establishment, which has not taken them back. So I would say from the security, morale, training, and HR points of view it is a non-implementable task. For specialised units like armoured, mechanised, EME, signal, infantry, engineers and air defence, they need seven-eight years to get some kind of specialisation."
Govt's attempts at damage control
Violence has erupted across the country in protests against the Agnipath policy, which has included burning of trains, attacks on buses, stone-pelting, and vandalism of public property. Hundreds of trains have been cancelled as people block tracks and burn trains, at least two deaths have been reported, and internet has been suspended in 12 districts of Bihar because of the violence.
Following the outrage, the government has announced a slew of measurs aimed at addressing two of the biggest criticism of people regarding the Agnipath policy — lack of job security after four years and the low age-limit.
The government on Thursday increased the age limit from 21 to 23 years for the year 2022.
"Cognisant of the fact that it has not been possible to undertake the recruitment during the last two years, the government has decided that a one-time waiver shall be granted for the proposed recruitment cycle for 2022," said the Defence Ministry.
Multiple state governments and Union ministries have said they would absorb 75 per cent Agniveer soldiers released after four years.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said Agniveers will get priority in recruitment to police and related services in the state. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said Agniveers "will be given special preference in Assam Police recruitment". Governments of Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka also similarly said they would prioritise Agniveers in state jobs.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Saturday said 10 per cent of vacancies in Defence Ministry would be reserved for Agniveers.
"The 10% reservation will be implemented in the Indian Coast Guard and defence civilian posts, and all the 16 Defence Public Sector Undertakings. This reservation would be in addition to existing reservation for ex-servicemen," said Singh's office in a tweet.
Moreover, the Union Home Ministry announced that 10 per cent jobs would be reserved for Agniveers in Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and Assam Rifles. It also announced age-relaxations.
Union Home Minister's Office said, "The MHA also decides to give three years age relaxation beyond the prescribed upper age limit to Agniveers for recruitment in CAPFs and Assam Rifles. Further, for the first batch of Agniveer, the age relaxation will be for five years beyond the prescribed upper age limit."