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The Agniveer tale The Excelsior 09 Sep 2023
The Agnipath scheme leading to induction of Agniveers into the army is now a reality. Of the 40,000 due to be inducted this year, almost half have finished their initial training and joined their units. The balance would shortly follow. As per inputs available, levels of education of the current batch have been far higher than under the normal recruitment pattern. Twenty percent possess ITI diploma’s or are graduates, as compared to far lower levels earlier. There are also few qualified engineers and post graduates.
This is a major boost, especially as the army seeks to become a technologically superior force. Another benefit is that the youth profile of the army would continue improving as also there would be a reduction in medically unfit soldiers. Training standards in both physical fitness and education were high, which was expected, considering their age and determination to serve.
Many, myself included, believed the Agnipath scheme would damage the ethos and traditions of a respected organization in the long term. This will be clarified with time, as the induction process has just commenced. Few political parties, noting criticism and seeking to garner votes in forthcoming elections, even announced that they would scrap the scheme if voted to power. The fact remains that the national leadership thought otherwise and pushed the Agnipath scheme through.
However, some concerns remain. In India, government jobs, culminating in pensions, are always most sought after and hence, since Agnipath only guarantees employment for four years, youth would prefer other central and state police forces, where they can serve longer and obtain pension. This implies that nationally the armed forces would never attract the best.
Secondly, as has been seen from Nepal, retired and unemployed soldiers become easy targets for global security companies, which seek trained individuals for deployment in the world’s trouble spots. It may not be easy to stop this exploitation as most recruitments are never publicized and largely implemented through word of mouth.
Hence, an important concern which remains, despite promises, is employment opportunities for Agniveers post their release. Ministries have supposedly pitched in to contribute. The MoD has assured 10% intake into the coast guard and other organizations under it, the MHA a similar level of intake into the CAPFs as also the railways in its various protection forces.
Quotas being announced by various ministries have existed in these organizations as also at state levels in police, armed police forces and other institutions, based on a central government notification issued in December 1979, but have rarely been implemented, as they remain unmonitored. These quotas vary from 10-20% in different organizations and establishments, including nationalized banks.
It must be understood that recruitment into these quotas will be within reserved quotas permissible under Supreme Court orders. Thus, these will possibly be based on existing reservation criteria and not on open merit, under which the army recruits. This will offset the ethos imbibed in Agniveers in his four years of service.
Even today, data pertaining to numbers employed by various ministries and Public Sector Undertakings in government notified quotas is unavailable. It will be the same for Agniveers unless stringent instructions are passed. To ensure implementation of the scheme, monitoring must be made the responsibility of the parliamentary committee on defence.
This would imply that if departments or states fail to fill notified quotas they could be embarrassed in parliament when the committee submits its annual report. A welcome addon are assurances given by various corporates to induct fixed number of Agniveers annually. These would be based on capability and knowledge, which is most essential. With the global defence industry establishing manufacturing in India, these numbers could well increase.
Provision of credits for military service to enable Agniveers to obtain a graduation degree from IGNOU is definitely a positive step as also is awarding skill certifications depending on trade. Interestingly, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in Jul 2015 between the MOD and the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to award skill training instructor certificates after suitable refresher courses to fresh retirees. They were subsequently to be absorbed in government institutes as instructors.
How effective has this scheme been is unknown as data is unavailable. Hence, the current announcement is possibly only a reiteration. Unless carefully monitored, this could also be just another eyewash.
With an open and automated assessment system for future retention being announced, there is bound to be competition between the Agniveers to succeed. This, if correctly implemented at the grassroot level, could result in the best being selected for permanent service.
It was reported that the army had suggested increasing retention levels from the laid down 25% to 50%, at least for the initial phases. This is a welcome step and would be an added attraction, while opening doors for positive resettlement of the balance. This would also offset some of the drawbacks of the system. Hopefully, the government would accept this suggestion.
A subject being brushed aside is that units would perpetually be in training mode as also continuously building regimental spirit and ethos as there would be a yearly turnover, numbers increasing as time passes. With recruits arriving with basic training, honing their skills would fall on units.
The Agnipath system has yet to be accepted by Nepal, which in the long term would be detrimental for India, as China would attempt to draw in unemployed Nepalese youth into various branches of its PLA. India’s goodwill in rural Nepal flows through its Nepalese veterans, which should continue unhindered. There is a need to bring the Nepal government on board and commence recruitment from the country. If India can find alternate employment for its own Agniveers, it could do the same for those from Nepal.
The scheme has taken off, despite reservations of many. The first batches are joining. Initial reports are positive. If the scheme is to draw the best in the country, then it must look beyond their four years and ensure that those leaving do so with hope in their hearts and become positive brand ambassadors. For this, they should be provided with alternate opportunities rather than being dumped on the sidewalk. Hence, promises made must be fulfilled.