Policy poser after Agniveer’s Siachen casualty

The Army later clarified that it was because he died of a self-inflicting wound.
Army personnel pay tribute to Agniveer Gawate Akshay Laxman, who lost his life in the line of duty
Army personnel pay tribute to Agniveer Gawate Akshay Laxman, who lost his life in the line of duty

NEW DELHI:  Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield, was back in news recently after a young soldier in his twenties lost his life due to the vagaries of the inclement weather there. The strategically located 72 km-long glacier held by India is part of the unfinished business of partition between India and Pakistan after Independence. It’s wedged between Pakistan on the one side and China on the other. Since the Siachen glacier is located more than 20,000 ft above the mean sea level where the temperature could plummet at times to minus 60°Celsius, the conditions there have taken more human lives than through enemy engagement.

Agniveer Gawate Akshay Laxman died in the line of duty on October 22 while serving with his unit that was deployed to guard Siachen. Over there, life gets tested every moment as even the hottest cup of soup turns stone cold in just a few seconds and where physical movement is like walking with a lead cast in the feet. Besides, the surroundings are full of crevices with bottomless pits. Acclimatisation is indispensable to survive in such harsh weather. As the saying goes, Don’t be Gama (great wrestler) in the land of Lama.

In fact, it was the frustrating deaths on both sides due to the icy weather that led India and Pakistan to consider a proposal to turn this area into a peace park. But, the lack of bilateral trust and the overwhelming strategic importance of this long stretch of the glacier finally got the proposal canned.

Unfortunately, two Agniveers died within a short span, putting the scheme for induction at the soldier/sailor/airmen levels in focus again. On October 11, Agniveer Amritpal Singh, 19, died in Jammu, but was not accorded a military funeral. The Army later clarified that it was because he died of a self-inflicting wound. Officials said no guard of honour is provided when the death is by suicide. The second, of course, was of Laxman in Siachen.

 Agniveer Gawate Akshay Laxman
 Agniveer Gawate Akshay Laxman

Genesis of the scheme
The Union Cabinet in June 2022 approved a new human resources policy for personnel other than officers in the armed forces. Called Agniveer, it was termed a major policy reform to usher in a new era in the human resource management of the three Services. The scheme aims to enhance the youth profile — one of the important recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee Report — of the personnel below officer rank from 32 to 26 years of age.

The Department of Military Affairs in the ministry of defence, during the tenure of General Bipin Rawat, the first Chief of Defence Staff, had put the ‘prospective life term saving’ by recruiting an Agniveer — as opposed to a jawan who leaves after 17 years of service with pension and other benefits — at Rs 11.5 crore. The money thus saved would be used for capital acquisition, inducting new systems and equipment into the services, it had suggested.

The Indian military’s capital to revenue ratio expenditure, which includes salaries and operating costs, comes to around 40:60. For example, in financial year 2022-23, the service pension outlay was Rs 1,19,696 crore of the overall defence outlay of Rs 5,25,166 crore, which turns out to be 22.79% — and is expected to increase progressively.

Since the Agniveer scheme does not include pension or provide job security, military veterans and sections of the people were wary of it. The scheme also became a political punchbag with opposition parties panning the government for penny-pinching.

Position in units
Agniveers form a distinct rank in the armed forces, different from any other existing rank. Their induction is for four years. On completion of their tenure, they are sent back home but by then they would have picked up skills for employment in other sectors. A fresh window for their re-induction, too, opens for 25% of the trained Agniveers. Those chosen then get to serve as permanent cadre in the forces.
Under the old system, youth between 16.5 years and 21 years were selected for a minimum of 15 years of service and subsequently received a pension. 

Acclimatisation
At present, 46,000 Agniveers have been recruited. Their intake will go up to 1.25 lakh in the near future. When an Agniveer is assigned a unit, the person travels with it depending on the nature of the movement - field or peace. Agniveer Laxman happened to be on a unit that was posted to Siachen. The standard operating procedure for super high altitude postings includes acclimatisation in three phases. 

For soldiers assigned posts between 9,000-12,000 ft above mean sea level, six-day acclimatisation is a must before deployment for duty. For posts above 12,000 and up to 15,000 ft, it is mandatory for a soldier to spend four more days above 12,000 ft before deployment. An additional four days of acclimatisation is required for those getting posted above 15,000 ft, which is the super high altitude area in military parlance. India has several such locations to which units are deployed in rotation.

Financial package
The composite monthly package for an Agniveer during the first year is Rs 30,000. It gets upgraded up to Rs 40,000 in fourth year. All allowances like risk and hardship, ration, dress, travel allowances are applicable like regular soldiers. However, in the case of Siachen, allowances are same for all - from officers to Agniveers. It works out to around Rs 41,000 for those getting posted to Siachen. In addition, a special ration is applicable for everyone there.

Further, the Agniveer gets enrolled in a Seva Nidhi for which 30% of monthly emoluments are contributed them and an equal amount is pooled in by the government. This saving of Rs 10.04 lakh plus interest after four years is exempt from income tax.

Problem areas
Recruitments under the Agnipath scheme is not commensurate with the demand for soldiers. The eligibility age is in the range of 17.5 to 21 years and the enrolment is done in various categories and trades, including technical. Raising the recruitment numbers is one possible way out. Between 2022 and 2026, around 1.75 lakh Agniveers are expected to be recruited. A bunch of proposal are under consideration “to make up for the decline in a planned manner. Otherwise, it might turn into bigger problems, both functional and operational,” sources said.

“The cap in the recruitment age at 21 years is leaving a smaller pool of eligible candidates. There is a proposal to raise this to 23 years so that we can get the youth passing out of polytechnic institutions,” said sources. Another idea is to raise the percentage of Agniveers who are permanently absorbed to 50% — up from the existing 25%. Besides, a proposal to induct eligible candidates for technical streams such as aviation, engineering, electronics and other similar trades, is also being looked into.

PROBLEMS FACED BY SOLDIERS POSTED IN SIACHEN 

  1. High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO): Most deaths occur at high-altitude from this illness. Majority of these cases are seen in soldiers who come back from leave and are not acclimatised.  The incidence of high altitude pulmonary oedema is related to the rate of ascent, the altitude reached, individual susceptibility and exertion
  2. Acute Mountain Sickness:  Symptoms for this disease usually develops 6-10 hours after ascent. However, they could come on as early as 1 hour. Recognising the symptoms at the earliest is of the utmost importance as it could lead to high altitude cerebral oedema (HACO). 
  3. Effects of the cold: Soldiers can suffer from hypothermia, frostbite and chilblains during routine patrol. Even their sweat can turn into ice in their gloves and shoes which allows for frostbite to take hold. 
  4. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Lighting of bukharis (heater) in closed spaces can lead to Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. This is especially dangerous as the symptoms do not become immediately apparent. 
  5. Injuries due to Non Enemy Action (NEA): Many soldiers have lost their life or have had severe spinal cord injuries due to hard icicle formation which are found at the bottom of crevasses.
  6. Avalanche poses a threat to their lives. Hence, camps have to be set at those locations which have the least avalanche risk

DEATH COMPENSATION
Agniveers have a non-contributory life insurance cover of `48 lakh. An additional ex-gratia of `44 lakh for death attributable to service is paid to the next of kin of the victim. The Seva Nidhi is also paid to the next of kin

DISABILITY COMPENSATION
Compensation is based on the percentage of disability laid down by medical authorities. One time ex-gratia of Rs 44/25/15 lakhs is paid  for 100%/75%/50% disability, respectively

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