Those who are privy to the subject of human resources would know that any organisational change or reform inevitably gets subjected to a strong pushback. The Agnipath scheme is no exception. It aims to pre-empt structural challenges in an age-old institution of armed forces that might arise in the future and comprehensively address them.
Despite being a relatively young country with a demographic dividend, we seem to have an older army than most of our counterparts. The United States, with the average age of its soldiers at 27 years, is roughly five years younger than the Indian army. This is despite the country’s median age being 10 years older than of India’s. The youthful dynamism is critical for our armed forces, especially given the arduous northern terrain with sub-zero temperatures and the recently witnessed nature of skirmishes. A testament to this was our last war in Kargil, which saw units comprising soldiers mostly just into their twenties valiantly leading India to victory in the harshest of conditions, with all four recipients of Param Vir Chakra for the war being under 25 years.
Agnipath will lower the military’s average age by six years (to 26 years) within 8–10 years. Additionally, the exit component of the scheme also looks at sustainably solving the middle-heavy nature of the organisation of the armed forces with significantly higher-than-optimal non-commissioned officers (and junior commissioned officers) due to regular promotions.
The recent decades have seen an ever-increasing role of technology in the armed forces the world over, especially the navy and the air force. The requirement of an ideal recruit has expanded from being physically and psychologically fit to also being tech-savvy. The earlier model of recruitment gave the military three to five days to assess candidates and lock them in for life-long service. The Agnipath scheme, on the other hand, allows for continuous hands-on evaluation and three annual assessments overseen by different officials in both peace and forward locations, thereby allowing for a more holistic approach to select the best-suited candidates to take on higher responsibilities with permanent cadre postings. This also allows the armed forces to identify recruits with a better aptitude for operations and maintenance of the cutting-edge equipment and focus on their specialised training once into the cadre posts. This is also more efficient as instead of longer non-specific training at the beginning, a module-based intermittent career-long training model based on specific needs is followed.
The Agnipath scheme allows for similar flexibility on the part of recruits to judge whether a life-long career in the armed forces is the right fit for them given their on-ground experience with various postings. The short service model also allows for a higher number of recruits to serve than would be otherwise possible. In the case of a career after the armed forces, a generous tax-free Seva Nidhi package of `11.78 lakh, the savings of four years and a bank loan prioritisation along with the organisational and communication skills course credits, and discipline inculcated in the service would hold the recruits in good stead. Further, there has been an announcement of 10% vacancies in the CAPFs, Assam Rifles, and jobs in the ministry of defence to be reserved for exiting Agniveers.
Similar measures have also been announced by various state governments. The private sector would be amenable to absorbing them, given they would be considered ‘moldable’ in their early twenties, similar to most Indians entering the workforce. Their in-service training would account for over 50% of credits required for graduation, with the rest earned from a choice-based basket of courses allowing them to explore a career of interest given their accreditation.
Given the context of emerging modern warfare, it is important to point out that India’s defence budget has legacy challenges with a ballooning pension and salary component. Though the defence budget has more than tripled, from ₹1.47 lakh crore in 2010–11 to ₹4.71 lakh crore in 2020–21 (being the single-highest component of the Union Budget), the share of salary and pensions has concomitantly seen an increase of over 10%, rising to 59%in 2020–21. This effectively means that only around a fourth of the budget can be directed towards capital procurement. China, through its policy of military modernisation, along with significant manpower trimming, has increased the share of capital expenditure to over 41% (10% increment in the last decade) of its defence budget. This proportion is on a budget that is over thrice that of India’s. Even the US, with a significantly higher per capita income than India’s, has less than a fifth of its veterans on permanent pensions and relies largely on short service stints. As a corollary, Agnipath will structurally amend this anomaly.
The government, through the recent addendums to the Agnipath Scheme, has demonstrated that it is willing to adapt to feedback, following a reiterative rather than a rigid approach. Given the deep structural challenges that are likely to emerge in India’s hard power capability in the backdrop of an increasingly uncertain international order, a pre-emptive overhaul despite resistance rather than tweaks was the optimal way ahead.
Additional Private Secretary (Research), EAC-PM
Assistant Consultant, EAC-PM