What brought on the ‘Agnipath’ scheme?

The current furore over the recently promulgated ‘Agnipath’ Scheme is inevitable, given that the reasons for the new scheme have neither been sufficiently explained nor is there any clarity on the likely fallout in terms of operational efficiency or budgetary advantage.

The government on Tuesday (June 14) announced the launch of the Agnipath scheme for short-tenure recruitment into the PBOR (Personnel Below Officer Rank) in the armed forces.

Without entering into a debate on strategic and operational defence priorities, it would suffice to state that in the many decades since the 1962 debacle, the Indian armed forces have obviously paid attention to improving operational capabilities, a phased induction programme of weapons and systems acquisitions to meet the operational requirements and an induction and training schedule for personnel targeted at being able to handle the requirements of handling modern systems and thereby facing foreseen operational challenges.

So why are we now facing a personnel and financial challenge? Or are we? Let us look first at the financial issues raised in this discussion. There has been a recurring refrain in the media and in official governmental pronouncements, even from the recently demised first CDS (Chief of Defence Staff ) that “burgeoning future pension commitments” were a major impediment in the ability of the defence planners to cater for necessary weapons acquisitions and other “capital” expenses of the defence forces. But this begs the question: are we indulging in defence forces that are either too big for us to afford? Or rather are we hankering after overly-sophisticated weapons acquisitions that we cannot afford?

What are our defence priorities? What are our defence commitments? We have been “right-sizing” our forces over the years and improving our “teeth-to-tail” ratio with consequent operational efficiencies. A shortage has developed in the past three years due to the COVID induced freeze on recruitment. This could evidently be remedied by renewed recruitment drives and publicity-efforts to showcase the forces more attractively. The widespread protests one sees all over the country right now against the short-tenure scheme leads one to believe that actually there really is not much problem in recruiting career soldiers into our military. In fact the agitators appear to feel aggrieved at the idea that they may not all be afforded a long-tenure career as soldiers in the military.

However there appears to be some sort of dogmatic insistence, in various quarters, that the reason for not wanting to increase our intake is fear of the “future pension burden”. If we were to examine this dispassionately, it would become clear that that this is a spurious argument. Other all-India services, all other than the military, have been governed since 2004 by the NPS (New Pension Scheme ) and there is no outcry that our bureaucracy and administration is likely to be unable to bear the burden of future pension outflows.

Maybe when the batches since 2004 begin to superannuate, we might find some problems then. Unlikely in my opinion, as the system is constantly being tweaked to improve it. Obviously there is something wrong in the fact that the military is still governed by a pension regime which, despite all efforts at OROP (One Rank One Pension) and other alleviation measures, is hopelessly inefficient. This is for the simple reason that military pensions since 1981 have not really been “pensions,” paid out of self-sustaining pension funds, but actually a non-self-sustaining “half-pay” regime out of the Government of India’s current account coffers. No wonder our defence “pension bill” keeps rising, unlike other pension bills. Perhaps it is time the financial wizards took a deep look at defence pensions and work out an appropriate system, on the lines of the one they abandoned in 1981, that does not call for veterans agitations and court cases to keep it on track.

Secondly a large number of veterans have been agitated over what they perceive in ‘Agnipath’ as a body-blow to the regimental ethos and the “paltan-spirit” that pervades amongst all ranks of the military, particularly in the Indian Army. The argument is that a new recruit will not retain the regimental spirit that moves old-timers and longer-term regimental soldiers. I am not sure that this would be such a deficiency, and perhaps one could try out this “short-term” intake, along with the standard intake as has been the case hitherto, and review the performance of the recruits in both streams before retaining or discarding the new scheme.

In 1962, and earlier during WWII, when the Indian Army expanded exponentially, we did resort to what was initially intended to be “short-tenure” recruitment in all ranks, officers as well as PBOR. There were some reports of inadequacies and some analysis was indeed carried out to examine the deficiencies due to the explosive expansion in the ranks. Eventually however, the system stabilised with the majority of the “short-service” personnel being retained in the military and performing patriotically, without major inadequacies. – INDIA NEWS STREAM

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