Army recruitment scheme: Government fails to douse Agnipath fires

‘‘Undermines India’s defence preparedness, training & camaraderie’’

Politics

June 19, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Army recruitment scheme: Government fails to douse Agnipath fires

Violent protests continue across India against the revised recruitment scheme for the Indian defence forces "Agnipath"

Massive protests have continued across the country for the fourth day since the announcement of Agnipath, a revised recruitment scheme for the Indian defence forces. Protestors have set fire to dozens of trains as well as public transport and police vehicles. Many offices of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have also been attacked, notably in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Telangana. Aspirants remain unimpressed by the scheme which denies long-term career options to most of the candidates.

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Caught totally by surprise over the widespread violent protests that have been taking place across India against the revised recruitment scheme for the Indian defence forces, the government has been trying various measures to ease the anger of the youth and restore peace as violence continued for the fourth day on Saturday.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh chaired a top-level with service chiefs in New Delhi amid massive protests over Agnipath, as the new recruitment scheme has been called. Singh later reiterated that the revised scheme had been rolled out after wide-ranging consultations.

Continuing with long list of sops and amendments already announced to the highly unpopular recruitment scheme, the Centre has now announced that 10 pc of vacancies for recruitment in the Central Armed Police Forces and Assam Rifles as well as in defence posts would be reserved for the people who would not be retained in the military. This comes on the back of dozens of other similar moves, notably by chief ministers of the states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party reserving some government jobs for such candidates. Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur said that sports ministry would provide some crash course and training for candidates who leave the Army after four years.

Meanwhile, unconvinced, the protestors continued to attack government property all over and the Opposition mounted its attack on the government over the ‘hare-brained’ scheme, which they allege would seriously impair India’s defence capabilities. Congress MP KC Venugopal on Friday urged parliaments standing committee on defence chairman Jual Oram to convene an urgent meeting of all stakeholders and defence experts to discuss in detail the Agnipath scheme.

The country has witnessed unprecedented protests since the government announced the new scheme. The backlash against the Centre’s move started in Bihar, but protests rapidly spread to Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Telangana, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh as well.

Amidst seemingly unstoppable protests and violence in Bihar, internet has been shut down in 12 districts of the state. Protesters also vandalised the houses of deputy CM Renu Devi and BJP state president Sanjay Jaiswal in Bettiah, besides the party’s offices in Lakhisarai and Sasaram in Bihar. Leader of opposition in Bihar Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal criticised the Modi government and tweeted that millions of young people and soldiers live in this country, and if they don’t feel safe under the government’s new programme, how can the country be safe?

So far, the protestors have set fire to over 60 coaches of train and at least 10 locomotives and the Indian Railways says over 300 trains were impacted and 200 cancelled due to protests. On Saturday, Telangana State Congress chief Revanth Reddy was detained by the police as he was going to attend funeral procession of a student killed in police firing near Secunderabad on Friday, the first official death in these protests.

Fiery response to Agnipath & Agniveer

At the root of the unrest is the new defence recruitment scheme “Agnipath” scheme announced by Rajnath Singh earlier this week. The recruitment scheme was announced after an unprecedented and unannounced freeze on recruitment to the country’s military forces that had been in place for almost well over two years. Under the new scheme, youth aged between 17.5 years to 21 years can apply to join the military forces. Of these, about 40,000 would recruited each year under a contract. They’ll have to go through a 6-month intensive training programme and 3.5 years of active service. Only 25 pc of the most motivated and best-performing soldiers will be awarded a 15-year extension after the first four years in the military. The administration intends to use the new approach to recruit roughly 40,000 soldiers. Currently, the personnel selected for the defence forces were recruited below the age of 21, with 15 year service and all benefits, including life-long pensions, healthcare and education coverage for the entire family. Spouses of the defence personnel entitled to get part-pension after the death of the person.

The new scheme does away with all of these for 75 pc of the recruits, who would leave with a lumpsum payment of INR 1.1 million after four years, half of which would have come from their pay. The payments are also lesser than what the soldiers draw currently as none of the benefits like Dearness Allowance, which offsets inflation, or any other perks like bonus.

To the millions of young aspirants who look forward to a career in the Army and allied defence forces and train for years in their teens, the new scheme seemed like nothing short of the government pulling a fast one on them.

Chandan Kumar, 21, and Raju Yadav, 20 are both Army aspirants from Hajipur in Bihar. They tell Media India Group that their family’s economic condition was not good and that was the principal reason they could not pursue expensive education. They add that as a job with the Army is decent and respectful, they had been preparing for it for the past five years and this sudden change in scheme has hit them badly.

Patriotism, practically

While almost all the candidates for the defence forces say that they are keen to don the olive green uniform because they are patriots and can make all the sacrifices, including their lives, for it, but a job with the Army also comes with numerous attractive perks for hundreds of millions of Indians, mainly in rural and semi-urban India, for whom it offers a life-time security and economic and social security for their families even if the soldiers themselves lost their lives on duty.

With unemployment and poverty having shot up to record heights in the past eight years, the number of aspirants for all government jobs, including the defence services, has increased dramatically as the only way of survival for them.

Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) said that the unemployment rate in the country in rural areas was 5.84 pc in January 2022. The true numbers are much higher as this number does not reflect the people with temporary jobs like working on the fields or participating in food for work schemes under MGNREGS. According to a 2020 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, India needs to create at least 90 million new non-farm jobs by 2030 to provide employment to its rural youth.

Thus, the option of a four-year contract job with the forces is hardly appealing to the youth. Chandan and Raju say that they would not like to go in Army only for four years and that just for four years of job they wouldn’t risk their lives. ‘‘We would rather start goat herding in our village instead of joining the Army,’’ they tell Media India Group.

The aspirants also reject all claims of the government about being able to find a new job after the four years of service or starting their own business. Abhay Rana, 21, an Army aspirant from Jalandhar in Punjab says that his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were in the Army, and he has always wanted to follow their example. He says has been preparing for the Army for the last 10 years, and he has A, B, and C certificates for the National Cadet Corps that provide priority entry to the Army. So far, candidates with these three certificates only had to give an examination on physical fitness to get into the Army. But the new scheme has scuppered his dreams as well those of tens of thousands of NCC cadets all over the country.

Rana tells Media India Group that this scheme is much worse than the previous one. ‘‘In the Army, everyone wants job security, but with the new recruitment scheme, only 25 pc get full job security, and what will the remaining 75 pc do?  After four years the government will provide a loan, but without any extra skills, what will I do with that loan?’’ Rana asks.

Agnipath: Playing with fire

Contrary to the government’s claims of consulting former services personnel and others before launching the new scheme, many former officials, including four-star officers, have blasted the scheme for the serious deficiencies that it has and which could seriously undermine the defence preparedness of India, right from training to the highly-critical camaraderie and commitment to the uniform and the unit that armies all over the world are known for.

One such officer is Major General Yash Mor (Retd) who recently told media that on what basis would the government judge which 25 pc to be absorbed and which 75 pc to be sent back? ‘‘There is no parameter and four years is too short to measure performance and other qualities,’’ asked General Mor.

Another severe shortcoming in the scheme is that four years of service is just too short for a soldier to be trained properly and then deployed in operational areas, especially with the diversity of terrain and climate that India has.

Captain (Retired) Tanuja who served as a Short Service Commission officer in the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army says that training a soldier for the job is a very expensive and time consuming exercise.

‘‘For the regular Army personnel or officers to get to know about the entire structure, weapon handling and culture, it takes at least 2-3 years to get well versed and then perform. In such a situation, it would be difficult for new students or soldiers if they are sent to Operation or any mission at a young age as they would not have trained adequately. So the operational readiness could be questionable in these situations,’’ Capt Tanuja tells Media India Group.

Moreover, training a soldier is an expensive proposition and the new scheme puts a big question mark on this, says Capt Tanuja. ‘‘Earlier, perhaps it made sense for them to spend a lot since the service life of a soldier was 15 years. Now, with the four year time limit, will they spend that much?’’ adds Capt Tanuja.

On his part, General Mor said that the government would not be able to provide the soldiers with specialisation or training that they need to survive after their four-year duty in the Army and this would mean tens of thousands of young people out in the streets, totally disgruntled.

Major General said that after 4 years, soldiers cannot go back to college and study and they cannot upskill themselves and no one would skill them up in the forces. He also dismissed the claims that the private sector or even government offices would readily provide employment to the young soldiers. ‘‘We have been trying this for years to place our personnel, who are definitely far better trained and have a broader knowledge for team and command structure. Yet, there have not been any takers for the retired Army personnel. So to claim that these youngsters with hardly any training will have lots of job opportunities is absurd,’’ General Mor said.

Another key drawback in the scheme is that the defence forces all over the world are full of tales of thousands of brave soldiers who have risked or even sacrificed their lives in order to save their fellow soldiers. This sense of team spirit and camaraderie is often enough to turn a certain defeat into a victory as numerous defence historians point out.

‘‘This camaraderie and spirit of unity and oneness that can drive me or you to risk our lives to save those of our fellow unit members does not come in a few months or even in a year or two. It takes many years of living together and facing the various challenges together that our soldiers build that spirit. How can the bureaucrats expect this spirit to come just in the three years that most of the soldiers would spend together,’’ asks a retired three-star general who did not wish to be named.

Another retired officer says that instead of putting the spirit of camaraderie where every soldier helps the other, this scheme would induce a dangerous and toxic spirit of competition where each would try to get into the 25 pc bracket and for this may even undermine his colleagues in order to be selected for retention.

Indeed, even the aspirants can see the numerous shortcomings and are asking their own questions about the wisdom of this scheme. Army aspirant Abhay Rana says that under the new scheme, newly recruited students can be sent either to peace stations (areas away from the borders) or to the operational areas, close to the borders. ‘‘If the student is lucky, then he will get peace station posting, but what if he is sent to an operational base? In the case of an operational mission, experienced soldiers have more ideas to combat the operation, but surely new students will have problems handling the new area,’’ Rana tells Media India Group.

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