The sudden launch of “Agnipath” sends India up in flames
The new recruitment policy for inducting soldiers to the armed forces announced by the central government last week sent shock waves through many parts of country with aspirants resorting to vandalism and violence to register their protests against the scheme.
Called the Agnipath scheme, or the Tour of Duty, it proposes the recruitment of soldiers on a contractual basis for a four-year period followed by compulsory retirement for most of them without gratuity and pension benefits.
The government hopes that it will lead to the creation of a more modern and younger force which would be technologically at par with other armies of the world. This change is very much in line with such schemes being introduced in other armies of the world, particularly USA.
But key features of this new policy has come as a shock to thousands of aspirants who flock for these jobs in droves as it gives them security, especially in the present context when joblessness is a huge issue.
The aspirants work very hard to get into the armed forces as a job in the army, navy or air force brings with it prestige in the society while improving one’s prospects in the matrimonial bazaar as well as the security of pension and other medical benefits that are characteristic features of any government job.
It is this aspect of the new recruitment scheme that has become the bone of contention between the government and the aspirants. This has led to lot of violence and stone pelting by the protesters. They also burnt down trains and buses in anger.
The new recruitment policy has been chalked out with the aim of cutting down the government’s massive salary and pension bills as they were soaring with the passage of every year.
The rising pension bill in particular was a major concern as it was a huge draw on the defence budget leaving little for capital expenditure. This scheme when implemented would free up much-needed funds for arms procurement, essential for the armed forces to maintain their combative edge over the enemy.
Henceforth, every year around 45,000 people between the ages of 17 and a half and 21 years will be inducted into the services for a four-year tenure. They will be entitled to a monthly salary of between 30,000 and 40,000 rupees along with allowances during this period.
During this period, they will get insurance cover and medical benefits as well. After four years, only 25% of these soldiers will be retained who will go on to serve for a full 15 years in non-officer ranks.
The remaining will exit the services with a severance package of between 11 and 12 lakhs, but they will not be eligible for pension and other medical benefits.
Under the old system, the recruits were aged between 16 and a half and 21 years at the time of selection. They were recruited for a minimum of 15 years of service after which they would retire with a pension and other benefits. It is this lifelong pension that was one of the major reason for young men in rural India to join the armed forces.
The government in an effort to quell the backlash has announced that the upper age limit for new recruits for the Agnipath scheme will be extended from 21 to 23 years of age for the recruitment cycle for the year 2022.
This has been done to give those candidates a chance who could not appear for the test because of the pandemic. The army could not do any recruitment for the last two years due to Covid. But this has failed to soothe the nerves as the main concern is with the temporary nature of the new scheme.
The service is only for four years. The pension has been removed. There is no lifelong healthcare benefit for the soldier and his family.
The government contends that the new scheme along with the financial package will help those who leave after four years to get absorbed in the private sector, and many of them can become entrepreneurs with the guidance and aid provided to them.
In the previous system, the soldier had job security for a minimum of 15 years, and after that, he could retire with the assurance of a lifelong pension and access to subsidized healthcare for himself and his family. If a soldier died in action, his immediate family would continue to receive these benefits.
However, the Agnipath scheme will end these benefits. In the case of an Agniveer making the supreme sacrifice on the line of duty, his family will get a one-time one crore payment as emoluments which would include insurance, ex-gratia and the balance salary. These benefits, however, will continue for those who are actually recruited for the full tenure after the four-year period, which refers to the 25%.
The government’s response to the backlash has been unapologetic, and the government is unflinching in its resolve to roll out the scheme. The Home Ministry clarifies that the soldiers, given the moniker of Agniveers, upon completion of four years of service under the scheme will get priority in recruitment for the Central Armed Police Force and the Assam Rifles.
The Defense Ministry has also said it is reserving 10% of posts in the Coast Guard as well as defense PSUs for Agniveers. The Home Ministry will also provide a three-year age relaxation beyond the prescribed upper age limit for recruitment in the CAPF and the Assam Rifles. Agniveers from the Indian Navy will be absorbed in the merchant navy. In addition, the National Institute of Open Schooling will launch customized courses for 10th pass Agniveers to help them obtain a 12th pass certificate.
The service training received by Agniveers will be recognized as credits for graduation by the Education Ministry. Public sector banks and financial institutions have pledged to support Agniveers through suitable credit and help them in setting up their own business. The corporate world has welcomed the Agnipath scheme with assurance of recruiting Agniveers after the completion of their service.
Meanwhile, the Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam have announced that their respective state governments would give preference to Agniveers in police recruitment and other state departments after their four-year tenure is over. The main opposition party, INC (Indian National Congress), has vociferously opposed the scheme calling it deceit and blaming the government of robbing the youths of their future.
There is a need to clinically examine the scheme regards its benefits, both to the armed forces as well as to the recruits themselves. The average age in the armed forces is 32 which will go down to 26 in six to seven years’ time.
\It will create what the government says future-ready soldiers. The Defense Ministry claims that it will increase employment opportunities, and because of the skills and the experience acquired during the four-year service, such soldiers will actually get employment in various fields.
The government in its defence has assured that it will help the soldiers who leave after their four-year tenure ends to find suitable vocation in the private sector by providing them with skill certificates and by conducting courses which would bridge the skill gap.
The focus will be to create entrepreneurs out of them as the government believes that the discipline that they imbibe during their tenure will provide them with an edge over others in the field of business. Despite growing protests against the scheme, the government has refused to rollback the scheme.
Protesting against the government and its policies is a fundamental right in any democracy, but there is no scope for taking law into one’s own hands and damaging public property like burning trains and buses.
This has tarnished the image of India as a healthy and peaceful society. One can only hope that things will calm down as time passes, and the government and the protesters will come to a mutually acceptable and beneficial solution to this problem.
edited and proofread by nikita sharma