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“Agnipath”: Why is India’s armed forces reform triggering protests?

The Indian government on June 14, 2022, announced its biggest reform to the recruitment system for its armed forces that is aimed at giving the nearly 1.2 million strong force a more youthful and tech-savvy profile.

Named “Agnipath”, the new recruitment method for the army, air force and navy which has been cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, takes effect immediately and the soldiers recruited under the scheme will be called “Agniveer”, reports our New Delhi correspondent.

Under the new scheme, around 45,000 to 50,000 soldiers will be recruited annually and most will be eased out of service in just four years.

Of the total annual recruits, only 25 percent will be allowed to continue for another 15 years under the old permanent commission system. The new system is only for personnel below officer ranks, that is those who do not join the forces as commissioned officers. Under the previous system of recruitment, soldiers used to join for a 17-year period which could be extended for some of them.

This system entailed life-long pension benefits for all of them. But under the Agnipath scheme, those who will be de-inducted after four years will not get lifelong pension but a sum of Rs 11.71 lakh consisting of 30 percent monthly deduction and equal contribution from the government.

So, there is a crucial economic factor behind Agnipath to cut down on a big outgo of state exchequer for lifelong pension. Every year, the Indian government forks out Rs 1 lakh crore to pay defence personnel pension.

This year, Rs 1.2 lakh crore has been allocated in the budget for defence pension out of a total defence budget of Rs 5.25 lakh crore. Youths with minimum educational qualification of class 10 or 12 (depending on the service) between the ages of 17.5 years and 21 years will be eligible to apply under Agnipath and recruitment will be done twice a year through rallies. Once selected, the new recruits will undergo training for six months before being deployed for three and a half years.

During this period, they will get a starting salary of Rs 30,000, along with additional benefits which will go up to Rs 40,000 by the end of the four-year service. According to Lt Gen Anil Puri, additional secretary in the Department of Military Affairs, right now the average age of Indian soldiers across the three services is 32 but over the next seven years it is expected to come down to 26.

Agnipath has already triggered violent street protests, particularly in the eastern state of Bihar and northern state of Rajasthan with aspiring soldiers voicing concerns over job security and lack of lifelong pension.

In fact, a permanent job in the defence forces is lucrative because it entails enhancement of salary from time to time through pay commission and pension and free medical treatment benefits available even after retirement.

Critics of Agnipath say no one will be attracted to the army for job for just four years and the earlier system of much longer duration service should be brought back. More importantly, questions are being raised if a four-year tenure under Agnipath would lead to erosion of pride and loyalty a soldier has for his regiment.

The importance of loyalty comes into play as India still has the British-era practice of recruitment for regiments which are done on the basis of caste, community and region like Gorkha regiment, Jat regiment and Sikh regiment. Maj Gen (Retd) G D Bakshi, tweeted he was “flabbergasted” by the Agnipath scheme… “this is an across-the-board change to convert the Indian armed forces to a short tenure quasi-conscript force like the Chinese.”

Apparently aware that the issue of job security would play on the defence-job seekers mind, the government has sought to address the concerns by assuring that those who serve out four-year tenure under Agnipath system would be given priority in jobs in various ministries.

As violent protests against Agnipath recruitment scheme spread to more areas of India today, opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi (Congress), Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party), Arvind Kejriwal (Aam Aadmi Party) and Left parties weighed in against it. The government, though, defended the new scheme, saying it was introduced after extensive consultations with serving armed forces officials over two years.

A Defence Ministry official pointed out that a short-term recruitment system exists in many countries and is a tried-and-tested practice for a youthful and agile army, adding that it is wrong to think 21-year-olds are immature.

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