Col Ajay K Raina, SM
The government recently rolled out a long-overdue reform in the defence forces. Undoubtedly, the step is earth-shattering in more than one way. A lot has been said and equally forcefully by experts, commentators and ignorant from both sides of the dividing line. But, irrespective of whatever is being spoken and discussed, the bottom line is that the scheme is here to stay. So, rather than again joining the debate about its merits and pitfalls, let’s examine how this scheme can be made more effective and meaningful. The basic assumption here is the belief that the top decision-makers will show flexibility and will not hesitate to tinker with the proposal for its betterment. Many good suggestions have already been made, and this article highlights a few more.
Let us start from where a large mass of young aspirants stands. As we consider the difference between a 22 years old veteran (Agniveer) and a 40-year-old one, the over-stated issue about lack of pension takes a backseat. However, there may be merit in using a graduated template rather than one single formula when it comes to educational incentives being offered to the young veterans. In simpler terms, rather than awarding everyone with a 10+2 certificate, there could be a system of awarding an appropriate educational certificate corresponding to their peer group studying in the colleges outside. With the upper age limit for the recruits lying on the other side of 20, it will be natural to find recruits who are already 10+2 or even graduates. So, a 10th pass recruit must go out as a 10+2; a 10+2 entrant as a graduate and an already graduate recruit may leave with a master’s or BEd degree. IGNOU and other such arrangements already in vogue in the forces can take care of the same. The resultant benefits will add value to the scheme.
A six-month training capsule has a bit of an issue. But we already have a very well-placed scheme that can offset the limitations and augment the efficacy of a shorter training. NCC has a vast reach, and despite the funding issues, especially by the states, it remains a powerful tool. Three or four weeks of attachment with an army unit, as already in vogue for the NCC cadets, can be further refined and restructured to bring the cadets to a certain level. I remember doing one similar attachment during my NCC days and the resultant impact on our bearing, style of walking and such cognizable changes in our lifestyles. NCC also taught me firing, drill, map reading, night marches and much more. Such a potential needs to be exploited. No additional arrangements are required and after a couple of years, NCC may be treated as a preparatory but compulsory route for such enrollments.
75% of recruits coming out of the uniform will invariably be looked at as discards, which can hurt. Even the CAPFs (who will save big on training time and costs) may object to accepting those ‘rejected’ by the forces! Here too, we have a template available. The bulk of short-service commissioned officers who leave the army do so of their own volition. Needless to say, most of them do very well outside. So, like it is done for such officers, Agniveers may also be asked to fill up their choices during the fourth year of their service. They may opt for retention (and they will have to meet the minimum standards) or for CAPFs (will be given 10% seats), for state police (states must keep a percentage), or for a release. Those who want to become entrepreneurs must be granted bank loans for their projects at the time of release. Like gratuity, the loan amount must also be credited into their accounts on the day of hanging uniform. That will save them running around for the loans later, and it is not difficult to imagine how difficult the process can get. Our banks have been availing capital benefits since our salaries and pensions are routed through them. They should return the favour and create a single-point contact to have such loans processed centrally.
The 75% quota itself needs a revisit. Like SSB selection, minimum criteria can be evolved and all those clearing that datum must be absorbed. The vacancies for the following years can then be tinkered with. There is no point in sending out good and trained soldiers only to try luck with the newer lot. Talent should be freed from numbers. Once points about their educational qualifications and options, as mentioned above, are implemented, the final figures may actually settle around the 25-30% mark during the years to follow. A considered view may also be taken of the suggestion that for one year after their release and if they have opted for entrepreneurship, a fixed stipend may be granted for them to acquire sector-specific skills.
There can certainly be no distinction between a regular soldier and an Agniveer if there is a loss of life or limb. Without any condition or caveat, all physical and battle casualties must be treated at par for both groups. If an Agniveer loses his life or gets disabled, he must be re-mustered on paper and given all benefits/assistance, as applicable to others.
On the lines of corporate social responsibility, an incentive must be offered to the private sector to absorb such veterans. Similarly, we need to look beyond CAPFs and explore the possibilities of absorbing young veterans into fields related to defence research, education, skill development and so on. Slowly and steadily and over a decade or two, therefore, we will have a culture where Agnipath may become the assured route to empowerment and employment. Here, it may be worthwhile to remind the learned readers that many voices have demanded compulsory military service for the youth in the past; this scheme is a much better and more meaningful version of that concept.
Last but not least, the government must stand up and show the world that no discrimination or appeasement is involved in this scheme. One of the two most important reasons to implement this scheme is the revenue (largely salary and pension) budget. It is a fact that this component consumes more than 65% of the defence budget allocations. To that extent, the thought behind the scheme is plausible (and then there are other reasons like younger age profile, inoculating discipline in the streets and saving training costs of CAPFs etc.). But it is equally important to acknowledge that almost 45% of the salary and pension budget goes to the defence civilians who work and retire from defence establishments. It would, thus, be logical to cut down on that component too. And that leads us to the compulsion to have a similar engagement for the civilian defence employees. However, if the scheme is applied only to one-half of the affected segment, it will send a wrong message to the soldiers and society alike.
Change is the only constant. Future wars will be fought through a ‘whole of the nation’ approach. This scheme is a step towards that mission. Good, bad or ugly may depend on the perception, but the fact remains that this scheme is here to stay. And when more than one lakh applications are received during the first four days of the first recruitment (in the Indian Air Force) being advertised under the scheme, the importance of preference of using the front windscreen over the rear view mirror becomes obvious. A nation on the move has to look ahead and there is no other choice!
(Author is a military historian and a successful entrepreneur. He is a Founder Trustee of the Military History Research Society ®, India)
Col Ajay K Raina, SM