The press conference last week,presided by the Raksha Mantri, accompanied by service chiefs, to introduce the Agnipath scheme appeared to be an orchestrated attempt to sell an idea with pitfalls,while facing criticism from all quarters. The participants claimed this to be the solution to all ills facing the military, including high salary and pension bills, ageing profile as also opening an avenue for those seeking to serve in the forces. It has also been claimed to be the solution for unemployment. The positive views of participants did little to hide reality.
Yes, it is evident that this scheme would reduce the salaries and pension budget. There is also no doubt that it would also reduce age profile in units. These statements stand true if the Government considers the defence budget as an expenditure and not an investment for ensuring national security and compensating those who place their lives on the line daily. Alongside age comes experience. Indian Armed Forces have excelled as they have always had a healthy mix of age and experience. Age alone is no criteria. Rightly, the forces need ‘josh with hosh.’
Currently the Army alone recruits over 50,000 annually and for a period of 15 years or more, culminating with a lifetime pension and other fringe benefits. This secures the individual and his family and hence draws in lacs, despite the fact that many are released early at ages between 35 to 40. A reason for a motivated armed force is this security. This year the same numbers will be hired for four years, steadily increasing to over a lakh and a half per year after 4-5 years. However, hiring for four-years is not the solution to removing unemployment, as they would be back on the streets, unemployed.
The numbers may be manageable currently as the Government has announced vacancies in central police organizations but what about a few years hence, when recruitment numbers multiply.Justifying an uncertain future with a financial package and promises of assisting in reemployment is changing the very concept of Government employment and casting doubts in minds of youth.
Compare this with Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), where salaries, perks and allowances are better, despite individuals paying for their own pensions under the National Pension Scheme. In CAPFs, an individual serves till 58 and by the time he retires, he has no family responsibilities. The same is the scenario with state police forces. Every youngster prefers job security. Hence, the armed forces were a major attraction. Not so with Agnipath.We are already way down the list for those seeking to join the officer cadre and would now be the same even for jawans.The Armed Forces need the best from the best not the best from rejects elsewhere.
No Government in the past 75 years has been able to place armed forces retirees in satisfactory employment. Not a single ministry or Central Government Organization has recruited as per its officially mandated quotas. Majority veterans end up as security guards or in employment well below their status, as pensions are insufficient. While some may claim that the current lot are beyond the age of 35, would it be different for the Agniveers.
Industry may have announced support, but their acceptance remains a question. The few thousand job offers which flow into the Resettlement Department will have to be shared between thousands hanging their uniform after pensionable service and Agniveers. The truth of how disembodied youth fare out will be known four years from now. Till then Agniveers can live on hope.
In the erstwhile system, one individual joining the forces meant a full family being cared for, financially, medically and emotionally. Now the family would remain on tenterhooks awaiting how their future will be. The decision will be made four years later.
There is a mention that savings accrued would be spent on modernization of the forces. Will it happen? The finance minister would be aware of what salaries and pension requirements are and allocate accordingly. The armed forces would find that the percentage of the budget as compared to earlier would drop as the revenue head would reduce. Promises made by politicians are rarely fulfilled.
No Government decision is being sold as desperately as this one is. The Home Minister mentions 10% vacancies in CAPFs, BJP chief ministers announce priority for state police. Education Ministry promises distance education for Agniveers. The Skill Ministry assures of skill development training. The Army announces a certificate which will benefit in future employment. Service chiefs state commencement of the process almost immediately and Army Commanders across the country hold press conferences. Too good to be true.
Why? Would this be needed if the scheme was a game changer and beneficial. Are pitfalls of Agnipath being hidden? The manner in which it is being pushed indicates that the scheme has been bulldozed down the throats of the forces and now masses are being convinced employing the armed forces brass, exploiting the nation’s respect for them.
Yes, the scheme will benefit the armed forces. But the armed forces are part of the nation and the nation building process. Those who join them are common Indian citizens hoping to serve the nation by giving their best years of life for it and in return being cared for. Is it right to induct them for four years, exploit them, and then leave them to fend for themselves. Are we being honest with our countrymen? To create savings for the exchequer are we fooling our own youth and luring them into temporary employment. If this is the future, why not across adopt it in all Government organizations.
Ideally both, the erstwhile recruitment pattern and Agnipath should have run simultaneously. Response checked and steadily, normal recruitment reduced while Agnipath vacancies increased. Lessons learnt would have been incorporated to eradicate shortcomings.
There is no doubt that change is always resisted. However, change cannot also be retrograde. Caring for our youth’s future is the Government’s responsibility. It cannot shirk it. The Government must admit ownership of the scheme and stop firing the gun from the shoulder of the armed forces. It must look into the future, evaluate reemployment of youth before imposing this scheme on them. Agnipath is not the answer to all ills facing the forces and the country. It would add to problems, rather than reduce them.
The author is Major General (Retd)