Reforms in recruitment of soldiers pose challenge for Indian government
While move to reduce average age of soldiers and cut pension budget stokes anger in streets, experts air concerns about new recruitment scheme
Apparently to cut down the whooping expenditure on pensions paid to ex-soldiers and move to a leaner size of the military, the Indian government’s reforms in the recruitment of the army known as Agnipath have stoked widespread anger in the streets.
While aspirants allege that the new scheme will short circuit their careers, military experts are urging the government to implement it in phases, to test its impact on the country's operational readiness and capabilities.
Out of the 4.05 trillion rupees ($54.20 billion) – the total outlay for defense expenditures as set for the financial year of 2022-23, the expenditure on pensions accounts for 1.17 trillion rupees ($14.93 billion), according to budget papers.
Under the new recruitment system announced by the government last week, those aged 17-23 will be contracted to join the army for four years. After the completion of four years, 25% of recruits will be retained as soldiers, while the rest will be retired, without extending their pension benefits.
Soldiers recruited by the lower ranks of the army, navy, and the air force in India normally service for a period of up to 17 years.
A total of 46,000 soldiers will be recruited this year on four-year contracts with a quarter expected to be kept on at the end of that term, the government said.
Two persons have died and scores injured over the past one week, as angry mobs targeted trains and railway property to protest against the scheme.
With a strength of over 1.4 million active personnel, India has the world's second-largest military force. Youth from villages in many North Indian states look at the army as a source of major employment as it gives them the prestige to find good marriage alliances.
Several Indian Army veterans have also expressed concerns over the new scheme.
Impact on operational readiness
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, retired Lt. Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda, former chief of India’s northern command expressed his apprehensions and asked "could it (new scheme) have an impact on the country's operational efficiency, and readiness?"
"Will they (recruits) be as motivated as the permanent cadre? Ultimately, 75% know they are going out. Will they be more concerned about looking for future jobs? Will they take the military as something of a stepping stone for a further career?" he asked.
Hooda also questioned the rationale of training them for a mere six months before induction into the army.
"Is the six-month training sufficient because currently basic military and specialized training sometimes go on for a year and a half?" he asked.
The former army commander also said by the time the soldier would be groomed in the new recruitment process, he would exit from the army.
"So, is this going to have an impact on our operational readiness and capability? My sense is we don't know at this point," he said.
He recommended that the scheme could be put to test for four years and see how it works and if the government can adjust and find a second career for those retiring after four years.
Mandeep Bajwa, a military historian, said youth in the country feel cheated.
"Firstly, those who cleared physical and medical tests and even written exams in the earlier recruitments have been left in the lurch. Secondly, 75% will be out on the streets in four years with no pensions, no service benefits, no health care, not even the status of ex-servicemen," he said.
He apprehended that with no job security, the best candidates will not come forward. Further, the recruits who will be called agniveers, with distinctive ranks will form exclusive groups in units leading to indiscipline.
Bajwa said there are "suspicions that the scheme might be used to induct politically committed recruits who might be used as paramilitaries by politico-religious groups after release."
The leaner size of the military
Referring to the new farm laws which the government rolled back following month-long protests by farmers, the military historian said: "I'm afraid the govt will have to beat a retreat like it did on their farm laws."
Sameer Patil, an internal security expert based in India’s commercial capital of Mumbai, said that the main consideration for the government is to ensure a leaner size of the military, especially the Indian army, as is the trend worldwide.
"With this scheme, the Indian government also wants to bring in a younger age profile for the troops and also reduce the costs of the annual pensions," he said.
He also said that to assess the effectiveness of the scheme, the government should implement it on a trial basis.
Indian army has 29 infantry regiments like Sikh Regiment, Gorkha Regiment, etc. based on caste, religion, and class that brings cohesion and camaraderie among them during the battles. Experts believe that the new scheme will affect this regiment system.
The scheme has invited criticism from the opposition parties as well.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India's main opposition Congress party, said the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) "must stop compromising the dignity, traditions, valor, and discipline of our forces."
"When India faces threats on two fronts, the uncalled for Agnipath scheme reduces the operational effectiveness of our armed forces," he wrote on Twitter.
Government defends scheme
The government and ruling party, however, has defended the scheme. BJP leader and spokesperson Sambit Patra described the opposition to the scheme as trying to score political points.
"Politics is also taking place in the country on the subject of national policies and the army officers have to come and explain to them and have to say that there is no place in this country for arson and violence and do not indulge in violence," he said.
He said that for the sake of making India a great country, reforms were necessary.
India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval also said the shift in security scenario was necessary, as the country needed a change in the armed forces to have “a young military for a young nation.”