Agnipath: Necessary reform, unnecessary babel

Economic Times, July 11, 2022

By VP Singh Badnore and Pradeep S Mehta

The Agnipath scheme, announced on June 14, is a transformative scheme which introduces short term armed forces enlistment system in India. Following the announcement, massive protests erupted in many states, with youths taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the scheme. Rather than this unnecessary brouhaha and politicisation of the issue, it should have been welcomed as a reform, for all that it can offer to the country today.

The Indian Air Force had initiated recruitment under the scheme on June 24, and it has received over 7.5 lakh applications, taking the record for highest in any recruitment cycle. The Indian Army and Navy have also begun the recruitment processes under the scheme.

The Agnipath scheme provides for the recruitment of youth in the age bracket of 17.5 to 21 years for only four years with a provision to retain 25 percent of them for 15 more years. Subsequently, the government extended the upper age limit to 23 years for recruitment in 2022.

A similar youth focused scheme, for training and employment with armed forces was proposed a few years ago as a National Youth Empowerment Scheme (N-YES). Both Agnipath and N-YES, have the common future-looking objective of optimisation of India’s immense, next to none, demographic dividend.

The N-YES scheme was proposed as a catalyst for creating self-disciplined, self-confident nationalist force of youth deeply aware of their Indian roots/traditions and digitally trained. With Agnipath essentially bringing in the same benefits, we hail it as a step in the right direction for India’s future. The vision of the scheme is ingrained in solving the issue of youth unemployment currently plaguing rural India, using its potential to attract young talent.

Such conscription and selective enlistment schemes are well established in countries such as Israel and Russia. It is a tried and tested reform for youthful and agile army. A study of the links of social effects of conscription in Israel, the mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces of about three years that all Israeli youngsters go through, with Israeli hi-tech boom. The study notes that this short-term military service “cultivates new skills (human capital), new social networks (social capital), and new social norms and codes of behaviour (cultural capital)”. That yields what the researchers have termed as “military capital”.

In the book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer highlight that the mandatory military is one of the most significant factors that turned Israel into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. It is also interesting to note that a pattern has been observed in a huge proportion of young Israelis who after their compulsory military service show an inclination to attend a university in pursuit of higher education.

Said former Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu: “Our real education system is in the army. We bring in a whole chunk of our population into the army”.

Similar conclusions were drawn by a Finnish academic, Jukka Määttä, whose study found that, military service develops general skills useful “in any sector, such as adaptation, managing and social skills”. These skills are valued in the modern workforce. A Harvard study notes that due to disruptive innovations in the market, there has been a shift towards unconventional jobs. N-YES scheme had the foresight for such an eventuality, and so will Agnipath bring the same benefits.

In countries such as in Finland and Israel, which have maintained conscription for decades, ex-conscripts’ skills are highly valued in the wider society. The recruits form networks while working in elite units which they then wield in their careers in the corporate and business arena. The Swed and Butler study results shows that 90 percent of workers in Israel’s technology sector have performed military service. Their value in the market is so high that Silicon Valley firms compete to recruit them.

Conduct with dignity and discipline are virtues steadfastly associated with Indian armed forces, which inspire the country. Training with the armed forces will equip the young citizens with key values that cannot practically be taught as a part of a school curriculum. It is a great opportunity for the youth to start their career in a very disciplined ecosystem and help build skills for future career. They will learn a set of assorted skills and imbibe ethos of forces like team work, focus and perseverance. They will also receive diploma and degrees for undergoing the skill-mapping and training.

The Agnipath scheme will facilitate the absorption of outgoing Agniveers into India Inc. Corporate houses of India have been extremely positive in their reception of the scheme and have expressed willingness to recruit graduating Agniveers. Therefore, it will open a host of opportunities for them and give them tools to fend for themselves in future.

The Ukraine war has proved the importance of trained civilians as part of defence system. N-YES and Agnipath have the potential to give India a futuristic combat-ready force which can be available in war and peace time, especially situations such as disaster relief and rescue. There even is potential for them to be a resistance force during terror attacks. So, it should be appreciated that after they get trained in the armed forces, the discharged Agniveers will constitute a potential reserve youth army among civilians.

Military has remained that institution that is revered and venerated for the role of national security it plays. The most important aspect and impact of the start of recruitment of Agniveers, is that forces will take a small step to become a citizen’s army. Agnipath shall facilitate youth’s exposure and understanding of military, thus minimising the military-civilian divide.

Even for India’s larger strategic and military interests, it is evidently a good step. Agnipath will result in raising resources for modernisation of the armed forces within India’s tough budget constraints. It will lower the exchequer burden for the pension expenses. Moreover, even in the armed forces, the existing average age of Indian soldiers is 32 years, while in UK, USA and France it is 26, 27 and 27.4 years, respectively.

Therefore, we agree that the policy will achieve the three core elements of Agnipath as highlighted by Lt Gen Anil Puri. Firstly, it will ensure a youthful profile of the armed forces. Secondly, incorporate tech-savvy and adaptable youth into the military and thirdly, will make individuals future combat-ready.

The protests against the scheme were triggered by a host of factors, not necessarily attributable to the merits of the scheme. In parts of North India, a career in the military is regarded as the natural career progression for adults. This phenomenon is influenced by many socio-economic reasons. The military and the railways are perceived as the only two routes to a decent, secure, organised sector, pensionable job for young people in these parts of India.

To quell fears, the government has subsequently announced support measures and a series of concessions for the 75 percent Agniveers to be demobilised from each batch. These include 10 percent reservation in the Coast Guard, defence public sector units (PSUs), Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and Assam Rifles. Many state governments and CAPFs have already announced that a priority to the other 75 percent Agniveers will be given in the recruitment process. As per the Union Home Ministry’s demand of grants for 2022-23 there is a shortage of nearly 74,672 personnel among the CAPFs. Skilled with training from armed forces, they would be an asset to these organisations.

Such revolutionary reform requires a degree of large-scale social adjustment. Public consultations and information dissemination through media should be used to create awareness. In a democracy, there are bound to be differing perspective on major transformative changes. Challenging the status quo is necessary and hard, so the political will should be lauded. We believe the vision of Agnipath will yield dividends for building a better India, by reducing unemployment and creating employable youth.

Singh Badnore is former Governor of Punjab and Administrator of Chandigarh UT. Mehta is Secretary General, CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group. Shiksha Srivastava of CUTS contributed to the article.

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