They say the best is the enemy of the good. Fine. But this much can be said without fear of contradiction – that the newly-announced Agnipath scheme, which seeks to recruit over 40,000 young people annually into the three armed services, is indeed very good. Though some flaws have already been pointed out in the scheme, which was announced on Monday, these are relatively minor. On the other hand, multiple gains are likely to flow from this well thought-out scheme. At a time when there is a huge paucity of jobs, with over a million joining the army of the unemployed every year, Agnipath creates yet another all-India avenue for youths to seek gainful employment. Agniveers, as those hired from nation-wide recognised technical institutes through an all-India test are to be called, will initially serve for four years, with the first six months devoted to training. The eligible age group ranges between 17.5 to 21 years. Successful candidates can be assigned any of the three wings of the armed forces, though naturally the intake by the army will be the maximum. They will be paid between Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per month. Agniveers will contribute 30 per cent of their composite monthly compensation to a Seva Nidhi fund which, upon retirement after four years, will entitle them to a package of Rs 11.71 lakhs each. In addition, the government will help them find gainful employment in either private or government sectors, as well as in getting bank loans for starting their own businesses. Notably, the best 25 per cent of Agniveers every year will be chosen on merit for further service of fifteen years. Such recruitment will raise the age profile of the fighting arms of the services from 32 to 26 years, making it leaner, fitter and more youthful.
As a retired general noted, youthful energy or josh is absolutely necessary for the frontline soldier. The Agnipath scheme addresses that big lag straightaway. What it also does is, it allows policy-planners to overcome the crushing burden of pay and pensions on the defence budget, which leaves very little for acquisition of modern war-machines and equipments. As per one estimate, nearly 60 per cent of the annual defence outlay is accounted for by the single head of salaries and pensions, which has progressively risen also due to the linkage with the inflation index. Of course, Agniveers will not be entitled to the much-ballyhooed government job security, though a life insurance cover of Rs 48 lakhs, ex-gratia payment of Rs 44 lakhs in case of death, etc is duly provided; also a handsome compensation in case of disability. Returning to the jobs market at the end of the four-year stint with the armed forces, their training and discipline as Agniveers should stand them in very good stead. The fear that youths trained in the use of firearms could pose a threat to society once back as civilians, is misplaced. All modern armies have now acquired a youthful profile.
No longer does modern warfare concentrate on hand-to-hand mortal combat or predominantly artillery fire-exchanges. On the actual battleground, soldiers require both brawn and brain, though increasingly the brain has assumed a higher worth. Modern wars have gone hi-tech with robotics, artificial intelligence, satellite imagery, laser-directed weaponry, etc constituting a good part of the arsenal of any fighting-fit force. Also, a life-long career in the armed forces is reserved only for the very best, while the emphasis is on the youth for the actual fighting arms. The American armed forces are a mix of short-term recruits serving for periods up to a decade and it is a very small percentage, especially in the higher echelons at the leadership levels, who serve all through their working age. One of the fittest fighting forces in the world, that is the Israeli armed services, has a mere 30-month span of active service for men and 22 months for women soldiers. Likewise, the armed forces of major world powers now have a short-duration but youthful profile. Therefore, to say that Agniveers will compromise the training and ability of the Indian armed forces to defend the country is plain fear-mongering. Ideally, we should have the financial clout for acquiring the most modern tools of warfare in order to lessen dependence on manpower in the battleground. But given that the size of our economy is one-sixth that of China, given that we cannot discount a two-front armed engagement, with China in the north and Pakistan in the west, augmenting the existing strength of a nearly nine-lakh-strong army with 40,000-plus youths every year is the next best thing that could have been devised to overcome a highly constrained fiscal situation. Both society at large and the armed forces are set to benefit from having Agniveers amidst us.