An Indian soldier on a vehicle in Ganderbal district after border clashes with China in Ladakh. Photo: Muzamil Mattoo / NurPhoto

The Indian Armed Forces’ long-standing methodology of recruitment of personnel below officers rank was all but blown to bits as Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh announced a new recruitment policy to the forces that’s diametrically different.

The Indian forces have up to now been following a system of enrolling young, volunteer aspirants through a rigorous testing procedure to serve long enough tenures and earn a fairly liberal pension after contractual service period.

However, the new policy – Agnipath – will draw its ranks from 17½-to-21-year-olds, who will serve for four years, with only 25% retained for full service thereafter. These new entrants will be categorized as Agniveers.

The armed forces are perhaps the single largest recruiters in the Indian job market. Thousands of youth line up for enrollment at its recruitment rallies, and examination centers, vying for a permanent job that promises a life-long safety net including pension and health care.

With long service tenures in the forces, these personnel also develop higher levels of professional competence. At the infantry, armor and artillery battalion regiment levels, the long associations build an intense camaraderie that has been the Indian Army’s prime asset in war and counterinsurgency operations.

However, the short tenures that Agnipath leads to, and an intensely competitive environment that will emerge with only one-fourth retaining their jobs, could gnaw at the team spirit and commitment that bind the rank and file into cohesive combat entities.

The downside of the old system was an increasingly older army, with the average age hovering at 32 years. The Agnipath option is expected to draw that down to 26.

Beyond the issue of age profile, there is the pressing need to arrest the runaway expenditure on pensions. In the Indian case, pensions account for a huge percentage of the defense budget. The forces are laden with dated equipment and the capital budget for such purchases can be boosted only if the pension bill is brought down. In fact, the armed forces have reached a critical state on this issue.

It would be interesting to look into the structures and practices in vogue in some of the modern armies to cushion combatants when they return back from their tour of military duties. A distinct leaning toward renewable service periods with merit-based retention is seemingly the rule.

Demobilized personnel have formalized assistance schemes. Such measures include financial packages, relaxations for pursuing higher education, educational qualification credits based on length of service. Some countries also have a system for some job reservations.

In the Indian context, the announcement of the Agnipath recruitment and retention policy has led to fairly widespread protests. The stark possibility of losing their jobs in a country where jobs are not easily available provided the necessary fodder for the protests to spread.

However, tempers seem to be cooling and a degree of acceptance is visible after the government’s announcements of safeguards for the 75% of Agniveers who will be again looking for a job after their release from the forces.

It would be interesting to take stock of some of the measures announced for Agniveers by the Indian government. These include job reservations in a host of organizations that include large manufacturing behemoths like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, manufacturers of Tejas light combat aircraft. Similar reservations have been announced in the police organizations, especially those that are directly under the central government.

Other measures include induction in the Merchant Navy with a provision for focused training of the released navy sailors to meet the Merchant Navy’s requirements.

Provisions have been made for Agniveers to enhance their educational qualifications, earn credits for their skills thereby easing the path to higher educational levels.

The issue of financial support for those seeking to be entrepreneurs has also been looked into. Banks would explore possibilities of supporting Agniveers through suitable credit facilities for skill up-gradation, education for setting up businesses and self-employment. Each Agniveer, released after four years, will also be given a lump-sum financial package for which he will have contributed 50% while in service.

The vast Indian corporate sector has also evinced interest in working with the government to ensure that those who manned the outposts that guard the nation’s security, are looked after when they leave their uniforms behind.

The Agnipath model easily caters for far more provisions to ensure ex-soldiers find meaningful jobs meeting their aspirations. In fact, it is a model that ex-servicemen in other countries may find more lucrative than what they have.

The issue of cohesion at the battalion level is definitely better served by long service together. However, the loss in terms of competence with trained manpower moving out is perhaps partially compensated by new recruits who are more apt at the use of technology as compared with older men and women who tend to be slower at absorbing technical skills.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.