Indian Air Force personnel watch as Sarang helicopters perform in an airshow during the combined graduation parade at the Air Force Academy in Dundigal, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, on June 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noah Seelam

On June 14, the Indian government introduced the Agnipath scheme. The new program aims to enroll youth aged between 17 and a half and 21 years into the Armed Forces for a service duration of four years.

Briefing media in New Delhi along with all three service chiefs, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters that the youth selected under this scheme will be titled “Agniveers.” After the completion of their four-year terms, 25% of the Agniveers will be retained or re-enlisted in the regular cadre, while the remaining 75% of will be demobilized with an exit package.

The soldiers will go through training for six months and then will be deployed for three and a half years. They will get a monthly starting salary of 30,000 rupees (US$383), along with additional benefits, which will go up to 40,000 rupees by the end of the four-year service. The new Agnipath scheme will only be applicable for personnel lower than officer rank.

The government’s argument for such radical reform is to cut the military’s expenditure on ballooning salaries and pensions – which consume more than half of the defense budget – and free up funds to modernize the forces as well as “enhance the youthful profile of the Armed Forces.”

Also read: Agnipath: India’s new approach to military recruitment

As soon as the program was announced, massive protests began across all parts of India. Taking objection to some of its conditions, army aspirants and students have been agitating in 11 states including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Haryana, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Jharkhand and Assam. More than 60 railway coaches and 11 train engines, tens of police vehicles, and government buses have been set on fire all across India.

In the southern state of Telangana, one person was killed, while eight others were critically injured after police opened fire to control an angry mob that went on a rampage at Secunderabad railway station. They were demanding a rollback of the scheme – a demand refused by the central government.

In a bid to pacify protesters, the government announced that candidates aged up to 23 years could apply under the scheme in the first year and proposed to reserve 10% of vacancies in the Ministry of Defense for Agniveers. But these concessions were not enough to satisfy the student demands.

More than 50,000 candidates have already cleared physical and medical tests and have been waiting for their appointment letters. This sudden announcement seriously dashes the hopes of not only those candidates but millions of aspirants from whom getting a job in the Indian forces is a matter of great pride.

UP, Bihar the biggest losers

As the days passed, protests intensified across the country, but the most affected regions were the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Young guys with sticks were seen smashing stores and benches at the railway stations across both states for three days.

Close to 500 trains were canceled, Internet services in 20 districts were temporarily shut down, and vandalism of public property and attacks on police officers were quite common.

Protesters scoffed at the rationale being given for the scheme that it will cut down the defense pension bill, saying such talk doesn’t hold merit in a country where you become eligible for life-long pension upon becoming a member of Parliament or of a state legislative assembly even for one day.

They were seeking justification from the government that a person will join the Armed Forces putting their lives at risk to be kicked out after four years without any pensioner benefits, while MPs and MLAs have all the benefits. If the government thought reducing pension bills in this manner was fair, it should do away with pensions of MPs and MLAs and shorten their tenure to two years, the critics said.

The reason behind such a strong response especially from these two states (UP and Bihar) was that they send a maximum number of men to serve the country in the military. More than 300,000 people in the Armed Forces are from these two states. Much of the economy of these states depends on that, as the region is the least industrialized in India.

So before planning this program, the government must have thought about the implications for these two state economies, which are already on the lowest ranking in terms of every Human Development Index component. It will certainly push the future of these two states further into darkness.

More important, the program has also received criticism from some retired military generals and defense experts who say it could weaken the structure of the army and could have serious ramifications for national security, especially when India has tense borders with two of its neighbors, Pakistan and China.

Radical reforms need serious risk assessment

The shift from reliance on personnel to technology and a younger age profile of soldiers should be dealt with on its own terms, not governed just by the logic of cutting the pension bill, the critics argue.

Saving money is good but it should not be done at the cost of India’s national security. It would have been better if the government had adopted a balanced approach. Rather than making such radical reforms in one move, the government has done so through a pilot project to measure the effectiveness of the reforms.

The Armed Forces do need support and reform, but reforms should be governed by a sound sociological, professional, institutional, and strategic logic assessment. 

A war lost brings shame and ignominy to the citizens of a country and reduces the prestige and the country’s influence in the world. No price can measure a country’s prestige loss. A dose of skepticism might be a better act of patriotism than cheerleading blindly, especially if a government wants reforms to succeed.

With a curtailed training period of six months, Agniveers will neither be able to gain any worthwhile expertise in handling modern expensive military equipment nor understand the nuances of a modern battlefield of artificial intelligence and cyber warfare. A poor-quality, inadequately trained human resource will be a sure recipe for disaster for national security while fighting the battle-hardened experience soldiers on the other front.

What will happen if 75% of the trained young Agniveer manpower released from service is not absorbed in society after four years? Has the government done any risk assessment? They may join terrorist or insurgents groups in search of a better option for livelihood after retirement.

But the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is quite infamous for making disastrous reforms. Demonetization and the goods and services tax (GST) are just two examples. Only time will tell whether Agnipath will break Modi’s jinx or suffer the same fate.

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.