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The Agnipath Scheme of recruitment into the armed forces has once again come up for a media trial. This was expected since the scheme always had detractors from Day One. The Opposition has found a new found voice with a somewhat better performance in the general elections and is sparing no effort to discredit the scheme. In fact, there were promises of revoking the scheme if the INDIA bloc came to power at the Centre. At the same time, the ruling coalition members have also requested the Prime Minister, though in somewhat muted voices, to review the scheme and tweak it if the situation so demands.

The last few days have seen several articles in the mainstream media, some even by very senior veterans, who have voiced several issues regarding the Agnipath Scheme and have raised concerns about its deleterious effects on the combat preparedness of the armed forces. They have also opined that the only reason for the government to implement the scheme was to reduce the pension bill and that there is no other advantage that will accrue out of it. Time will tell – the scheme has barely seen two years since its implementation. The first batch of Agniveers will complete their four years of mandatory service 2026. Maybe we could just hang on till then before making sweeping judgements.

There have also been concerns voiced about Agniveers being short-changed as most will not be re-recruited as permanent soldiers, sailors or airmen and hence will not get a secure, pensionable, government job. That was not the intention in the first place. Those who are keen to serve will be re-inducted on merit and if merit is the only criterion, how does it compromise combat capability? For the first four years, they would be under training for 36 weeks and for the remaining time it is the responsibility of the Services to employ them commensurate with their training. Again, where is the compromise on military effectiveness?

Just to make things clear, I am not siding with the government but neither am I rubbishing the opinions of the critics. I am sure both sides have good reasons to do what they are doing. However, it will be wise to remember that India is a democratic set-up where policy formulation and decisions are clearly the prerogative and responsibility of the political executive. The armed forces leadership, at best, can render advice, voice concerns and make recommendations. Once that is done, it is the responsibility of the political executive to formulate policy for which they will be responsible and held to account.

The military leadership has the freedom to step down if it feels so strongly about an issue. The fact that no Chief has stepped down indicates that even if they felt strongly that the contours of the Agnipath Scheme were not right, they did not feel it strongly enough to step down. There is this counterargument one hears and that is, ‘Resigning is not the answer. You must stay in the system to correct it from within.’ This is all humbug. It cannot be done from within. Had any Chief stepped down after the Agnipath Scheme was implemented, that would have caused animated debate in society and perhaps a review at that juncture itself.

As mentioned earlier, the Services are peripheral to policy formulation about defence and national security matters. They are professionals in their own right and enjoy great autonomy in operational matters. In other areas, where there are several angles at play, the political executive will decide one way or the other, after having duly considered the views of the military leadership. The Agnipath Scheme is one such example for which the political executive bears full responsibility and accountability in every respect, including its impact on military preparedness.

That having been said, I have three points that must be considered carefully by the political executive. First, has there been any official communication from the Service Chiefs that the scheme compromises military preparedness in any way? If yes, have their views been seriously considered? Second, is the re-induction of 25% adequate to maintain the strength of the Services? If not, are we willing to accept reduced numbers and yet maintain combat effectiveness? Third, is there a commitment from the government to absorb Agniveers leaving after four years? If so, how and in which industries/forces? If in the police or paramilitary forces, have gazette notifications been issued to formalise quotas or priorities? If these questions are satisfactorily answered, many unnecessary debates will be avoided.

And another thing – why is nobody talking about the Short Service Commission (SSC) Officer Entry Scheme? That is also non-pensionable. They too leave after 10 years. They too have no job assurance or security once they leave. The Services are happy with the scheme for several reasons. There could be similar benefits from the Agnipath Scheme too – and if one such benefit is reduction in the pension bill, what is wrong with that? I would go a step further to suggest inclusion of SSC and Agnipath equivalent schemes in all government jobs. It may just enhance efficiency and promote merit rather than be assured of a life-long son-in-law (damaad) status with all perks, privileges and pension.

In today’s world of opportunity, let me end on a personal note. I have served the Indian Navy four decades, starting with a life-long commitment at the age of 17, when I was packed off to the National Defence Academy in a second class compartment with a steel trunk containing all my belongings. I would definitely not do it if I was today’s youngster. If I did wish to serve in the defence forces, I would have opted for the SSC entry if I were to join as an officer and the Agnipath Scheme if I were to join as a sailor. Fifteen or twenty years is too long a commitment to make in this day and age. And when individuals leave the armed forces with good training, discipline and age on their side, a plethora of avenues open up for further education, employment and service to the nation.

Give the Agniveer a chance. Such public domain discussions affect their morale and dedication – and that, if anything, will definitely affect combat-effectiveness.

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