In what appears to be a move by the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre to cause a tectonic policy blitzkrieg in each of their two successive five-year stints, the government it heads at the Centre announced an all-shocking scheme called Agnipath on June 14. The first inning (2014-2019) had witnessed a demonetisation exercise in 2016 and Agnipath seems to be an encore during the current term. A common peculiarity about these two announcements is that they were done so without any debate in Parliament, or for that matter in a relevant Parliamentary Standing Committee.
The Agnipath scheme is envisioned for both male and female aspirants. There have since been a series of state-wide agitations for a rollback of the scheme in such states as Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, Telangana and the like. These agitations even snowballed into a nation-wide strike on June 20 spearheaded by unidentified organisanisations opposing the scheme.
Agnipath (literally, the Path of Fire) is a new recruitment system of Indian armed forces and is the only route to serve in the country’s military. The recruits under this scheme will be known as Agniveers (Fire Warriors). The Agniveers will be recruited for ranks below commissioned officers. The non—officer Agniveers will be recruited only through Agnipath as soldiers, sailors and air men into the Army, Navy and Air Force respectively for a period of four years during which they will undergo rigorous trainings in different walks of the tri-services of the armed forces.
The short-term contractual recruitment will be within the productive age group of 17.5 to 21 years (while the upper age limit has been raised to 23 years for this year only, following wide protests by young aspirants across the country). By and large, Agnipath douses the fire in the belly of the prime targets to serve the country in the line of defence. Under the scheme, the 75 % decommissioned Agniveers are deprived of pensions, health or education benefits. Same are with those 25 % who will be permanently commissioned for another 15 years- will meet the same fate post-retirement.
Fragility vs Agility
To march miles requires agility for a soldier, sailor or airman. The existing recruitment system is such that some military personnel become inactive in physique the longer he or she serves in the force. The soft and flabby nature of the redundant recruitment system is a cause for concern. This fragility of armed or non-armed personnel in the tri-services increases from bad to worse over a period of time, while also the fiscal burden eats into the ex-chequer (defence budget). More than half of the total expenditures on defence goes to pensions and salaries annually with no remunerative physical fitness in sight of the personnel.
The Agnipath scheme is moving in the right direction in choosing the 17.5 to 21 age group, beyond which is not trustworthy of physical fitness.
Technological warfare cannot always be trotted out as an excuse to replace manual humankind. There have been enough man-to-man encounter cases across the India-China border between the two Armies.
Man and technology should work in unison to ensure a seamless and hassle-free security. This would bring about efficiency and effectiveness in the execution of the needful security of the land.
However, a caveat cannot be ruled out in the case of Navy and Air force. Unlike in the Army where acquiring skills is quite relatively easier, the two forces require time to gain the requisite skills in handling both the software and hardware aspects of the two forces. Equipment such as arms and ammunitions are technical in operation, that they require more time and energy to get hands-on expertise. The government could rectify this lacuna through a lateral entry which is devoted exclusively to deal with the technical aspects of the forces with a proviso of a permanent commissioning. The government can do this before the first commencement of the scheme that begins September this year.
Employment and Honour
Defence Ministry provides a dual hope to ambitious young aspirants. There are a group of young men who distinctively conceive of serving the country in the line of military. Administrations ranging from bureaucracy to diplomacy alone are not taken as a platform to serve the nation. For them to be inducted in the military is more of pride and honour, and in serving in this capacity, they even feel complacent looking no more for employment alternatives.
The government justifies Agnipath: that, defence ministry is not an employment generating agency is very unfortunate. The fact is that the youth of the country see to it more as an honour in finding one’s feet in the military.
No doubt, India’s unemployment rate reached an all-time high in double digits. Therefore, recruitment in the armed forces not for just on contract basis would do justice in fulfilling the job promises of the Modi government. In 2014 being for the first time at the helm of Prime Ministership of the country, Narendra Modi had made many promises and one of which was to create 20 million new jobs every year.
Agnipath has the potential to fulfil this job promise of Modi, but alas not to the likings of the job aspirants! Agnipath will be recruited twice a year, which means most of the promised 20 million new jobs would then be contributed by Agnipath alone within a short period of time. This will result into what I call a cosmetic generation of jobs. In substance, jobs that are generated by the scheme would be insecure ones and there is a great likelihood of it becoming counter-productive: the pessimistic view is, Agniveer after they are relieved of their jobs can join ranks with anti-socials.
Therefore, taking the caveats into consideration, the government should spare no efforts to give more secure employments to more than half of the 900 million Indians of legal working age. India should tap on the demographic dividends sooner than later.
Hire and Fire
The 4-year contract-based Agnipath is infamous fors its short tenure. The unemployed youth of the country are looking for a secure and permanently commissioned job. Their long standing hope of ending employment is being belied by the newly introduced recruitment system of the country’s armed forces. The young aspirants of the military force will turn out to be mere Agniveers for four years at worst while some to be Agniveers hardly for another fifteen years at best.
The reason suspected behind the new recruitment system is of cost cutting, that is, a way to reduce fiscal burden on pension and salary bills. This expenditure cutting on the tri-services of the country can be done best by creating flexible labour markets i.e., contractualisation. With this market mechanism, an employee can be freely hired and fired at the whims and fancies of the market. According to market based economists, workers can be thrown out when firms are not profitable and also bring them in when firms are profitable. This contractualisation-induced flexibility is harmful to the job prospects – no decent job can be provided – and, rather destroys the spirit of work culture.
Lacking the welfare or socialist approach of the founding fathers of Independent India, the Modi government is more inclined to market economy. In this effect, the government has initiated changes to labour laws. These changes bring about sufficient flexibility only to weaken trade unions and association formations, which otherwise they would have provided some bargaining chips for workers. Another consequence of new labour codes is the steep decline in wages between 2011-12 and 2017-18. This deduction technique in wages is applied on the cost cutting of military forces, hence Agnipath.
The Gender Lens of Agnipath
The new recruitment system to the military forces is meant both for male and female alike of same age group. As much as it is detrimental to male aspirants so is to females. The scheme is a huge blow to the female labour force participation. Under the scheme, at least some of the Agniveer women will be back to the household chores within the four-sided walls of the house.
Stereotypical femineity is in the offing as far as protest against Agnipath is concerned. Everyone is appalled at finding not a single woman involved in both state – and nation – wide strikes for a rollback of the scheme. They were conspicuous by their total absence in the protests.
This does not mean that they have jobs, or that they are not looking for jobs. Rather, their ability to protest is limited by society. While it is the sole onus of the government to arrest the ever increasing gap of employment between male and female on one hand and the absolute female labour market participation rate on the other hand, the government has introduced a scheme like Agnipath which would allegedly lessen employment prospects of women all the more.
Skill development has become a cliché. We have enough number of educated unemployed, so producing more skilled workers is not the remedy for the malady. More emphasis has to be put in place on Output production. For this more industries, more agricultural goods and more services have to be incentivised in the economy. Labour-intensive sectors have to be ventured upon.
Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge cautioned the government not to play with fire. National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval warned the disgruntled youth to raise their voice but not violence. The ambitious young Indians who have been aspiring to serve the nation in the line of defence should not be disheartened. They still have a chance of 4 to fifteen years to serve the country. The 75 per cent Agniveers who get decommissioned after a four-year stint in the Agnipath may be looking forward to start-ups or entrepreneurship with whatever amount of money they are exiting the Agnipath scheme.