Agnipath: Quality, not quantity, is what defence forces want in new Agniveer recruits

Protests by army aspirants continue despite promises of cash, upskilling and job reservations for Agniveer recruits demobilised after four years.

In today’s employment scenario, the race to get a government job, any job, can get real ugly. Recruitment to the armed forces is particularly sought after. The main reasons that tend to turn any government recruitment scheme into a subject of controversy, at times leading to violent protests. A recent Railway recruitment process had to be scrapped for precisely those reasons. Now, a new recruitment scheme for the armed forces has seen violent protests in states like UP, Rajasthan and Bihar. Vehicles and trains were burnt by angry protestors who saw in the scheme a plot to deny them permanent jobs and benefits in the armed forces.

Curiously titled ‘Agnipath’ the recruits selected under this scheme will be called ‘Agniveers’ whose uniform insignia will be different from those of full-time recruits.

“We have been waiting for the vacant army posts for more than two years,” said Jaideep Singh from Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh who said his dream of getting into the Army now seems blurry. “Now they have come up with this new scheme where they will throw us out in such a competitive job market after four years”.

Read more: Budget 2022 offers no urban job scheme, but promises 60 lakh new jobs

Details of the scheme

The Government of India rolled out the Agnipath Scheme for recruitment to 46,000 vacant posts in the armed forces on June 14th. The age limit for applicants is 17.5 to 23 years (as compared to earlier age limit of 21 years).

As per official announcements, online registration under this scheme for Indian Air Force recruitment, named Agniveer Vayu, was launched on June 24th. The last date of registration is July 5th and written exams will be held from July 24th onwards. The provisional selected candidate list will be announced on December 1st and training will commence from December 30th.

Employment under the scheme will be for a period of four years, after which 25% of recruits will be absorbed full time, the remaining 75% let go to make their lives anew in civvy street.

All recruits will receive a composite annual package of ₹ 4.76 lakh for the first year, which shall, upon successful completion of training, rise to ₹6.92 lakh in the fourth year. 

The scheme also makes provision for Seva Nidhi, a service fund of ₹ 11.71 lakh (or 30% of what the recruits will earn in four years) to be given to Agniveers who are let go. An equal amount will be contributed by the government, which amounts to close to a lump sum payment of nearly Rs 24 lakh.

The scheme also provides for compensation in case of death and disability, which includes a non-contributing life insurance cover of Rs 48 lakh and an ex gratia of Rs 44 lakh in case of death attributable to the services.

It is estimated that around 30,000 Agniveers re-entering society after four years of service will be eligible for these benefits.

Those left out

The anger among the youth is triggered mainly because of the irregularity in the conduct of scheduled “Army rallies” (a term used for recruitment of army personnel), which have remained suspended for the past two years because of the pandemic and now stand cancelled.

Protestors say the new scheme, which completely changes the structure of the recruitment process, ignores those who had cleared the physical test in rallies held before the pandemic and may even have cleared the written exams.

Expressing his views on the the new recruitment process, one army aspirant who did not want be named said that he has nothing to say as he is over-age now. A condition that many like him are in. He is disappointed that the months of waiting for the written exams after clearing the physical tests have been a sheer waste.

In March 2022, replying to the questions of several MPs in Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt said, 184 rallies were planned in the last two years, out of which only 51 rallies could be conducted. Of these, the Common Entrance Exam (CEE)  was conducted only for four rallies before the entire recruitment was suspended.

Why Agnipath?

The armed forces, especially the army, have been emphasizing two main problem areas for many years. One, the increasing average age of soldiers, which is currently around 32. Agnipath will bring this down to 25-26, senior army officers have said. The second problem area is the quality of recruits. Given that any future war scenario will be more a war of technology which requires a much higher level of intelligence and tech skills in its soldiers. 

This scheme, the government argues, will speed up military modernization with more money to invest in cutting-edge technologies as it will save considerably in pension payments. Besides, the scheme will create disciplined youths with military training and better employable skills, they argue.

Official poster on the new Agnipath recruitment scheme
An official poster on the benefits under the new Agnipath recruitment scheme. Pic

In fact, a government booklet on the Agnipath scheme points out that quite a few developed nations, such as the United States of America, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, have a similar recruitment process for their armed forces.

To mollify the protestors, the government even announced other incentives for the Agniveer. Such as 10% reservation in the Central Armed Police Forces and Assam Rifles, 10% reservation in Indian Coast Guards, and 10% reservation in all defense public sector units. 

The government has also said it would help Agniveer recruits in further upskilling by offering a three year degree course after they are released from the army. Some industry leaders have said they would prioritize Agniveers in their company’s recruitment.

Read more: Guest column: A councillor-driven urban jobs initiative could save the day

Doubts persist

A few retired army officers have expressed reservations about the scheme. “There has been no pilot project, on-ground implementation, and analysis of such a serious and significant change,” said  Lt General Vinod Bhatia (Retd). The government, however, insists that this model was decided after many rounds of consultation among the armed forces and policy makers.

Lt General Anil Puri, additional secretary in the Department of Military Affairs, at a press conference on June 19th, gave an assurance of increasing the Agniveer intake to 50,000-60,000 in the next 4-5 years, going up to 1.25 lakhs subsequently.

The protesting youth and former officers who have expressed their doubts are mainly concerned with two issues: The four-year duration of services which is inclusive of the training period. And the criteria for selecting 25% of the Agniveers for permanent service.

Official statements say this will be “based on merit and organizational requirement through a central, transparent, rigorous system,” without giving out any other details. Over the past two years, Lt Gen Puri added, the forces have been critically studying and researching the Agnipath scheme. The new recruitment process is not the work of one person or individual but a collective achievement, said Lt Gen Puri.

But doubts do remain. “Why disturb something which is not wrong,” asked retired Maj. Gen Ajay Seth. “It should have been implemented at a smaller scale and if found suitable only then should have been scaled up”.

Though the protests are no longer as intense as they had been initially, the government has made it clear that there is no taking back this scheme. On June 20th, Lt. General Anil Puri said that aspirants should start preparing as the armed forces are preparing for the recruitment of the first batch of Agniveers. The registration process for the this scheme began on June 24th and will close on July 5th.

But those who took part in the protests and have FIRs against them have already been disqualified from applying.  

[The authors would like to acknowledge the help of Amit Mishra for helping to reach out to army aspirants.]

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