After two years of no recruitment in the armed forces, the Narendra Modi government has introduced a radical shift in the way Army, Navy and Air Force hire soldiers. Under the Agnipath scheme, recruits will be inducted for a four-year tenure, at the end of which 25% will be retained for regular service.
The scheme, unveiled earlier this week, has been hailed as a momentous step in making the armed forces younger and fitter. It has also been billed as a win-win for the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) since the recruits, called Agniveers, who don’t make the cut for regular service can switch to paramilitary forces who in turn will save up on training costs.
The scheme, however, is yet to gain unanimous acceptance among army aspirants and veterans, the sticking points being the eligible age-limit for recruitment and lack of a traditional pension among others.
The government moved to address the age issue on a one-time basis after Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand witnessed protests against the new scheme. On Thursday, the upper-age limit for recruitment under Agnipath was increased from 21 to 23 only for the year 2022. The lower age-limit remains 17.5 years.
Concerns, however, remain over absence of pension, despite the scheme including a one-time contributory severance pay called Seva Nidhi that adds up to Rs 11 lakh after four years, and lack of clarity on whether Agnipath will be an additional recruitment model or replace the existing hiring system in the defence forces.
“There is no clarity among majority of aspirants on whether or not the older model of recruitment will stay. This, combined with the years-long wait for hiring, is causing frustration among aspirants,” said Shubham Singh Charak, a research scholar in National Security Studies at the Central University of Jammu.
The decision to not have a pilot rollout is also making aspirants anxious. Many, including veterans, who oppose Agnipath are of the view that Agniveers could form a reserve pool to be called upon during war of natural calamities.
“Under the new recruitment scheme, there is not only lack of job security but also lack of pension and additional benefits. For someone who is ready to fight and die for the motherland, the sense of security that their family will be taken care of means a huge deal, especially for those coming from rural areas,” said Charak, who, at one point, also wanted to join the armed forces.
There also concerns on whether the Agniveers would be able to find jobs in civilian lives after the four-year tenure. The government has said that recruits who don’t get selected for permanent posting in the defence forces will get 50% credit for an undergraduate degree and job assistance. Veterans, however, have opined that, at present, it is uncommon for retired officers who didn’t complete a degree to get a corporate job. But Air Force and Navy recruits, who are hired after obtaining a degree, get employment after completing their service tenures, they say.
Some aspirants, who have been preparing long to enter the armed forces, see merit in the new recruitment scheme. Harsh Singh, an Air Force aspirant and second year BCA student from Mathura, has been preparing for the IAF recruitment exam for two years. Unlike many of his friends, Harsh is not protesting against the Agnipath scheme as he sees it as “just another level added to the recruitment process”.
“If selected, we will get credits for a new undergraduate degree as well as quota in finding a job afterwards. I am confident I would be among the top 25 per cent of performers and be selected for a permanent job. After all, wearing the uniform has been my dream. That dream is being fulfilled regardless of me being hired as a permanent member. Even if I do not get shortlisted, I can pursue my love for coding,” he said.
Sriram Srirangam, Founder & Director of SRIRAM’s IAS, has been training youth for government service exams, most popularly civil services exams, for decades. He says that those who do not make the cut to be retained in the armed forces would be ideal IAS candidates.
“After spending four years in the defence forces, we will get a large group of young people who are mentally alert, physically strong, and tech-savvy. The youth coming out of this system will be prepared very well for all the prestigious avenues, including the IIM, the IAS, the armed police, etc. They may pick up the fundamentals of the Constitution, law, economics, foreign policies, etc. That could be the foundation for bureaucracy. They will be the most competitive lot for the best government posts, including IAS and IPS,” said Srirangam.
Himanshu Gautam, co-founder of Safalta, a platform that prepares rural youth for competitive exams, including defence forces, says the government will save money on pension which can be used to invest in advancing defence technology.
“Agnipath will help select agile people who are readily and voluntarily stepping in to serve the nation. I feel it is important that we look at it as a stepping stone into the Army,” he said.