JUNE 16: In the northern state of Bihar, protesters burnt tyres and blocked key highways on Wednesday, demanding a roll back of the reforms. Police had to fire tear gas shells in some areas after protesters clashed with them.
The “Agnipath” or Path of Fire programme, which was unveiled on Tuesday, is aimed at army aspirants aged between 17.5 years and 21 years. Successful candidates will join the armed services for four years, after which only 25% of them will be retained.
The move is aimed at cutting expenses on the army’s ballooning salaries and pensions – which consume more than half of its budget – and freeing up funds to modernise the forces. The government said this would also “enhance the youthful profile of the armed forces”.
But aspirants say the scheme is an eyewash, which does very little to create jobs and opportunities. Several of them shouted slogans like “give us jobs or have us killed” on Wednesday.
The programme has also received criticism from some military generals and defence 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 neighbours – Pakistan and China.
“It’s a foolish move, one that could affect the efficiency of the security forces,” says retired Major General Sheonan Singh. “Saving money is good but it should not be done at the cost of defence forces. If you go to war with an experienced soldier, will a person with four years of training be able to replace him on his death? These things don’t work like this.”
India, which shares a heavily militarised border with Pakistan and has been involved in a tense stand-off with China along its Himalayan border, has one of the world’s largest armed forces. With some 1.4 million personnel, it is also one of the country’s top employers – with millions of people applying every year.
Every year, some 60,000 personnel retire and the army holds up to 100 fresh hiring “rallies” to replace them. But the hiring has been suspended for the past few years. Officials attribute it to the pandemic, but experts say the force was already stretched on resources and struggling to modernise.
Under Agnipath, 46,000 soldiers will be recruited this year.
The soldiers will go through training for six months and then will be deployed for three and a half years. During this period, they will get a starting salary of 30,000 rupees ($384; £316), along with additional benefits which will go up to 40,000 rupees by the end of the four-year service.
What happens after four years?
One of the biggest concerns is the fate of the soldiers after they finish their term.
“I have been working very hard for the last two years to join the army. But suddenly the Agnipath scheme was announced,” says 20-year-old Debojit Bora in the north-eastern state of Assam. “Now we will get a chance to work for only four years. So, even if I get selected, I will be retired from the job. What will I do after that?”
This is particularly alarming at a time when the country is facing a persistent job crisis. India’s unemployment rate reached nearly 7.83% in April, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an independent think tank. Millions of Indians lost their jobs when the pandemic struck India in 2020 which was already in the throes of a prolonged slowdown.
“Besides, unemployment rate among the youth (15-29 years) has been hovering over 20% for a long time,” says Mahesh Vyas, the managing director and CEO of CMIE.
The government has sought to allay these fears by announcing that the Agnipath aspirants will be given priority in recruitment to central armed police forces and Assam Rifles (an Indian army unit).
But military experts are sceptical. They worry this would push young people into a life of frustration and with fewer job opportunities.
“Where will a 21 year old 10th or 12th pass unemployed youth go for a job? If he goes for recruitment in the police, then he will be told that there are already several other fresh graduates in tow, so he should stand at the back of the line,” says Gen Singh.
Besides, four years is too short a time for the aspirants to be able to adjust to the military discipline, he adds.
“Six months out of four years will be spent in training. Then the soldier will go to areas like infantry and signals,for specialised training, which will take more time. It’s not like they can become a pilot in the Air Force – they will become a groundsman or a mechanic. So, what will he learn in four years?”
Experts say a short-term contract also runs the risk of having thousand of young unemployed youth with arms training.
“Do you really want to put out so many people who are well trained in arms to look for jobs in a society where levels of violence are already so high?,” Sushant Singh, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, told the BBC in April.
Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in a column in The Indian Express, says this could have ” huge sociological implications, and if not handled well, we could be playing with fire”.
‘It’s needed to modernise the army’
Not everyone opposes the overhaul, though.
“The army has the ability to make do with much less people than they have now. We need to cut the flab,” Ajai Shukla, a former officer who now writes on defence, told the BBC in April.
Retired Major General SB Asthana said the step would benefit the Indian army as it would help modernise the forces and bring in more younger and technology-driven soldiers.
“It is difficult to train old people in modern technology. But this generation is more capable. This plan will give freedom to the army to keep the best 25% of the soldiers and let the rest go.”
In an earlier interview with the BBC, Lt-Gen HS Panag said that India has a “large military where we are forced to use quantity to compensate for quality”. As a developing economy, India’s defence spending “cannot increase exponentially” and therefore it needed to slim the forces.
But Mr Mehta argues that a shift from reliance on personnel to technology, and a younger age profile of soldiers “should be dealt with in its own terms, not governed just by the logic of cutting your pension bill”.
“The armed forces need support and reform. But reforms should be governed by a sound sociological, professional, institutional and strategic logic… A dose of scepticism might be a better act of patriotism than cheerleading blindly, especially if you want reforms to succeed,” he wrote.
With inputs from BBC