Agnipath scheme overhaul expected as India's Armed Forces confront recruitment woes and Geopolitical concerns
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
According to media reports quoting “unnamed sources” (official?), one year after the launch of the Agnipath Scheme for the Indian Military, work is in progress to examine changes to be introduced into this scheme. These include: raising the absorption rate of Agniveers into the military from the existing 25 per cent to 50 per cent to match the declining strength of the forces at soldier level; increasing the upper age bar to 23 years; inclusion of youths having a technical background, and; Agniveers to pay costs of training imparted if they leave the training midway.
The above media reports citing unnamed sources also mention the following:
India considers raising the Agniveer recruitment rate to 50 per cent and increasing the upper age limit to 23 to match military strength requirements and accommodate technically qualified youth
The first batch of Agniveers are set to join the Indian Army next month and training for the second batch of Agniveers is about to begin. However, the media reports have quoted an army officer to say that more than 50 Agniveers of the first batch left midway; reasons given by Agniveers leaving midway range from “proceeding on medical leave for more than a month” to “having found better opportunities”. Government is now planning to bring regulations for Agniveers to pay the entire cost of training if they leave midway.
While launching the Agnipath scheme in 2022, Lt General Anil Puri, then additional secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), had said that the number of Agniveers would be 1.25 lakh in the near future (about 1.75 lakh by 2026). He had also said, “In the next 4-5 years, our intake (of soldiers) will be 50,000-60,000 and will increase to 90,000-100,000 subsequently. We have started small at 46,000 to analyze the scheme and to build up infrastructure capacity."
On July 19, 2022, Minister of State (MoS) for Defence Ajay Bhatt informed the Rajya Sabha that the three Services have manpower shortages of 1,35,784 as of January 1, 2022 (1,16,464 in the Army, 13,597 in the Navy and 5,723 in the Air Force). However, the minister dodged the question about whether the average recruitment figure is more than the proposed annual intake of Agniveers and if so, how the shortage of manpower in the Armed Forces will be met. His response was limited to saying “the matter (Agnipath scheme) is sub-judice in the Supreme Court.”
It is no secret that the initial proposal from the Army Headquarters with respect to the Agnipath scheme was for 100 officers and 1,000 soldiers on an ‘experimental’ basis. How and why this was changed to 45,000 Agniveers annually by the MoD is also in public domain. But the large deficiencies at the soldiers’ level are mainly because in order to push through the Agnipath scheme, the government had stopped recruitment in the Army for more than two years.
The Armed Forces face difficulties in inducting eligible Agniveers in technical roles like aviation and engineering, leading to discussions on possible solutions
The subsequent reduction in the Army’s strength has helped only marginally. On an average some 60,000 retire annually from the Army alone. Moreover, recent reports indicate that Nepal having stopped Nepali youth joining the Indian Army because of the Agnipath scheme would increase manpower shortage in the Army by another 10,000.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), estimates that India's present unemployment rate is around 7.45 per cent (7.93 per cent in urban India and 7.44 per cent in rural India). The CMIE report also says that the states with highest unemployment rates are Rajasthan, J&K and Haryana - each with over 30 per cent. Since India’s population stood at 1,428,627,663 on July 1, 2023, we have some 11,072,769 unemployed with a 7.45 per cent unemployment rate.
This indicates that additional recruitment of Agniveers would be possible, even though urban unemployed may be less inclined to volunteer compared to the rural unemployed. At the same time, whether those passing out from polytechnic institutions join the Agnipath scheme with the existing financial package or opt for “better opportunities” remains a question mark. Youth would also be influenced by interaction with Agniveers not retained by the forces, in addition to witnessing the employment, pays and perks in the Army vis-à-vis police forces and attitude of the administration towards these entities, plus Army’s enhanced operational commitment due the continuing standoff with China.
Nepal's decision to stop Nepali youth from joining the Indian Army under the Agnipath Scheme raises security concerns, prompting China to recruit Nepali youth into its ranks
Inflation is only one pointer, like rise from 5.72 per cent in December 2022 to 6.52 per cent in January 2023, but we must acknowledge that with incomes not rising in line with the prices of essentials such as food, housing, and energy, the cost of living is increasing; consumers are clearly showing signs of distress as costs of essential products, especially food and non-alcoholic beverages, continue to rise. Keeping this in mind, the government could re-look at the financial package for Agniveers to make it more attractive.
Also, the government would do well to review the reduction in basic recruit training by many weeks when launching the Agnipath scheme. The MoD’s reasoning was that simulators could be used in recruit training at regimental centres and that Agniveers would continue “on job” training after joining army units. Perhaps it was not visualised what “on job” training is possible in units in operational areas with sub-units deployed far apart, already deficient in manpower and contributing to leave and other outside duties.
Finally, with Nepal stopping recruitment by the Indian Army, Nepali youth have joined the French Foreign Legion and Russia’s Wagner Group by the dozens. China has already recruited and deployed Tibetans along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The worrisome issue is that China is all set to recruit Nepali youth into the PLA. This should raise our security concerns both at conventional and sub-conventional levels, which must be addressed holistically.