This piece is part of the essay series, The Agneepath Scheme: Radical or Irrational?
The Agnipath recruitment scheme announced on 14 June this year for entry-level soldiers across the military establishment is slated to have
seven advantages. No disadvantages are listed but these have been voiced in impassioned, adverse reactions across retired officers and “other ranks” on social media and opinion pieces. In light of such a response, a reality check is in order.
Not a fiscal reform
Agnipath shall induct 46,000 Agniveers over the next 18 months for a compulsory term of four years. In the end, 11,500 (25 percent) of them will be inducted into an appropriate segment of the military. The remaining 75 percent (34,500) shall be discharged with a termination packet of INR1.17 million each for reinduction into civilian life. This termination corpus is partly self-funded via compulsory deductions of 30 percent from the monthly salary which increases from INR30,000 in the first year to INR40,000 in the fourth year. To this, the government will add a matching share on which an interest (rate unknown) will be added.
To assess the economic benefit, we assume that recruitment shall continue at the same scale for 19 (4+15) years. From the fourth year, there will be a floating pool of 184,000 (46,000X4) young, temporarily employed Agniveers/soldiers/sepoys accounting for 15 percent of the military strength. Their cash payment is not the problem since it is equivalent to what a regular sepoy earns.
Fiscal or pension reform is not the motivation here. In fact, an additional cost is envisaged to support the floating pool, alums of which will number 0.5 million by 2042.
The real problem is that from the fifth year, 34,500 (75 percent of 46,000) individuals will be discharged. The annual cost of their terminal package comes to INR4,036.5 crores (constant prices). This is 2.5 percent of the salary budget for 2022–23. As a one-off, it is bearable for a 15-percent surge in military strength. As a long-term policy, it makes little sense.
Imagine a counterfactual that the government, instead, simply employs a similar number of regular sepoys. At the end of 15 years (a sepoy’s normal service ) the accumulated value of terminal benefits not paid/saved, along with interest at 8 percent, would amount to INR 70,017 crores (INR 2.03 crores per sepoy). This seems a generous corpus to finance one’s pension and medical benefits. Clearly, fiscal or pension reform is not the motivation here. In fact, an additional cost is envisaged to support the floating pool, alums of which will number 0.5 million by 2042.
A massive social change is underway
This is a transformative change in recruitment policy which will most impact the army and within it the infantry which remains organised in the colonial regimental system. The biggest potential transformation is socio-political.
A blow has been struck at the continuing colonial practice of recruiting sepoys only from the “martial races”. Today, this often means martial castes: Jats, Sikhs, Marathas, Rajputs, and Gurkha, because regimental traditions and biases run deep. These are perpetuated by the fact that the military recruits itself, even more so than in the case of judges. Note that the military does not follow the caste-based reservation quotas for Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Scheduled Tribes (STs).
In contrast, the ‘All India, All Class’ recruitment for Agniveers is online and any eligible Indian can apply. Over time, this will dilute the caste and regional composition and biases of infantry regiments. It is important to also note that the press note issued glosses over this massive potential social transformation in the caste composition of the regiments, possibly because it is this change which is most widely panned.
Loss of sepoy motivation?
The anxiety around fiddling with regimental composition is that the close cultural and caste bonds within regiments might dissipate, resulting in the loss of motivation to offer the supreme sacrifice of life. Since the colonial period, sepoys have been facing mortal danger with swagger, befitting the heroes of their village, caste, or region. The battle-hardened officers and junior commissioned officers believe that it is this zeal to safeguard the honour of their ancestors, which induces the Indian soldier to excel. Motivation imbibed through training and the personal example of their officers, who lead from the front, to protect the nation at all costs, are additional drivers.
The battle-hardened officers and junior commissioned officers believe that it is this zeal to safeguard the honour of their ancestors, which induces the Indian soldier to excel.
This apprehension is genuine, but it ignores the power of more pedestrian incentives. Agniveers could be driven by their determination to excel and figure in the top 25 percent and get inducted into the military. These graduated Agniveers might even acquire a special status having passed a double agnipariksha
(exam)—once to get in and the second to be in the top one quarter of their cohort.
New management challenges
The press note also declares that the scheme offers a unique opportunity for young people to serve the country. This is true since earlier short service commissions were only for officers, not soldiers. An apprehension is that Agniveers will eat into the required minimum annual sepoy intake since there has been no increase in the total intake. Also, handsome rewards at the end of four years (including preferential recruitment into the central police services) could attract opportunists looking beyond the four years, rather than devoting themselves to protecting the nation as the regular sepoy has done for generations. More fundamentally, mixing up “opportunists” with deeply committed soldiers is a completely new management challenge for the Indian infantry.
The scheme would, indeed, reduce the statistical age profile of the military. The real question, however, is whether young talent will occupy positions that matter. The fear is that regimental commanders will give short shrift to the Agniveers (around 5 per platoon of 30 soldiers) versus regular sepoys, and relegate them to marginal roles.
The press note correctly bills the service terms as attractive—a monthly salary plus INR1.17 million tax-free, at the end of four years, by the age of 22 to 26, with potential re-employment options. Not surprisingly, this move has been hailed by the private sector security providers, anticipating increased availability of pre-trained and skilled personnel.
A few recommendations
Agniveers could become so much of a role model that candidates start shunning the more arduous task of being a regular sepoy for 15 long years. Some correctives could help remove this distortion.
An apprehension is that Agniveers will eat into the required minimum annual sepoy intake since there has been no increase in the total intake.
First, make graduation to regular sepoy status optional for the top 25 percent. This would get rid of “opportunists” and allow others, lower down the list but with a commitment to long-term service to get selected instead. A high proportion of dropouts would also show that the scheme is too attractive and incentives could be diluted.
Second, to motivate gamers—merely biding their time till they get their benefits—the bottom 25 percent of each cohort could be eligible only for a reduced terminal package, comprising only their personal contribution with interest, sans the government contribution.
The timing of the scheme, announced in tandem with the 1 million Union government jobs to be filled by September 2023, seems more like a welfare programme rather than targeted recruitment for absent skills in government. Politically-motivated programmes tend to be short-lived and cause avoidable disruption in the way government works. Agnipath makes little sense on economic principles but can unlock a socio-political transformation.
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