I Am an Agniveer

Sub Title : Agnipath will be of immense significance for Nation Building

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2022

Author : Brig Ashis Bhattacharya (Retd)

Page No. : 50

Category : Military Affairs

: August 4, 2022

The recently introduced Agnipath scheme has its detractors. To allay their fears the author argues that as the Short Service Commission entry scheme for officers has stood the test of time, so will Agnipath. More importantly it would be of immense significance for Nation Building as it will instill values, required of a citizen, in the youth of  the country

I have been extremely pained over the last few weeks on the way the Agnipath Controversy took centre-stage in India. When announced on 14 Jun 2022, it led to major nationwide protests and some rioting. The apparent reason for going in for this arrangement is twin fold – firstly, reduce the pension budget and secondly, use the money saved to increase the modernisation budget of the defence forces. Many television and social media debates have taken place since then with varied opinions aired, from it being a badly conceived scheme to it being called a scheme that is far sighted and a need of the hour for a nation which is at the threshold of transforming itself into an economic giant.

In this article I want to present my perspective on the need of implementing a scheme like Agnipath, whether in its current form or with a few tweaks as it evolves, to meet the larger aspirations of the youth. For years now, I have been particularly disturbed by the lack of discipline in our civil society. This feeling did not take hold of me after I joined the Army. Rather, I joined the Army because of an underlying felt-void of lack of order in the life around me.

I am a  second generation Army officer and had the privilege of being brought up in military cantonments and in the suburbs of Kolkata due to non-availability of requisite schooling facilities  in some of the stations where my father was posted. When in Kolkata, I was staying with my uncle. This exposed me to the so called `civilians’ while helping out my uncle’s family with shopping, drawing rations, paying municipality bills  etc. In those days I was awestruck at the stark difference between the civilian and military ecosystem when it came to `rule based society’ and corruption levels. I am not denying that there is no corruption in the army, but it only is an iota of what I found in almost every walk of life in the civvy street.

Since then, I always felt that most young Indians must go through compulsory military service as an exercise in `Nation Building’ rather than a livelihood. I have rarely come across anyone during our discussions who was not in favour of this line of thinking. Not only that, but I also remember many politicians of repute echoing the same thought in public when faced with questions of indiscipline and corruption in society.  Amongst peers, I was always vocal about this and found a resonance with almost all those whom I met. Later, while in the Army, I found the same resonance not only in the services environment but also amongst the general public and most importantly, the Political and Bureaucracy class. In the Army alone, the officer cadre has always been short of strength to the tune of around 7-8000. Focussing on increased intake through the existing Short Service Commission (SSC) would perhaps have removed the entire officer deficiency in one go. This has however not been resorted to. For ranks other than officers, a similar exercise namely Agnipath has the potential to bring about much needed discipline in civil society (there was never a case of lack of manpower in these ranks).

The larger national goal (as envisioned by me) of putting all young  Indian citizens through military service, notwithstanding, let’s see the nuts and bolts of the scheme. But before we get into the mechanics, let me also justify the reasons why I insist that `I am an AGNIVEER’ for you to understand my point better.

I was commissioned into the Indian Army as a Short Service officer in mid 80s and retired in last half of 2010s as a Brigadier having missed a chance to wear the Major General’s rank due to an age mismatch of 1 month. Talking about the terms on which I got commissioned, . as a Short Service Commission (SSC) Officer Non Technical (SS-NT ), an entry that was instituted based on the success of the Emergency Commission, introduced in the wake of the Chinese Aggression in 1962. As I write this, the 128th and 129th course are undergoing training (two courses get commissioned every year – though COVID-19 broke the chain for 2 years). The first course started in 1964 in the Officers Training School (OTS) now re-christened Officers Training Academy (OTA). Currently two OTSs are functional (in Chennai and Gaya). The entry age was relaxed by 2 years for this graduate entry scheme which included both technical (engineers and law graduates) and the Non-Technical. The terms of service at the time of my joining  were:

             Service for 5 years, with provision for absorption of 33% into the permanent cadre.

             Option for transfer to permanent cadre to be rendered in the 4th year (almost all opted for this – however, the percentage of success was only 33%).

             No Pension on release after 5 years.

             No CSD facilities.

             No medical facilities post release.

             No severance package. Only your savings in provident fund (unlike the civvy street norm – there was no government contribution – only interest at the rate applicable for all government Public Provident Funds).

             Contributory group insurance scheme of 10 lacs (monthly deduction from officers pay).

             No lateral Entry into any govt or non-government organisation (though, in the initial years of the scheme – the released officers got some advantage/reservation in the Civil Services, Central Armed Police Forces like BSF, CRPF etc).

             Basic military training for a period of nine  months before commissioning.

The SS officers who graduated into the permanent cadre (PC) then, formed a relatively small component of the Army, A case in point is, when in the Military Secretaries Branch, out of the 108 officers posted there we had only 03-04 were SS entry officers).

As already stated only 33 % SS officers were granted permanent commission in our times. However, in subsequent years, the Army in a bid to make up its huge officer level deficiency, raised this to about 50%. So, the reader would see that 66% of my course mates  had to go back to the civvy street looking for jobs there. A few got through into BSF, CRPF, customs and ITBP and the others too have done exceedingly well as entrepreneurs or in the corporate sector. However, none became a militant as opponents of Agnipath are fearing.

Having said that, now, let me examine the `Agniveer’ entry scheme that has been rolled out for personnel below officers rank (PBOR) and has been creating massive waves of resentment in certain quarters of society. We need to see through the motivation behind these pungent comments. The rioting/protests, of course, have been proven to be led by vested interest groups that saw a challenge to their very existence – the so called training academies.

The Agniveer scheme terms of service read like this:

 Service for 4 years including training period.

 Starting emoluments of 4.76 lacs per annum; to move to 6.9 lacs at end of 4 years (with fixed yearly increments); (today, starting pay of BTech Graduates averages between 3-4 Lacs).

             Allowances – at par with regulars, including risk, hardship and travel allowances, rations, dress, etc.

             25% to be absorbed into permanent cadre.

             Trained in  Arms, Drill, physical training, basic field craft and military tactics. The thrust is on training to be good followers rather than as leaders.

             A Seva Nidhi package of 11.7 lacs which is tax exempt (includes 30% of monthly emoluments contributed by individual and equal amount by the Government).

             Non-contributory Life Insurance of 48 lacs.

             Ex-Gratia payment of 44 lacs in case of death in service. One time Ex-Gratia payment of 44/25/15 lacs in case of injury attributable to military service (In case of an unfortunate death in service the total amount pay out to the Next of Kin would be around One Crore Rupees).

             Skill Gained Certificate recognised by all govt and non-govt bodies

I am sure the similarity of the `Agniveer Scheme’ with that of a 60 year old SSC Scheme of recruiting officers, is now apparent. If I were to justify the additional one year of service for officers, I would pin it on the additional spending on training an officer in leadership roles and hence the additional expectations of the govt to be paid back in terms of additional service liability. One area where the Agniveer schemes scores over the SSC scheme is in achieving a younger age profile of the defence forces rank and file.

A simple comparison of the two terms of service would tell you that the Agniveer scheme offer is better than the SS Commission offer to this date (notwithstanding the difference in pay grades/scales). What intrigues me is that while so much venom has been spewed against the Agniveer Scheme, not a single protest on the terms of service has been raised by society or any SSC officers (who have experienced the consequences of this scheme first hand), over the last 60 years.

When I argued my case with those ardently opposing the scheme, I was told that this was like comparing apples with oranges as the education and maturity levels of candidates for these two entries was vastly different and that the scheme cannot be applied to the education level of the potential candidates with their associated biases.

I for one am not convinced with this theory. While it is bounden duty of the government to provide jobs to the youth of the country, it is also duty bound to make the youth good citizens. This is where Agnipath will score. The scheme to my mind will be a resounding success as it grows – if need be, with a few tweaks along the path of its evolution.