The announcement by the government of a revolutionary and path-breaking scheme of recruitment for the non-officer rank personnel for the armed forces has set the cat among the pigeons. The scheme that will allow both ladies and gents within the age bracket of 17.5-21 years to be recruited into all the three branches of the armed forces has far-reaching consequences for the future of our defence services and their personnel.
Let us see some salient features of this scheme:
a) Both men and women between the ages of 17.5 and 21 are eligible to apply; they will be called “Agniveers”.
b) They will be recruited for a service period of 4 years, of which the first 6 months will be under training; starting from September-October 2022.
c) They will be enrolled through a nationwide recruitment rally covering all the districts of the country to ensure fair representation of all regions; and also through rallies and campus interviews conducted by recognised technical colleges, like the ITI and the National Skills Qualifications Framework. The minimum qualification is the same as at present for the same age group entries in various trades.
d) They will be paid a salary package of Rs 4.76 lakh with the upgradation of up to Rs 6.92 lakh in the fourth year.
e) Post release, they will be given a “Seva Nidhi” package of Rs 11.71 lakh, tax free. They will also be given a non-contributory insurance cover of Rs 48 lakh, provided the individual receives an Agniveer Skill Certificate which will assist in post release job opportunities.
f) Under the terms of service, 25 per cent of the Agniveers will be retained in the regular cadre based on merit, willingness and medical fitness. They will then serve for a full term of 15 years, as is at present. The other 75 per cent Agniveers will be demobilised, with the “Seva Nidhi” package, as well as skill certificates and bank loans for their post-release opportunities.
Let us see some of the advantages of this scheme:
a) It provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for the youth to serve the country and contribute to national development.
b) The armed forces will become leaner and younger to meet the changing needs.
c) The Agniveers will get the unique opportunity to experience, train, improve and upskill in the best environment that the country can afford.
d) Earn a good financial package, as compared to other peers in the society, and earn an honourable and credible place in the society.
The scheme has been introduced keeping in mind many far-reaching advantageous accruals for the armed forces and the country at large, in the rapidly changing geopolitical situation of today wherein technology is rapidly advancing and is a large determinant in the future wars. Some of these envisaged accruals are:
a) We will get a much younger defence service, with a younger median age dropping to 26 from the present 32, to meet the new emerging scenarios where we need a youthful force to take on frontline responsibilities.
b) The finances available for the capital expenditure (money used to buy/modernise the defence forces) will increase manifold, thus ensuring the induction of the latest equipment and best practices.
c) The burden of the rising pension bill will reduce.
d) The defence services will get a skilled and meritorious lot to man the higher ranks.
e) The nation will get the availability of a well-disciplined, highly skilled and trained manpower to join the national mainstream, at no further costs.
f) The post released Agniveers will be a force to set an example to the youth of the country, to emulate them in terms of discipline, nationalism and commitment to a new and emerging India.
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Notwithstanding the good intentions of the government and the defence Services, the announcement of the scheme on 14 June 2022 and the immediate launch of the scheme the following day have unleashed a chain of events throughout the country, much against the expectations of the government and the defence forces. Reports of unruly youth, who have taken recourse to violence in apprehension of the scheme, have flooded the media. Some defence veterans too have raised voices of concern. As is the order of the day in a society caught in a flux, the political parties too have joined the bandwagon and towed the expected lines with voices of both in support as well as in opposition.
Caught in the “to be or not to be situation”, the government took to some measures to ameliorate the situation, assuage the apprehensions of the expectant youth and announced a moratorium on the age restriction for one year by increasing the upper age of recruitment to 23 years. However, the containment of the situation is far from over, with two suicides of expectant young defence aspirants over the last two days, one being from Odisha. Let us examine some of the apprehensions on the minds of the young defence aspirants and the defence veterans:
a) That the scheme will not leave any scope for the aspiring youth to be directly recruited into the defence forces for a full tenure of 15 years, as at present, to retire with pension.
b) The defence aspirants are apprehensive about their post release guarantee of reemployment.
c) That the scheme will reduce the defence forces to a “conscript Force” like the Chinese Army.
d) That the ethos of the “Fauzi”, which is based on regimental traditions and evolved close-knit kinship over hundreds of years, will be irrevocably disturbed.
e) There is apprehension that should war breakout, will the recruit with a four-year mandate be committed and motivated enough to lay down his/her life for the nation.
f) There is the lurking fear that the well-trained recruits, with expertise in firearms, explosives and warfare, looking for meaningful job opportunities after their release, might fall trap to insurgent groups with the lure of money and esteem.
g) On the political firmament, there are political parties that accuse the government of having unleashed a political drama of appeasement.
Going by the above mentioned broad scenario of present apprehensions and future fears, the government could have acted differently:
a) The government should have first informed the young citizenry/defence aspirants first with the benefits of the scheme with a feedback to further fine-tune the scheme and then launched it.
b) A pilot scheme could have been first launched before the full implementation, and data gathered, analysed and incorporated.
c) Both the government and private sectors should have been taken into confidence, with definite and assured intake milestones of the released Agniveers, before the full launch of the scheme.
e) A deeper study of the defence/Army regimental system, its ethos, culture and kinship should have been taken up before formulating the rules and regulations of the scheme.
7. In all good humour, before we cry wolf, it will be only wise to thwart the challenges posed before us by the Agniveer scheme through some wise and proactive immediate measures, and take stock of the situation that has unwittingly befallen us. Let us mention of the possibilities/initiatives the government could take up with alacrity and smother the fires that have brought public anger and loss, adding uncertainty to the very fragile times we all are already beset with:
a) Declare a moratorium on the Agniveer scheme by suspending the declared recruitment starting in September-October 2022.
b) Convene an expert team of defence veterans and current defence officers, with a time-bound mandate, to modify/suggest methods to make the scheme acceptable to all.
c) Hold rallies throughout the country at the district level through Zilla Sainik Boards, with defence veterans, to speak and sanitise the youth about the benefits of the scheme.
d) Formulate a definite reemployment policy for the released Agniveers, in consultation with all stakeholders, including the government and private employment companies/agencies; possibly with a reservation policy.
e) Keeping in mind the violence unleashed by the youth in the name of the Agniveer scheme, identify the mischief mongers and take action against them including debarring them from the scheme. It will be much in line with the ongoing action against the rioters of other situations. It will send a strong message of containment.
What we need is pragmatism from the government first, patience from the defence aspirants next, and certainly the defence veterans to smother their opinions so as not to unleash the vitriol to an awaiting media looking for sensational sound bites. An immediate and sagacious announcement by the government is the need of the hour.
The writer is retired naval aviator. Views expressed are personal.
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