India's military recruitment plan may face challenges, say experts

Members of the Student Federation of India protesting against the government's new 'Agnipath' military recruitment scheme in Chennai on June 22, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
The plan called Agnipath will drastically cut tenure and offer fewer service benefits at the end of contract. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's new military recruitment scheme, which has triggered violent protests, is a major reform aimed at modernising the military and making it a leaner force in keeping with global trends.

India has around 1.4 million active military personnel, the world's second-largest military force after that of China which has two million, based on the 2022 Global Firepower Index.

While there is no disagreement on the need to cut down flab in the armed forces and take in younger recruits, concerns remain over the new recruitment terms and potential impact on the military such as its combat readiness.

Called Agnipath, or path of fire in Hindi, the armed forces will this year take in around 46,000 soldiers between the ages of 17½ and 23 years for posts below officer rank for a period of four years. Recruitment could go up in subsequent years.

Only 25 per cent will be kept on thereafter, while the rest will be let go with around 1.1 million rupees (S$19,500) but no pension.

Under previous rules, those aged between 19 and 20 were recruited as soldiers at the lowest ranks for at least 15 years and received a pension after retirement.

The government is seeking to reduce the average soldier's age from 32 to 26 years old.

The announcement of the scheme on June 14 saw violent protests in which trains were burnt last week, followed by non-violent protests early this week.

This was despite government assurances of gainful employment for those who are let go and warnings that those involved in the violent protests would not be able to join the military.

Aspirants, particularly in central India where the army is seen as a stable source of employment, are seething over being deprived of a sustained military service, along with pensions and health benefits. Central India is considered the core constituency of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Military veterans have also been divided, with some warning that the scheme could backfire if 75 per cent of combat-ready soldiers do not find gainful employment, and questioning whether four years is enough to imbibe the military spirit cultivated over years.

Others have argued that it is a much needed reform and that it should have been done gradually.

"It should be a pilot project first and then rolled out. The scheme has to meet organisational needs and aspirations of the youth. We need to see the impact on the regiment system, the culture, traditions and bonding," said retired lieutenant-general Vinod Bhatia.

"There are certain apprehensions with the scheme, especially pertaining to combat effectiveness. The next four to five years will be a challenge."

The announcement of the scheme on June 14 saw violent protests in which trains were burnt last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

India has a multitude of security challenges arising from border problems with Pakistan and China, whose growing assertiveness saw a major border blowout in 2020 in which both sides lost soldiers.

Amid these challenges, Mr Modi has focused on modernising the military. He is seeking to convert India, the biggest buyer of arms, into a defence manufacturer, even opening up the sector to 100 per cent foreign direct investment.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval told Indian news agency Asian News International that it was a much required reform.

"We must have a young, fit, agile and well trained army. It is a contradiction that a country that has the youngest population has the oldest army," said Mr Doval. He was among several top leaders, including from the military, to speak on the scheme.

"Agniveer will never constitute the whole army. They are there for only four years. The rest of the army will be made up of experienced people," said Mr Doval, using the term "agniveer" to refer to those who join the Agnipath scheme.

He added that the traditional regiment system would not be changed due to the scheme.

The plan called Agnipath will drastically cut tenure and offer fewer service benefits at the end of contract. PHOTO: AFP

The government has said it looked at different military models. In Germany, for instance, volunteers, starting from age 17, can enlist for seven to 23 months. In the United States, there is a two-year enlistment option.

A key effort is also to cut down expenditure on pensions. The Hindu newspaper reported that over half of the defence budget is allocated for pensions every year while less than 5 per cent is for research and development. This year, the defence budget is 5.25 trillion rupees.

Still, sections of veterans, among others, remain unconvinced that the new scheme is the way to go.

"From what is available in public domain so far, the Agnipath is on a shaky wicket on two grounds. It does not appear to have met the aspiration of the people who want to join the armed forces," said retired lieutenant-general P.R. Shankar.

"It might not contribute to better operational efficiency of a unit on the front line."

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