June 19, 2022The Intersection

Now that Agnipath is here, it must be made to work

Agnipath may have been prompted by fiscal concerns but it should serve as a trigger to carry out long due reforms in the structure and management of the armed forces

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

Over the past few years, public finance has conveyed a stark message to national defence: human resource management reforms are urgent and critical.

The impetus for the Agnipath scheme announced last week was the hardening of the government’s budget constraint. Expenditure obligations — for both pensions and modernisation — have grown rapidly even as revenue growth looks weaker in the post-pandemic economy.

See Pranay Kotasthane’s analysis of the fiscal constraints on the defence budget and ways to address the problem.

Given the sensitivity of the topic, few government officials will publicly admit that the status quo is fiscally unsustainable even in the medium term. Recruitment reform is part of the answer. Rough estimates suggest that by shortening the basic tenure of soldiers to four years the Agnipath scheme will reduce the lifetime cost of manpower by several crore rupees per head.

My Takshashila colleagues had proposed a different solution, called inverse induction arguing that it is superior to the tour of duty (Agnipath) model. Lt Gen Prakash Menon had recommended a cautious trial-based implementation.

Now that the government has chosen the four year tour of duty model as the way to respond to the budget constraint, the policy challenge is to ensure that it achieves the desired objectives, mitigates the downsides and pre-empts unintended consequences. Essentially, it is about understanding who might join the armed forces given these employment conditions, and how this new demographic will change the defence services and Indian society at large.

Until now, enlistment in the armed forces offered a young adult male with secondary school education a secure job with a decent status until middle age, and a pension and healthcare after retirement. That changes now: only a quarter of the roughly 50,000 recruits will remain in service after four years. The rest will get a golden handshake with further prospect of recruitment in central and state police forces. While there will be no shortage of applicants even under this scheme, the type of person who will wear uniform will be different: with different career expectations, motivations and geographies. This is the first major change and calls for the armed forces to transform the way they train, manage and command troops.

Contrary to a popular argument, six months is adequate for basic military training. The challenge is greater for branches that need higher level skills.

Second, a fixed four year tenure will have a differential impact on different arms and services. In addition to the air force and the navy, the army’s technical units have longer training cycles. They might face a shortage of suitable recruits, or as is more likely, lose people just when they have started performing. In practice, the effective performance period of a recruit might be only two years, with the first six months for training, the last six spent in anticipation of leaving and several months in between to come up to speed. Morale, motivation and commitment levels will also follow a different curve in this period. Commanders and administrators must discover and learn new ways of getting things done. Moreover, training infrastructure needs to be vastly expanded to cater to the faster cadence.

Third, political economic factors can frustrate the design and the intent of the Agnipath scheme through scope creep. Take the case of the short service commission for officers: what used to be a five year tenure is now effectively fourteen. Every single reason given for its extension is justified, but is a step away from its original purpose. It should not surprise us if there is pressure over time to extend the duration of the Agnipath scheme and to make the positions pensionable. Political leaders will find it hard to defend Agnipath’s logic in the face of justification from recruits, potental recruits and armed forces themselves.

Many army units are organised around specific geographies and communities. A national recruitment will place people from different communities together in the same units. There are concerns that this will result in lower cohesiveness.

Fourth, Agnipath could amount to an unprecedented shakeup of military culture. National recruitment that cuts across regimental catchments will present units with new and unfamiliar social contexts. The good news is that the defence services are extraordinary in terms of managing diversity and balancing tradition with innovation. Even so, it will create some friction and sharp edges that demands sensitive leadership from junior commissioned officers and officers. It is wise to be conservative about military traditions and let some changes evolve.

Actually, this is the most important point: ensuring a smooth transition into post-Agnipath life is crucial.

Fifth, Agnipath will succeed only if post-Agnipath succeeds. In other words, the post-military career of Agniveers deserves a lot more attention. Close to 40,000 combat-trained twenty-somethings will enter civilian life for the first time as adults. History tells us that this transition can have serious implications for politics and society. It will be unwise to leave this to chance. Not everyone can be absorbed into police forces, nor can they be certain that they will obtain private employment. Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poem exhorts the protagonist not to seek a leaf-worth of shade, but a carefully-designed exit package for Agniveers is necessary. It should include formal higher education, counselling, marriage and housing loans and placements.

The upshot is that Agnipath may well have been triggered by financial considerations, but is a trigger for long-pending modernisation of the structure and management philosophy of the armed forces. It is just as well that these changes are roughly coinciding with the theaterisation of the three services. There is a need for far-sighted leadership, and it is crucial that a well-respected officer is appointed the Chief of Defence Staff. Senior military officers would do well to realise that the political leadership, having taken these policy decisions has left their implementation to the services.

Now that Agnipath is here, it must be made to work.

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