Agnipath: Seminal Reset Now, But More Problems Later

An Indian army officer measures the height of a youth during a recruitment drive in Ahmedabad.
(Photograph: REUTERS/Amit Dave)

Agnipath – the scheme for a four-year ‘tour of duty’ as the mainstay of recruitment into the military services announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh the other day, alas, has more negatives attending on it than clear-cut benefits.

Shedding Colonial Structures

The pros first: It is a seminal attempt at reconfiguring the imperial-era structured mercenary army that had won for the British their globe-girdling empire. In its post-1947 avatar, the Indian Army continued with its colonial institutions and affectations, such as the officers’ mess and cantonment culture, that has long irked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is, perhaps, the prompt for this underway policy to ‘Indianise’ the military.

National armed forces comprising sometime soldiers, Agniveers, may constitute—in one sense—a genuinely citizen military. But whether it will obtain an effective modern army, navy, and air force is an issue deserving attention.

It will be intriguing, in any case, to see how the army chief, General Manoj Pande, a veteran sapper, proposes to re-engineer the infantry-heavy army dominated by proud, single class, regiments (Gurkha, Sikh, Jat, Madras, Maratha, etc.) deliberately designed during the British Raj on the politically astute but divisive myth of the ‘martial races’ into an army of Agniveers.

Three Vastly Different Services

Rajnath Singh was joined at the podium by the three services’ Chiefs of Staff. But let’s be clear that it is the infantry-heavy army – the least technical among them, that will mainly take in the short service recruits because the navy and air force simply cannot be expected to do so. Their relatively small manpower requirements coupled with technology-based wherewithal and war fighting concepts deter them from following Agnipath.

Ironically, it is precisely the technical expertise imparted to entrance-level sailors and airmen in esoteric technologies to enable them in peacetime and war, to operate systems of all kinds (sonar, avionics, radar, communications, etc.), to run and maintain warships and aircraft, to upkeep powerplants and weapons and secondary systems onboard varied platforms, and otherwise to keep the Indian Navy and the Air Force in play, that makes them more readily employable in the civilian world should any of them seek an early exit from military careers or a second career post-retirement.

In other words, many of the positives Rajnath Singh claimed for the Agnipath programme, such as producing technically competent, high-tech workers that industry would gladly offtake and who will end up increasing labour productivity, and spurring industrial and GDP growth, etc., are an exaggeration. Because it is certain that the 25% of the Agniveer cohort who show any talent for technology will be retained by the army to run its high-tech equipment.

The reason for this is because of the differing nature of warfare the three armed services prepare for. While air and naval warfighting are, as mentioned, machine-intensive, land wars are manpower weighted. An army needs unending hordes of preferably youthful ‘boots on the ground’ to fight for and hold mountainous territory against a hostile China.

Moreover, training a person with a high school or higher education to handle an assault rifle and to master basic infantry tactics is manifestly easier, takes less time, and costs far, far less than getting a newly minted sailor to become an expert, say, in sonar operations or to turn an airman into a proficient combat aircraft jet engine mechanic

What After The Four Years?

The average Agniveer may join with the idea of achieving some technical competence at the end of four years of service, but will soon discover he is only another passed-over infantry grunt with no marketable skills to sell, other than—as is the case now—as a hire for the proliferating private agencies in the business of providing ‘security’ to buildings and compounds.

In the event, how much of an incentive is the Rs 12-14 lakh bounty promised the Agniveer at the end of his brief army tenure? Of course, Rs 12-14 lakh is not a sum to be sneezed at. For the masses of otherwise inadequately-educated and unemployable youth, this money is magnet enough. But as roughly 30,000 of each year’s Agniveer cohort—the current level of army retirees—is disgorged into the society two things might happen, neither of them good.

Discontent will spread fast among them once they realise their job prospects are as bleak as ever. The frustrated among them, now trained to use small arms and chemical explosives, may choose to use these newly acquired skills for criminal, even insurrectionary, purposes and emerge as a major law and order-qua-internal security problem for the country.

Or, and this is more likely, political pressure will begin brewing – grassroots up, almost from the programme initiation stage, especially in the population-dense, voter-rich, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the Agnipath intake can expect to be the largest – to convert the four-year contracted tenure of the Agniveers to 15-year military service with pension.

This is the usual end-state of all supposedly ‘temporary’ government workers ranging from clerks, school teachers, safai karamcharis to anganwadi helpers.

Compounding The Problem You Set Out To Solve

Is there a politician alive who will be able to resist such pressure, in an election year (which is nearly every year)? And, lo and behold, the army will become still more bloated, and the defence pensions budget more distended. The harbinger of things to come is the violent anti-Agnipath protest in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The youth demographic seems to be saying that patriotism and military service are good but they prefer pensionable jobs anywhere they can get them.

The Agnipath scheme designed to solve the problems of an aging army and ballooning defence pensions could end up, at best, only compounding them.

More immediately, assuming General Pande needs six months to firm up the new recruitment process, the Agniveer army could begin forming up only by next year or even by 2024 when the next Lok Sabha elections are due. Who is to say Agnipath won’t win Modi yet another term in office with a bigger majority, even if it means succeeding governments and the Indian taxpayers are left holding the can?


A version of this piece published 16 June 2022 in BloombergQuint (BQ) Prime, at https://www.bqprime.com/opinion/agnipath-seminal-reset-now-but-more-problems-later

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Defence Industry, domestic politics, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, guerilla warfare, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Indian state/administration, Indo-Pacific, Internal Security, Military/military advice, society, South Asia, technology, self-reliance, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Agnipath: Seminal Reset Now, But More Problems Later

  1. Amit says:

    Professor,

    Nice article. The success of this scheme depends on how well the Indian economy grows and the opportunities for labor migration from agriculture into labor intensive industries, apart from semi trained soldiers now. The United States did it in the early 20th century and China has done it in the last four decades. But there are structural flaws in the Indian economy and no Indian government has been able to fix the structural issue of labor transition to the Industrial Age.

    Its certainly possible that a few tens of thousands of Agni veers will have a political impact to affect elections. However, no one has a divine right to a lifetime government job. But if the Indian government can solve the structural labor issue in India, then perhaps the pressure from retired Agniveeers will be more manageable.

    Additionally, the nature of this change is very different from what is deemed acceptable in India. This change is more an example of cutthroat corporate America than socialist India. Even in the US, people debate the wisdom of such a model. Whether the Indian culture can accept this is something to be seen.

    But rather than go back to 15 years and provide pensions, I think it is more likely that four years could become 6 or 7. Something like for SSOs (short service officers). The Agniveers will be young enough to be absorbed, more skilled, and the Army will benefit more as well.

  2. Deepak says:

    Another master stroke by Tugalaq. Tugalaq may again end up egg on face and U turn if protests intensifies. How can any govt go from one self made crisis to another within such a short period of time. He has completely surrendered to Arab masters for Nupur sharma episode.
    Due his appeasement policies post 370 abrogation, another exodus of Kashmiri Hindus looks inevitable.Now he wants to disturb the Army also with this Agniveer. Country can progress only after Tugalaq retires as people are not ready to make him retire due to TINA factor.

  3. Tony says:

    Money should be raised to one crore and lifetime of free medical care , probably will end all the protests.

  4. Ram says:

    @Amit,

    The economies.you mentioned grew because the governments relinquished control (i.e not necessarily assert adhoc whims and fancies) to justify their presence. They let entrepreneurship flourish – Hu Jintao, under whom China witnessed 10% decadal growth is considered “weak President”.

    This is simply not.possible with RSS who have tasted blood after 75 years and would want to rewrite India’s history back from 1925.

    A strong state can get a Hindu Rashtra with impoverished DBT beneficiaries ballooning to astronomical proportions and voting them for generations to come.

    An educated, well employed, wealthy society is a threat to Modi. Today they are only demanding jobs, what if the educated,. informed masses start demanding Aksai Chin in entirety?

  5. Amit says:

    Professor,

    What a mess the roll out of the Agnipath scheme seems to be! The GoI has almost certainly ignored advice from the military to launch a pilot before a full roll out. The question that arises is whether the same cutthroat yardstick will apply to senior leaders for a messy roll out, that the GoI intends to apply to the Agniveers. Corporate America is at least consistent in that aspect.

  6. Pradeep Sharma says:

    Let us evaluate the impact on the operational capabilities of the Defense Forces rather than the jobs and future of the youth.
    This is certainly not in National Interest nor in the interest of the Organisation. Of course not in the interest of the youth aspiring to join an organisation they perhaps hold close to their hearts.
    Aimed purely as a political requirement for the elections it does not auger well for the country.
    Let history pass judgement on those who have brought it in. Of course they will not be there to face combat but will they get good sleep?

  7. Amit says:

    Professor,

    From the discussions I’m seeing in veteran IAF groups, it seems like many are opposed to the terms of engagement with the Agniveers. Interestingly, i learnt that it takes four years to fully train a solider. So four years ToD does not seem adequate. If it takes four years to fully train a soldier, then you must give another three years to show performance. And then cull not more than 50%. Culling 75% is brutal. To my mind, 7 years could be the cut off point. Also, 7 years gives time to the soldier to develop some expertise in a domain area. The policy must be people centric not economic centric. Economic concerns may be driving the change, but welfare of the soldier must be top of mind!

    I’m glad to note that these ideas and more were in the article by Maj. Gen. Dhanoa below. Let’s see how this scheme evolves. It’s still amazing that the GoI has rolled it out in this manner.

    https://www.ndtv.com/opinion/an-army-veterans-5-suggestions-for-agnipath-scheme-3075424

    • Amit says:

      Another idea that could be helpful in the implementation of this scheme would be to reduce the numbers in a cohort of Agniveers in two tranches instead of one. The first one after four years – say the bottom 25%, then another tranche after another three years based on performance as a fully trained soldier. Then you have a more workable up or out policy, and the majority of the Agniveers will feel less threatened and nervous through the process. But taking out 75% in one go is brutal, unnecessary and frankly a heartless Human Resource policy and is bound to have repercussions. No one can justify such an inhumane policy.

  8. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Poorly educated masses can either be absorbed as factory workers or soldiers.

    World’s production lines moved to China decades back. They won’t be coming to India anytime soon or in the future due to infrastructural bottlenecks plus the heavy red-tapism prevalent in the country.

    Induct everyone, who is interested in joining the Army from the ages of 18-60. A couple of months training is enough to turn out a basic soldier.

    Launch an all out attack on Pakistan and China then to reclaim the whole of POK as well as Aksai Chin.

    If successful Modi would be universally renowned as ‘Vishvguru’ (his alter ego anyways) if failed then at least the fantasy of millions of unemployed folks in India to join the army and become ‘Shaheed’ for ‘Bharat Mata’ would be fulfilled.

  9. Deepak says:

    Sir, do you see any possibility of jihadi and naxal infiltration into Agnipath as they can get free arms training plus 12 lakhs after completing 4 years which looks very attractive for them.

    • Hope there’s serious background checking for Agniveer r3cruitment.

    • Benerk says:

      A bigger fear should be hindoo terrorists infiltration into Agnipath.

      • Deepak says:

        See the pathetic state of congress which raised Hindu terror bogey.
        When Modi’s graph as an administrator is at the lowest his electoral graph at the highest.
        People are ready to bear Tugalag rule just to avoid Aurangzeb rule.

  10. Amit says:

    Professor,
    If at all India goes to war with China, it could be if Pak cedes Gilgit Baltistan to China. It could also lead to India doubling down on Balkanizing Pakistan. Whether China would be foolish enough to activate two fronts at the same time, is something that remains to be seen.

    https://idrw.org/pakistan-may-cede-gilgit-baltistan-to-china-to-pay-off-its-mounting-debts-report%EF%BF%BC%EF%BF%BC/

  11. Sankar says:

    “On Defence, Govt running on empty” :
    http://www.dailypioneer.com/2022/columnists/on-defence–govt-running-on-empty.html

    Other evaluations of the scheme by other retd. officers have also appeared elsewhere exposing this “novel plan” as bogus. Gen Rawat to my reading was a bigmouth always planning for two wars. The only “positive”(?) outcome going for it I could figure out is that Modiji will be able to reduce the military pension burden for the Armed forces – unbelievable, and this at a time when the nation is being bullied by its northern neighbor since decades now. losing its sovereign territory.

    I wonder which dickhead in this Government hierarchy is blocking the measure to increase Defence allocation in monetary terms in the budget to cover the shortfall in the pension category. In any case, Indian military officers are paid a pittance when compared to their counterparts in western nations.

    As an aside, the ongoing Ukraine war has demolished the myth that the infantry is somewhat secondary to the armoured formations carrying hi-tech weaponry in land warfare.

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      Re. “Ukraine war has demolished the myth that the infantry is somewhat secondary to the armoured formations”
      How So !!!???

      • Sankar says:

        Here is one pointer in international news:
        https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/fighting-rages-in-fierce-battle-for-ukraine-s-east/ar-AAY9z1o
        “KYIV (Reuters) – Street fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops raged in the battle for the industrial city of Sievierodonetsk …” and
        “In the city, fierce street fighting continues,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said…”.
        which confirms infantry of both sides is involved in the fighting.
        I have also come across pictures of trenches dug up on the battlefield in the south near the Odessa region that show infantry action. The Chechen battalions are mostly infantry with mechanization.

        There are also other similar war reports in the international press confirming heavy infantry deployment in the Ukraine war.

        In the initial stages of the war, the Russian forces suffered some heavy losses in armour in the Kyiv area which later on the NATO generals interpreted as the deficiency of infantry support for the armoured troops.

        To note in the above link also:
        “Russia denies targeting civilians in the conflict.” –
        I take this as true. Moscow has constrained the Russian Army to be extremely careful about civilians – they do not have completely a free hand to fight their own war. This has resulted in painstaking gains, being slowed down. The Ukrainian soldiers were hiding in schools and other public places. There was no other alternative than to engage the infantry in those areas to win the war.

        This Ukraine war is sharply in contrast to the massive, indiscriminate bombing war by the US Airforce from the sky that happened in Iraq. There was absolutely no regard for human lives and more than a million Iraqis perished. And the ancient Iraqi civilization was destroyed.

  12. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    @Sankar,
    No doubt the boots on the ground are important. That is why the all round fear that Agnipath Scheme has generated. I would say all concerns and valid and the skill+will to properly address these concerns are significantly weak.
    But aside from the digression and remaining on the topic of the Special Operations in Ukraine, notice that both sides started with pretty much the same headcount and still the casualty rate is extremely lopsided. Russians have officially claimed that they have practically stopped losing soldiers. On the other hand the Ukrainians have officially indicated that anywhere between 500-1000 Ukrainians soldiers are getting taken out (dead+wounded+pow). This is the difference caused by throwing 5000 shells a day vs. 50000 shells a day.
    The differentiating factor is the artillery. Russians had more armour but even their armoured units took much punishment from Ukrainian Arty before the Russians could take out Ukrainian Arty. Just a day or two back HIMARS have also been deployed with devastating results.
    I was very apprehensive early on that Russians will deploy 100 gun barrage, indiscriminately. Seems like Russians have re-invented Arty in this operation. My hunch is that the Russians need more Orlan operators which is the limiting factor. Off course even Arty will not be effective if not supported with drones, armour maneuvers, infantry ambushes but Artillery is the real differentiating factor.

    Consider the following references:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-cdYkK_tV8 – “Anybody who studied Russia knew this was going to be an artillery war” – Scott Ritter – 14.06.2022
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/06/04/ukraine-east-artillery-war/
    https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-06-17/endless-shelling-and-dead-soldiers-a-vicious-artillery-war-spreads-in-ukraine
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UH2tiIx22u4 – Ukraine war: 80% of troops killed or injured in elite military unit, says commander – 26 Jun 2022
    https://tass.com/world/1467843
    https://mobile.twitter.com/TpyxaNews/status/1537873514325323777

  13. Email from Dr V Siddhartha, former Science adviser to Defence Minister, MOD:
    V Siddhartha
    Fri, 17 June at 11:24 am

    Re: The average Agniveer may join with the idea of achieving some technical competence at the end of four years of service, but will soon discover he is only another passed-over infantry grunt with no marketable skills to sell, other than—as is the case now—as a hire for the proliferating private agencies in the business of providing ‘security’ to buildings and compounds.

    CORRECT.

    SO, as with Sainik Schools, so also with “Sainik ITIs”. In Hindi/BIMARU belt, get both public and pvt sector enterprises receiving MoD orders to set-up such, and allow booking of capital expenditures on such (other than land), to CSR.

    VS

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