A few days before demitting office as the Chief of Army Staff in April, General MM Naravane made a nuanced appeal to the nation: that the expenditure on the armed forces should not be viewed as a burden on India’s economy.

It was more than a sentimental entreaty by an outgoing chief. Instead, it seemed to be a subdued protest against the many measures – explicit as well as disguised – to tighten the purse strings of one of the world’s biggest military establishments.

While Naravane has been an integral part of the higher defence management that had conceptualised the policies aimed at facilitating a “lean and mean army”, the caution he expressed might have betrayed the unease in the military circles about radical transformations that could diminish the potency of India’s armed forces.

On Tuesday, the government finally announced the Agnipath scheme – an ultra-short-service plan to attract “patriotic and motivated youth to serve in the Armed Forces for four years” – and declared that this policy will “hereafter govern the enrolment for the three services”. With this, the armed forces are being forced into transformative reforms that will significantly alter their manpower profile and fighting capabilities.

Long discussed as the “tour of duty” scheme, Agnipath is the latest on the list of fiscal prudence strategies that are supposed to address what is portrayed as ballooning costs of defence pensions, periodic pay revisions and other emoluments for defence personnel.

A new cadre structure

By supplanting the established cycle of permanent commission for the lowest ranks of the forces as a lifetime or pensionable service, Agnipath seeks to realign the cadre structure. It will create a pool of semi-skilled, partially-trained militarised youth who could either feed the regular force inventory in limited numbers through a distilled selection corridor or return in large numbers to civilian life as “disciplined and patriotic youth” who would have to find their own way, notwithstanding the many avenues that have been promised.

The policy states that personnel under the scheme, Agniveers will be a distinct segment and different from other ranks – though it is clear that Agnipath will eventually be the central pool from which other ranks of regular, non-officer cadre will be recruited. At the end of the four-year term, 25% of each cohort will be able to apply for regular positions.

The announcement that over 46,000 Agniveers will be recruited in the first year of the scheme, as opposed to the current estimates of over 65,000 annual vacancies in the forces, is a significant pointer to how the scheme will be the sole subaltern gateway to the armed forces.

While the policy statement says little about the proportion that short-service Agniveers will eventually occupy in the overall force structure, a subsequent clarification by the deputy chief of Army staff that these recruits will come to comprise 50% of the forces not just confirms the centrality of this cadre realignment but also the certitude of an extemporaneous warfighting cadre in the making.

In effect, even when packaged as a radical measure with promising spin-offs, the scheme runs the risk of transforming the world’s second-largest military in terms of active-duty members into a rag-tag force of intern soldiers who will be expected to fight like professional soldiers without undergoing enduring routines of rigorous training and upskilling.

Adding to the ambiguity of the scheme are vaguely-stated objectives like ensuring the “availability of trained personnel to boost national security in times of external threats, internal threats and national disasters”. While this could imply that the discharged Agniveers will be expected to be available on call for all forms of national duties, the policy statement omits any explication on whether a dedicated reserve force is being planned or whether the discharged Agniveers are to be accommodated in the paramilitary services, police forces or disaster management agencies.

The array of subsequent declarations – of preferential treatment for Agniveers in recruitment to the central paramilitary services, later clarified as being 10% of recruitment share – only points to the impromptu manner in which this significant policy has been framed. What the government, however, fails to comprehend is that these are not the avenues that are sought by the legion of aspirants to whom such proposals sound like offering chaff when they are clamouring for bread.

Grave consequences

The consequences of such ill-conceived policy-making are destined to be disastrous. Many military veterans have sounded the alarm about the grave implications for regimental cohesion, fighting prowess as well as on training practices. The risk of structural atrophy in force inventories and unit strengths with far-reaching consequences for operational readiness and warfighting capabilities in an unrelenting threat matrix on two fronts cannot be overstated.

The values of thoroughbred training, the brotherhood of regimental cultures, and the commitment to sacrifice oneself in the service of the nation are elements that stand to be compromised.

Economic rationale

The key impulse behind the Agnipath is said to be the colossal defence pension expenditure that had drastically shot up following the implementation of the One Rank One Pension scheme to offer the “same pension, for same rank, for same length of service, irrespective of the date of retirement”. Ironically, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who vociferously espoused the OROP cause in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. On realising the huge millstone strung around the exchequer, Modi seems to be seeking out-of-the-box solutions to eliminate social security obligations that the government has traditionally fulfilled.

The Agnipath plan fits the government’s neo-capitalist economic agenda that promotes absolute laissez-faire through extensive privatisation, including of strategic sectors, and diminishing the role of the government as an employment provider. Market economics may dictate that the government exit from the business of running businesses; however, extending that logic to crucial affairs of the state in order to curb spending does not augur well. As a cost-cutting measure initiated in a stealthy manner, the Agnipath scheme has been perceived as the government’s efforts to seek thriftiness at the expense of national security.

Though consecutive governments have viewed privatisation as a panacea to address the acute problems in defence technology research, development and production, the fiscal strategy of restructuring the fundamental emolument structures and propounding unsound recruitment models amounts to hitting at the very operational foundations of the armed forces whose core strength happens to be its manpower.

The Modi government is already being criticised for its aversion to labour-friendly policies and its stoic reluctance to create jobs in the government sector. Schemes like Agnipath reinforce the perception that the government approaches all aspects of governance only through the prism of financial viability and profit.

Having projected himself as the guardian of the interests of the armed forces, Prime Minister Modi has, however, erred in fiddling with traditions that were supposed to be sacrosanct. After all, armed forces of nations are supposed to be functioning on the basis of a social contract wherein the nation commits to safeguard the wellbeing of the soldier and his or her family irrespective of whether they survive or attain martyrdom in the service of the nation. Any attempt to reverse this construct comes with socio-political repercussions as is evident from the spontaneous protests that have gripped the nation, particularly from the constituency that perceives the government as the essential provider of jobs and social security.

Mere hyperbole

While conscription is about mandatory military service in youthful years, Agnipath envisages an Indian version of drafting that seeks to identify and attract only “patriotic”, “motivated” and “technologically savvy” youth to the armed forces, thus implicitly involving some strands of exclusionism. Departing from the conventional wisdom of the armed forces being an avenue for secure employment and career opportunities, Agnipath seems purely guided by the goals of abridging public expenditure through pro tem employment.

The promises of skilling and ploughing them back into society as disciplined and motivated manpower amount to mere hyperbole as life in the armed forces will be more about combat skills than a platform for professional learning – notwithstanding the claims that the armed forces will equip themselves to train the recruits with skills that will come handy in cut-throat corporate environs.

Even the proclaimed virtues of self-discipline and diligence sound amplified as these are not values solely ingrained by the armed forces, nor have generations of ex-servicemen made radical transformations to civil society in terms of such values. Thus, the assumed dividends of short military service have been immensely exaggerated in order to justify the specious thinking that went behind the Agnipath scheme.

What though comes out as disconcerting is the invocation of much-politicised slogans likes “josh” (zeal) and “jazba” (passion), which could be an indicator of the inherent desire to promote militarism in society with the Agniveers in civilian attire expected to feed the hyper-nationalist fervour that is already pervasive in the country. Such possibilities cannot be dismissed considering the over-emphasis on “patriotism” wrought across the scheme.

Nonetheless, if the government assumes that there are sections of youth who are inspired to serve in the armed forces for a short period of time and return to civilian life, Agnipath should only be an adjunct pathway – not the pivotal one.

Irrespective of how this initiative turns out, the manner in which the policy has been promulgated without an informed public discourse or parliamentary debates is an ominous sign of how critical national security decisions have been surrendered to the whims of the political dispensation.

A Vinod Kumar is a Delhi-based defence analyst.