Agnipath a pilot, tweaks if needed after 4-5 years: Army Vice Chief

Lieutenant General B S Raju, Vice Chief of the Army Staff, said Monday that the Agnipath recruitment scheme has been “well thought out”, and if any tweaks are required, they will be carried out at the end of four or five years.

In an interview to The Indian Express on the day the Army issued a notification for compulsory online registration of all Agnipath job aspirants, Lt Gen Raju said the scheme, as being rolled out now, is a “pilot project”. He said Agnipath marks a “fundamental change” in recruitment into the armed forces and there is “a need” for all to “absorb the change”.

The VCOAS’s remarks come in the wake of violent protests against the Agnipath scheme in different parts of the country. Youth who have been waiting since 2020 to join the forces — a freeze on recruitment was imposed that year — have been on the rampage against the new scheme that will take in only limited numbers, and does not assure a permanent job, or pension and health benefits for those exiting the three services after four years.

“The methodology of recruitment, percentages of retention-extension, anything of that nature, if there is a requirement to be tweaked, it will be done at the end of four to five years, once we have some reasonable data. Right now, we have a policy that has been well thought through, and which we are implementing,” Raju said.

Asked why the armed forces had not carried out a pilot project that would have provided this data earlier, he said: “What we are doing is actually a pilot project… the rate at which it is happening, yes, it is deemed as a pilot project. We may not have called it a pilot project. But this, it’s a work-in-progress. So what we are doing is actually some kind of a pilot project, but with very clear timelines put in place. The government has repeatedly said that they are amenable to modifications based on our experience.”

He said he would not be able to predict what exactly might be tweaked. “Based on our experience of this, of the four to five years, necessary changes will be brought about. (The tweaks) could be on any front.”

Raju said changes to regiments would take place in a “very slow manner” and there was no plan to do away with homogenous units right away. “We are not in a hurry to change anything along these lines,” he said, responding to criticism that the ‘All India, All Class’ recruitment would undermine the cohesiveness of fighting units, so far built on homogeneity of personnel.

He dismissed the suggestion that the spate of announcements after the policy had been announced for the re-employment of ex-Agniveers — 10 per cent reservation in Central Armed Police Forces; 10 per cent in Coast Guard and Defence PSUs; two years relaxation in the upper age limit; preference for Agniveers ins state police services –indicated that the policy had not been well thought out.

“I don’t agree with your contention that it seems to be (policy making) on the fly. Because the only change and announcement that has taken place is from 21 to 23 years, all others are some offers which are coming from different establishments to give more strength to the programme that has been announced by the government to take care of the 75 per cent of the people who would be exiting. So it is an add-on to what the government already had thought of (providing),” he said.

This includes a package of Rs 11.71 lakh Seva Nidhi tax-exempt financial package, in addition to the Rs 11.72 lakh as his pay for four years. “So, a young boy coming in at 18 years of age, after four years goes back with around 24 lakh rupees,” Raju said. The government has also said an ex-Agniveer can take a loan of Rs 18 lakh over a period of three years, using the Seva Nidhi package as a collateral.

“So after that, we thought — and we still believe — that he’s got multiple opportunities outside. It is designed not for giving him a pension at the end of four years, it is designed to make him a more capable boy. The more capable ones are retained within the system, the balance of people with a tonne of skills of varied kinds, based on whether he has come to infantry, to EME, Signals, Engineers, each one has come into the system, he gets a unique set of skills . So for these people, we said that this kind of money will give him a second option, a secondary option to either study –he goes from Class 10 to Class 12 (at the end of four years). They also give him a multiple skilling certificate as per the NSQ (National Skills Qualification) Format . So, which puts him in place to get on to the next phase of life. And before, (we thought) that was sufficient. Now there is new feedback that has come into the environment, that he needs a government job. But that was not the aim, the aim was to skill him and put him into the environment where he finds multiple opportunities in front of him, to be an entrepreneur himself,” Raju said in defence of the scheme.

The implementation was going to be slow, he pointed out, with 40,000 this year, the same number in 2023, increasing to 45,000 in 2024 and 50,000 in 2025.

“So the number of Agniveers who are coming into the system is going to be very small. Along the way, if there’s any tweaking required to be done, we will do it. So in an infantry battalion of 880 people, at the end of four years we will have 120 (Agniveers). So in a section, we may have only one to two persons.That is the rate of change. Four years from now is the first time that 75 per cent of the Agniveers will be exiting. So we have time to learn along the way, and we will make necessary changes,” he said.

Raju said the scheme was “a fundamental change” in recruitment. “So, there is a need for all of us to absorb the change. It is to give (a young person) an opportunity to serve the nation for four years and exit and do something more. It is not an end in itself,” he said.

Rejecting the charge that this would turn the Army into a finishing school for imparting skills to Class 10 graduates, Raju said this was a “wrong” interpretation.

“It is not that we are going to give him some extra training or extra skill which is outside the job he’s doing. So if we have an (Agniveer) as an EME boy who is expected to maintain vehicles. That is captured as a skill, so at the end of it he wants to start a workshop of his own, or he can get employed as a supervisor in a workshop, those opportunities open,” he said.

Raju said a cap of 50 per cent of Agniveers in the composition of the Army would ensure balance. The remaining 50 per cent would be the “permanent force”, which would come from the 25 per cent hired from every four-year batch of Agniveer.

The VCOAS said the number of Agniveer recruited could go up to 1.30 lakh per batch, which means that the numbers in the 25 per cent re-hired would also go up proportionately.

He said even if regiments did become more diverse in 10 years, “in whatever form it does occur, we are very confident that there will still be a very effective fighting force”. He gave examples of “mixed class” combat arms that the Army has now.

“Even within the infantry, we have very good examples, whether it is the Brigade of Guards, Mahar regiment or Parachute battalion, Special Forces battalion. They are all mixed completely and they have performed very well. Today we have come of age where we can go with complete confidence that a heterogenous set of people can come together and bond and be perfectly good soldiers.”

“Another example is the Rashtriya Rifles (counterinsurgency force deployed in J&K). When RR came about 30 years back, there were a lot of apprehensions — how will this motley group of people from Infantry, ASC, EME, Signals work together. Today, the RR is one of the finest forces, they are delivering in the insurgencies and on the Line of Control, and the Line of Actual Control. So, we have fine examples of people of this nature coming together,” he said.

Raju said contrary to apprehensions that the ‘All India, All Class’ recruitment would skew the numbers of recruits in favour of certain states, “the mandate of change that is taking place is that (recruitment) must spread out across the country” and slowly change from the present intense density in particular areas to all parts of India.

“From the high density recruitment areas, slowly, that decrease will take place, so that people from states that are under-represented (can also enter). But that is also subject to those states being able to contribute. There is a possibility that we may go to a particular area where we do not have adequate representation, but we may not get the response from there. So we will continue to take from places where already there is enough availability. So that little management of the environment will be done,” he said.

He also said concerns about rivalry between Agniveers over who gets to stay and who has to leave at the end of four years are misplaced. “Competition is not new to the system. Having said that, we are also saying that the man who is going out is being given a fair foundation to start off on his second innings,” he said.

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