Manpower shortage calls for a rethink of Agnipath scheme : The Tribune India

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Manpower shortage calls for a rethink of Agnipath scheme

It is intriguing that the Dept of Military Affairs waited for two years to launch an inquiry into manpower crunch resulting from the new scheme.

Manpower shortage calls for a rethink of Agnipath scheme

ON THE WARPATH: Anti-Agnipath protesters have demanded a return to the old recruitment system, whose star attraction was pension. Tribune Photo

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (Retd)

Military Commentator

THE Agnipath scheme was a big issue for the Opposition during the recent election campaign. Referring to the scheme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the Opposition of using the Army as a political weapon. This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Now, NDA allies Janata Dal (United) and Lok Janshakti Party in the Modi 3.0 government have sought a review of the scheme.

According to recent reports, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) has launched an inquiry into manpower shortage resulting from the scheme. Why the DMA waited two years is intriguing, for it was clear as daylight that unacceptable deficiencies would accrue as the quota for recruitment was woefully inadequate in the backdrop of the rate of retirement, especially after the nearly three-year drought in recruitment amid the Covid-19 pandemic. But there was a method to the madness.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was seated among Service Chiefs when the transformative Agnipath scheme was announced in June 2022. Officers of the tri-service DMA spelt out its virtues: arguably a more youthful profile for below-officer rank personnel. Serving Chiefs, whose deep selection generally ensures conformity, later lauded the controversial reform.

Gen MM Naravane (retd), predecessor of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Manoj Pande, reportedly mentioned in his long-delayed book, Four Stars of Destiny, the shock and awe generated by Agnipath, which was described as ‘a bolt from the blue’ for the Air Force and the Navy. The Tour of Duty scheme, conceived earlier by the late Gen Bipin Rawat, was a short-term recruitment plan to be test-bedded for 5,000 personnel. Even before the DMA launched its investigation into Agnipath, I had begun to quiz officers and others about it. The negative views of veterans are well-known. I visited two infantry regimental centres — Gorkha and Garhwali — in Shillong and Lansdowne and the Signals Training Centre in Goa. Until recently, infantry regiments, barring Gorkhas, were only marginally deficient in manpower, but managing units on the LoC and LAC was not easy.

The Gorkhas were the ones to take a hit. Sixty per cent of the manpower for 38 Gorkha battalions comes from Nepal-domiciled Gorkhas (NDGs). Nepal had quietly rejected Agnipath, which was imposed unilaterally — without any consultation — though recruitment is in accordance with the 1947 tripartite treaty between the UK, India and Nepal.

Last month, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said India would act in its national interest and not at the behest of any other country, referring to Nepal. No one needs to tell Jaishankar that NDGs joining the Indian Army is not just recruitment but a strategic bonding and an Indian asset in Nepal. In the absence of recruitment for four years, many Gorkha battalions are nearly 100 soldiers short of the authorised strength. Further, the 40 per cent Indian-domiciled Gorkha (IDG) quota is undersubscribed: so, Garhwalis and Kumaonis are being recruited in lieu of Gorkhas. Last year, Gen Pande even considered disbanding Gorkha battalions.

In Shillong, Sabathu, Banaras and Lucknow, the Gorkha regimental centres are training Agniveers from other regiments. The truncated 31-week training programme is producing yet-to-be-tested short-service soldiers. Even in Goa, where they train communication specialists, no one spoke well of Agnipath. During the election campaign, anti-Agnipath protesters demanded a return to the old recruitment system, whose star attraction was pension. Even as the government is keen to project Agnipath’s resultant youthful profile, the real motive is the reduction of salary and pension bills to create funds for modernisation. In 2023-24, the capital outlay pertaining to defence modernisation and infrastructure development was Rs 1.63 lakh crore, while Rs 1.38 lakh crore were allocated for pensions.

No recruitment for nearly three years of pandemic created a void in the Army alone of 1,80,000 personnel. In addition, the Agniveer intake of around 42,000 (28,000 Army, 8,000 Navy and 6,000 IAF) annually tells a different story. The Army is recruiting for four years with 25 per cent retention from 28,000 personnel, which is 7,000, while nearly 70,000 will retire every year. On top of this, 2023 was the Army’s year of transformation and right-sizing. An additional 1,00,000 soldiers were to be retrenched in addition to the shortfall of 1,80,000 in 2023, plus the yearly depletion. By April last year, after the Integrated Defence Staff ordered a 10 per cent reduction in combat units, manpower deficiency had risen to alarming levels.

I raised the matter at a veterans’ seminar last year, which was presided over by Gen Pande. Stunned silence prevailed. No one in the armed forces is prepared to bell the cat. A Lieutenant General who dealt with manpower — he has superannuated but still can’t be named — went to meet the Joint Secretary concerned in the PMO to inform him about the alarming deficiency. When he spelt out the estimated shortfall, he was informed: “Sahib ko sab malum hai” (Sahib knows it all). Agnipath and Agniveer are believed to be the PM’s contribution to the vocabulary of transformational defence reforms. However, the scheme has severely undermined the operational capabilities of the armed forces. That’s why the DMA has launched an internal survey.

#Agnipath #Agniveers #Narendra Modi

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