On June 14, in a surprise announcement the government of India released a new, controversial recruitment program for all branches of the Indian military called the Agnipath (“path of fire”) scheme. Following its announcement, disgruntled aspirants rioted in various parts of the country in protest. Notwithstanding this initial resistance to the Agnipath scheme, the recruiting process is now underway, with the first “Agniveers” expected to start training in late December. With the dust stirred up by the scheme’s initial introduction now settling, the time has come to take a measured view of what the scheme aims to achieve and its potential drawbacks.
In essence, the Agnipath recruitment scheme alters the existing recruitment strategy for the Indian military by requiring a recruit to serve a four-year term of service, replacing the previous 17-year minimum tenure. After the four years, 25 percent of Agniveers will be selected for enrollment as regular soldiers for a further 15 years of service. The remaining 75 percent will be compulsorily retired and will not be able to claim a service pension. Instead, they will be given a certificate to formally recognize the skills they developed and a tax-free severance package, currently estimated to be a little over 1 million Indian rupees (around $14,675). The scheme will typically apply to people between 17.5 and 21 years of age, although due to the protests and the freeze of recruiting during the COVID-19 pandemic, the age limit has been temporarily raised to 23.
The Agnipath Scheme’s Rationale
Officially, the primary objective of this reform is to create a more operationally ready force by bringing down the average age of the Indian military’s rank and file members. Currently the average age of a serving member in the Indian military is 32 years, which the Agnipath scheme aims to lower to 27 or 28 years. This effectively seeks to sacrifice some experience of the older hands to ensure that more members are fit, agile, and tech savvy. It also has the goal of ensuring that a significant section of the country’s youth are instilled with the values of discipline, patriotism, and teamwork, ideally creating for a pool of trained personnel for the government to potentially draw upon in a crisis.
While not explicitly stated by the Indian government’s press releases, it is widely understood that the scheme has several additional unspoken goals. The first and foremost is financial. By some estimates, India currently spends at least as much on military pensions as it does on the salaries of currently serving personnel. However, limiting required service to four years and excluding a significant percent of personnel, by requiring them to leave service before earning benefits, will dramatically reduce the cost of pensions in the defense budget. While the wage of an Agniveer is currently about 5,000 rupees per month more than regular personnel, they are only on the books for four years and ineligible for service pensions, representing major savings in the long run.
A second unspoken goal of the Agnipath scheme is maintaining the military’s available manpower. The Indian military loses approximately 60,000 personnel per year through retirement, with recruiting struggling to replace the numbers. The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic preventing recruiting drives. Over time, this has led to a vacancy of over 100,000 positions across the Indian military. Previous efforts by the Indian military to retain its size have simply involved extending the periods of minimum service that a recruit signs on for, which gradually rose from seven years in the 1970s to 17 by 2019. While the Agnipath scheme initially will only take 46,000 recruits, the intake of recruits is expected to be scaled up to 125,000 by 2027, allowing the Indian military to relatively quickly refill their ranks with fresh troops. There remains debate on what is the optimal balance of new recruits versus experience in a state’s military forces. Although it is still too early to tell if the Agnipath scheme will provide the optimal balance for India, it appears to be a step in the right direction.
Finally, as recruitment will be merit-based without regard to ethnicity, caste, or class, it will potentially finally do away with the old colonial practice of drawing soldiers from the “martial races” and structuring regiments on the basis of caste, religion, and region. While some critics have voiced concern that this may impact the fighting spirit and motivation of regiments, it is important to note that several of India’s more battle-hardened units, including the Parachute Regiment (Special Forces), Brigade of Guards, Artillery and Armored Corps, are of an “All India, All Class” composition.
The Known Unknowns
Despite its benefits to India’s military, the Agnipath scheme has its fair share of potential and clear issues. The haste in which it was introduced, along with last-minute changes in the face of criticism, indicate that the government did not fully think their policy through or consider some of the ramifications. Indeed, the scheme appears to have been formulated with little consultation and in the absence of a clear National Security Strategy and a defense policy, which would have given a sense of direction for further reforms. The Agnipath scheme also does little to address the leadership and skills shortages that the Indian military is currently facing. According to some reports, the Indian military is facing a shortage of approximately 9,700 officers and vital positions, most notably medics.
There also exists a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the details of the Agnipath scheme. To start with, it remains unclear how exactly the 25 percent of recruits being retained will be selected. Will each service keep 25 percent of the Agniveers that they recruit or will this quota be spread over the entire military? Will the cohort being retained be spread evenly across units or will some units maintain most of their recruits while others see a near complete turnaround? What will the career progression and promotion opportunities for the Agniveers that remain in the service look like?
Another unknown factor surrounding the Agnipath scheme concerns the job prospects of the 75 percent who are compulsorily retired. The government has promised to reserve some public sector and central policing positions for Agniveers. However, the numbers are insufficient to cover the entire cohort currently being recruited, let alone the higher numbers expected in the future, and there remains the likelihood that the jobs could evaporate should budget constraints force a hiring freeze. Although the corporate sector and education institutions will likely absorb some of the recruits, such jobs are far from guaranteed.
Apart from these ambiguities, there are some potential serious problems that concern the utility of the Agniveers to the Indian military, owing to their limited service time. The most notable question mark is the time the recruits will spend in training and of what quality it will be. Training times vary depending on the specific role the soldier or sailor is being trained for, but most sources indicate that the Indian military considers its rank and file soldiers to be fully trained after two or three years. Assuming that no corners are cut in training the Agnipath recruits, this means that the Agniveers will only be operationally useful to the military for half of their service, if not less.
In addition to this problem, there is a potential issue of how well the Agniveers will be able to fit in with regular personnel. Valid concerns have been raised as to whether there will emerge a perception gap between Agniveers and serving senior NCOs and junior commissioned officers. For instance, given the relative lack of training and experience compared to regular personnel, commanders might view the new recruits’ capabilities unfavorably and assign them to marginal tasks. There could be potential tension between Agniveers and sepoys (or their equivalent in the navy and air force) where the latter are senior by experience but officially the same rank as the former. Such problems could lead to motivation or discipline problems among the Agniveers.
Time will tell if any of the potential downsides outweigh the benefits of the scheme and how it can be tweaked to address these issues. Questions remain whether a pilot project would have been a feasible option instead of a shock and awe strategy to push the reforms out. It is highly likely that the Agnipath scheme will yield mixed results and may go through an adjustment period. On paper, the scheme addresses a whole gambit of issues, but implementation remains a challenge where bureaucratic hurdles and budgetary constraints can act as spoilers. However, there is no denying that the Indian military requires structural reforms, and the Agnipath scheme is one such step out of many that are likely to be introduced.