Special to Express | Tour of Duty: Don’t blunt our winning edge

As part of the ongoing military reforms, the government is introducing ‘Tour of Duty’ (ToD) scheme called Agnipath, which is a short-term recruitment plan. Under the new policy, males aged 18-21 years with 10+2 qualification, will be enrolled on a contractual basis for a period of four years, including six months of training. On completion of the tenure, 75 percent will stand released and the remaining will be re-enrolled for a period of 15 years on fresh terms of service, which will entitle them to pension and post-retirement benefits. Those relieved as ‘Agni Veers’ will be given a severance package called ‘Seva Nidhi’, an amount of Rs 10 lakh — an individual contributing 30 per cent of monthly emoluments and government supplementing with an equal amount.

Every year, around 60,000 defense personnel retire from the service. The ToD recruitment scheme was designed in 2020 under the aegis of ‘Department of Military Affairs’ headed by then CDS General Bipin Rawat. The rationale underlyinge for this proposition was to reduce the mounting defense pension bill, estimated to be over third (including MOD civilians) of the defense budget. Given the crucial imperatives, the ToD proposal suffers from serious pitfalls as it overlooks critical ground realities.

The regimentation

India’s rural hinterland continues to be the major source for Army recruitment. The main reason for this is that defense forces are seen as a symbol of pride, synonymous with high social status amongst the communities in the countryside. For many young people, joining the Army remains a preferred choice, evident from the series of protests by the aspirants against non-recruitment in the last two years. Further, since recruitment to the armed forces is purely merit based, fairness of selection system enjoys a high degree of credibility. It is not uncommon to come across the third or even fourth generation recruits joining the regiments of their forefathers.

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Structural foundation, the edifice of the Indian Army, rests on the units whose organizational culture is defined by camaraderie and ‘espirt de corps’ based on mutual faith and trust. While technical skills like handling of weapons and equipment or tactical drills can be developed in a short time-frame, it takes long to build team cohesion; starting with the buddy system, graduating to small detachment, section, platoon and company. Given the diverse backgrounds of the new joineees, molding a raw recruit into a seasoned soldier is a painstaking transformational process. It entails individual nurturing, mentoring, building self-esteem, inculcating the ethos of a regiment, and imbibing a deep sense of conviction. It takes years to mold a battle-worthy soldier who will ultimately take the call to make the supreme sacrifice.

It is because of this institutionalised and time-tested system that an Indian soldier has stood the ground against the heaviest odds, despite being inadequately-equipped and fighting with whatever available.

Even during the 1962 War, in the Battles of Razangla- Gurung Hill or Walong, our men fought to the finish. In 1965 War and later in 1971 Bangladesh War, spectacular victory against Pakistan was achieved despite the fact that most of the weapon systems were of WW II vintage. Even today, Indian armed forces continue to deliver amidst most arduous conditions.

Security challenges

India’s security challenges are very complex, posing serious threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The two-front threat is a stark reality with Pakistan-orchestrated proxy war in J&K and China’s aggressive posturing along the LAC. The US and the West, where the ToD model is in vogue, have peaceful neighborhoods with settled borders. Their security commitments are more about protecting the national interests against weak opponents. In such scenarios ‘tourist soldiering’ makes sense. Incidentally, US’s humiliating defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan was significantly due to card punching syndrome and poor performance of seasonal soldiers. In the case of Israel too, where compulsory military service is the norm, prevailing security threat is primarily by way of terrorism. Currently, in Ukraine the performance of under trained Russian scripts is rather dismal. Even the Chinese military’s part-time soldiers have been found wanting to cope with operational environment in Ladakh, despite being equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and equipment.

Regarding the financial aspects of the pension bill, it is pertinent to note that approximate strength of the armed forces is around 15 lakh and that of civilians in the Ministry of Defense (MOD) is 3.75 lakh. Total number of defense pensioners is about 24.62 lakh; armed forces veterans numbering 19 lakh and civilians 5.62 lakh. In the current financial year, the defence budget was Rs 525,166 crore, of which defence personnel pension outlay was Rs 2,07,132 crore; ie around 39.4 per cent. Going further into the breakdown of the defence pension, the defence personnel account for Rs 1,19,696 crore and civilians Rs 87,436 crore. It is evident that proportionate share of defense civilian pension is far higher than that of defense personnel.

Evaluate alternatives

Given the above imperatives, the ToD scheme is flawed and merits a holistic review. The tendency to replicate the corporate model which devolves on the culture of ‘hire and fire’ or ‘use and throw’ defies the fundamental tenets of the armed forces and impinges on the solemn code of ‘Honour, Loyalty, Identity’. Interestingly, in the corporate world, there has been a serious rethink on the organizational culture and man management in the wake of Covid-19. Entities which treated human resource as an expendable commodity faced an existential crisis. The Western template is not relevant in our environment given the ground imperatives. Detailed ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of the ToD scheme reveals that drawbacks far outweigh the envisaged payoffs.

There are a number of alternatives which can ease the burden of mounting defense pension burden. To start with, MOD, the apex body, needs immediate restructuring and trimming down the civilian workforce to enable proficient prosecution of ‘higher direction war’. Similar actions are due in the case of other government bodies like the DRDO. Within the services too, organizational changes by way of operational jointness, integration in training and logistics coupled with ‘Atamnirbhar’ initiatives will result in major cost cutting. Lateral placement of service personnel especially from the combat arms to the CAPFs is a viable option and must be pursued despite resistance from the parent organizations. Some earlier policies like volunteer exit after seven to ten years service as reservists may be reimagined.

Veterans are the face of armed forces in a society. To quote US first President George Washington; “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars treated and appreciated by their nation”. An ‘Agniveer’ left to fend for self after four years of service may not be an ideal role model for the youth of the nation.

General George S Patton had famously said: “Wars are fought with weapons but won by the men. It is the spirit of men who follow and the man who leads that gain victory.” The India Army has fought all the war against adversaries who were better armed, yet won because of the soldier behind the weapon. The situation is unlikely to change in the near future; in fact the gap is likely to widen vis-à-vis China. So let’s be wary of not blunting our winning edge!

(The writer is a war veteran who commanded a battalion in Siachen-Chushul, formations in the Valley and North East; he is currently Professor, Strategic-IR and Management Studies)

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