Justifying the "Agnipath" scheme, tri-service briefing held by Lt General Anil Puri (additional secretary in the Defence Ministry) on June 21, 2022 emphasised that it was aimed at taking "advantage of the demographic dividend" in the cause of national security (youthful soldiers). For the right emphasis, he pointed out that 50% of India's population was below 25 years of age.
For those who believe that serving in armed forces is purely a matter of patriotism and national security, as against a good employment opportunity for large population of unemployed youths, the instant eruption of violence against the scheme, which had led to cancellation of 600 trains the previous day, should have come as a sobering experience.
General VK Singh, former Indian Army chief and a junior minister in the central government, went on to say armed forces should not be considered as source of mass employment or solution for joblessness. But the ground realities are harsh and unforgiving because of massive and chronic joblessness, particularly for youth from underprivileged and rural backgrounds.
They see "Agnipath" denying them a shot at regular and secure jobs in armed forces which come with lifelong pension and social security covers like healthcare for family. Instead, "Agnipath" offers short-term contracts for soldiering without pension and social security cover. Also called Tour of Duty (TOD) scheme, it is a four-year hiring scheme at the end of which 75% of them would be retired (hire-and-fire).
Given that millions of youth have been preparing for years and waiting since 2019 to be absorbed into armed forces, it is a terrible shock. Going by the official declarations, "Agnipath" will fill up 46,000 vacancies in 2022, as against about 60,000 that arise because of retirements every year. As a result of this contract system replacing the regular employment, youths have already lost 1,80,000 jobs in the last three years. The numbers of jobs lost would go up to 1,34,000 by the end of 2022 (60,000 for years minus 46,000). In subsequent years, the scheme will absorb 50,000 to 60,000, as per official plan.
For those willing to believe that "Agnipath" recruitment will be a miniscule part of armed forces, Army Vice Chief Lt General BS Raju has already made it clear that by 2032, they would constitute 50% of the Indian army.
Add to this the fact that 10 lakh posts are lying vacant in central government ministries and departments alone (excluding vacancies in armed forces, paramilitary forces, PSUs, PSBs, central government-run hospitals, schools, colleges and central universities and other entities), which is now to be filled up in the next one-and-half years.
5-24% vacancies in central govt jobs for ex-servicemen
The government has made a flurry of ex post facto promises to help provide jobs to the 75% for "Agniveers" who would be retired after four years. Most prominent one of these is (i) 10% job reservations in the ministries of Defence (defence civilian posts, Coast Guard and all 16 Defence public sector undertakings) and Home Affairs (Central Armed Forces, Assam Rifles) and (ii) relaxation in the upper age limit from 21 to 23.
Besides, several BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Haryana have promised to prioritise jobs to the retired "Agniveers", after Assam took the lead. BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya has promised to give priority to them as security guards in party offices.
It is, however, the support from Indian Inc to "Agniveers", vowing to absorb them after four years, that has brought more cheer and created an environment of positivity – which is even more bizarre as we will soon find out.
Does the central government have the wherewithal to keep its promise? Here are the statistics.
The Directorate General Resettlement (DGR), part of Defence Ministry's Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, tracks employment of ex-servicemen (ESM) against posts reserved for them in the central government entities like banks (PSBs), central armed police forces (CAPFs), central PSUs (CPSUs) and central government departments.
Available up to June 30, 2021, the DGR report shows not all reserved posts (in categories of A, B, C and D) are filled. Reservations for ESM range from 14.5% in group C to 24.5% in group D of PSBs; 10-20% in group A, B, C and D of CAPFs; 14.5% in group C and 24.5% in group D of CPSUs and 10-20% in group C and D of central government departments.
As against these, the "shortfall" in filling the posts with ESM are: 5.4% in group C and D of PSBs; 7.8-20% in group A, B, C and D in CAPFs; 13.4-24.2% in group C and D of CPSUs and 8.7-17.3% in group C and D of central government departments.
Why these vacancies exist?
The DGR's annual newsletter of 2021 explains it.
It says this because recruitments to these central government jobs are through "competitive examination" and "not through a qualifying examination". Although relaxation in the selection process for ex-servicemen (ESM) has been provided:
· Adequate number of ESM are not applying for these posts.
· Adequate number of ESM are not qualifying for these posts.
· DoPT orders dated February 12, 1986, regarding relaxed standards of selection "not being implemented by the Organisations".
· Reservations provided by state governments also been "defeated".
There is yet another factor.
Admiral Arun Prakash (retd), former naval chief, writes: "…bitter experience of the past has shown that the home ministry (MHA) has resisted induction of ex-servicemen into the armed police and para-military forces, on the grounds that it would spoil the career path of their own cadres. Similarly, state governments and other agencies have blatantly ignored the reservations mandated for ESM."
Why would the situation be better for "Agniveer" retirees?
Why ex post facto concessions? Is it a pilot?
At a tri-service chief briefing on June 19, 2022, General Puri had said that various concessions announced by the government and others to "Agniveer" retirees were "not a fallout of" the protests but were "planned".
These ex post facto concessions (following the eruption of violent protests by way of train burning and stone pelting by aspiring job seekers) included not just 10% reservations (which has existed all along for ESM, and nothing new) or relaxation in upper age limit from 21 to 23 but also talks of providing class XII pass certificates (qualifying point for "Agniveer" is class X) to help the retired ones with jobs. How this will be achieved remains to be seen.
But the most misleading claim about the scheme came on June 20, 2022 when vice chief of the Army Lt General BS Raju said "Agnipath" was a "pilot" project. He said: "What we are doing is actually a pilot project…the rate at which it is happening, yes, it deemed as a pilot project. We may not have called it a pilot project. But this is a work in progress." He also added for good measure: "Based on our experience of this, of four to five years, necessary changes will be brought about."
The same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured the country: "Several decisions and reforms may be unpleasant temporarily, but with time their benefits can be experienced by India."
The very next day, the tri-service chiefs met the Prime Minister and General Puri held a press conference to declare that after 46,000 recruitments in 2022, subsequent years would see it rising to 50,000-60,000 a year and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said "Agnipath" wouldn't be rolled back and that "conflict entrepreneurs" were behind the agitations against the scheme.
All of this means, "Agnipath" is no pilot. Besides, a defence expert writes that defence services had first proposed a pilot project in 2020 – with 5,000 soldiers tried out for five years – to study the effect before the scheme is implemented. It was shot down by political leadership.
Billed as "transformative reform", "Agnipath" is a top-down decision with no prior consultation outside the official circles.
A government announcement issued on June 16, 2022 (a day after "Agnipath" was announced) "debunked" many "myths" associated with the scheme and declared that "extensive consultation was undertaken with the serving armed forces officers for the last two years".
The statement didn't even claim that prior consultations were held with various stakeholders like aspiring youths for whom the scheme is meant for, opposition parties, independent defence experts or defence veterans. Why was this not debated in the Parliament? Why no parliamentary panel scrutinised it? There are no answers.
Interestingly, the June 16 statement mentioned earlier, says: "The proposal of 'Agnipath' has been framed by the Department of Military Officers staffed by military officers." A defence expert pointed out that there is no such office in India. Instead, there is "Department of Military Affairs" or DMA, with Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as its secretary. The DMA is "headless" for the past six months since CDS General Vipin Rawat died and his position not yet filled.
Several retired officers, including Admiral Arun Prakash, and defence experts have already pointed out how this short-term contractual soldiering is not needed in India (no dearth of youngsters ready to be conscripted), would compromise professionalism in armed forces and national security and also poses a great threat to society already witnessing majoritarian violence.
Industry is shedding jobs, not creating
The Indian economy is too weak to absorb retired "Agniveers" as it struggles with chronic job crisis worsening with every passing year.
The latest PLFS report of 2020-21 says, workers are moving away from high-paying and high-productive manufacturing to low-paying and low-productive agriculture and self-employment. It shows, the employment share of agriculture has gone up from 44.1% in FY18 to 46.5% in FY21, while the manufacturing's share has fallen from 12.1% to 10.9% (industry's share fallen from 13.1% to 11.8%) during the same period.
It also shows that the best category jobs, regular wage/salary, are disappearing and replaced by low-paying, uncertain self-employed category. During FY18-FY21, regular wage/salary jobs fell from 22.8% to 21.1%, self-employed jobs rose from 52.2% to 55.6%, with "unpaid" category of self-employed going up from 13.6% to 17.3%.
The Ashoka University-CMIE study of job scenario between FY17 and FY21 had shown manufacturing jobs had halved in these five years ("declined by 46%").
India Inc is in no position to help "Agniveers", notwithstanding its public posturing.
Amidst a resource crunch, the central government cut corporate tax in September 2019 to boost private investment and job creation. Instead of doing that, what corporates did was revealed by the RBI in its annual report of 2019-20: "The corporate tax cut of September 2019 has been utilised in debt servicing, build-up of cash balances and other current assets rather than restarting the capex cycle."
Its Financial Stability Report of January 2021 listed "lack of robust private sector investment" as the number one risk to recovery of the pandemic-hit economy.
Amidst the pandemic mayhem, when millions have lost their jobs and businesses, corporate entities (listed) recorded historic high net profits in FY21 and FY22. The CMIE's analysis of FY21 financial fillings had shown, among others, corporate entities achieved that by cutting jobs and wages. A business daily's analysis shows "stellar rise" in corporate earnings in FY21 and FY22 did not result in a corresponding boom in capital expenditure (capex). Rather, listed companies' investment in fixed assets grew at the "slowest pace in the last six years".
The job crisis is real. There is no point beating around the bush and paint a rosy picture for short-term contract soldiering that "Agnipath" brings in.