Agnipath-The Gig-Economy comes to the Indian Military

Flexible supply arrangements are replacing permanence and rigidity — as in the “gig” economy — to align with an uncertain world. The Union government is experimenting with applying these “start-up” human resources management principles to the military. The scheme titled “Agnipath” (trial by fire) requires those keen to become soldiers /sepoys to go through an initial four-year period on contract and compete for permanent jobs. Only the top one-fourth would be formally recruited. Jack Welch, GE’s celebrated CEO, did this first, advocating that firing the bottom 10 per cent improves performance.

Understandably the Indian Army — extremely competent on the job but ponderous and blinkered within its colonial legacy — is privately seething at having to adapt managerially, as are large but select regions of rural areas which have for generations supplied the “boots on the ground” (sepoys/soldiers) to guard our frontiers. Soldiers/Sepoys can never become commissioned officers- who are recruited separately, following colonial practices. An intermediate rank of junior commissioned officer exists, which a few recruits can aspire to reach on merit after two decades of service.

Why has the scheme gone wrong even before it has started?

“Breaking News” policies announcements rarely have a reality check

First, the public consultation before making these major changes was minimal. The military provides around 50,000 well-paying jobs which come with the added attraction of deep public respect (India’s tough neighborhood and long land border needs courageous, constant surveillance) and much needed “life skills” in an increasingly turbulent world.

With the global economy sloping downwards towards recession, secure, permanent jobs with great perquisites, a life-long pension and first-rate medical care, are a big deal for a young man (women are not inducted as sepoys/soldiers yet) with thin qualifications — the minimum is a high school certificate with outstanding physique, endurance, and a penchant for wild places.

Second, the Narendra Modi government has a history of adopting “shock and awe” tactics in public policy. “Breaking news” announcements have a big-bang impact like allopathic treatment (versus the more gradual relief from homeopathy) but unintended “side effects” need to be administered to simultaneously.

Transforming colonial military practices

The transformative character of the scheme arises from the small but significant change made in the process of selection. This change has the deepest meaning for the infantry, within the Indian Army, and not its other segments or for the Air Force and the Navy. It is the infantry that employs the majority of sepoys — men trained to challenge, confront and fight the enemy on foot, often hand to hand, in the blood-curdling savage way of yore. This way of life is not for drone warriors, safely cocooned in their air-conditioned, remote-control rooms.

Hardened infantry officers and junior commissioned officers attest that what keeps the men going is officers leading from the front — a characteristic deeply engrained in the Indian military — and more important, the collective willingness to stand tall alongside regimental ancestors who made the supreme sacrifice and are revered as heroes.

Community links count. This is why the colonial practice of recruiting from regions — Madras (now Chennai) for the four southern states, Punjab, Kumaon, Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Nagaland — or castes —  Sikh, Rajput, Jat, Dogra, Maratha, Gurkha —  continues, in “historical” regiments. The Madras Regiment is the oldest, raised in 1758, followed by the Punjab Regiment (1761).

The Indian military is exempt from the reservation policy for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, regiments like the Sikh Light or the Mahar were raised, which compete successfully against older, caste or region-based regiments, thereby debunking the colonial “martial race” theory of fighting ability being restricted to specific communities. The experience with the Rashtriya Rifles —  a mixed force, raised to manage terrorism in Kashmir, is similarly positive.

Democratizing soldier/sepoy recruitment as for induction of officers.

Interestingly, as in the colonial period, when no one bothered which class a British officer belonged to, the officer cadre is recruited on an “All India All Class” (AIAC) basis and is none the worse for it.

The “Agnipath” scheme follows the same AIAC principle for the recruitment of sepoys for the first time. Here lies the nub of the socio-economic problem. Given the desperate unemployment amongst the young, becoming an “Agniveer” is an attractive option even for those who have no family history of serving in the military. The biggest attraction lies in its impermanence- a “boot-camp” for four years -with significant terminal benefits.

Selected candidates must serve for four years. Subsequently, one- fourth of the top ranked shall be absorbed and become regular sepoys but the rest will leave with Rs 1.17 million tax-free (both the individual and the government subscribe in equal shares to building this corpus, which also accumulates interest). The monthly composite salary increases from Rs 30,000 per month in the first year to Rs 40,000 in the terminal year.

Switching from privilege to competition has losers and raises anxiety levels

The fear amongst the traditional recruiting communities is of increased competition from non-traditional areas, making it more difficult to get recruited. Second, even after getting selected, the fear is of not making the grade at the end of four years — an impermanence they were not used to till now.

Fear of the unknown is similar to what the higher civil service feels when confronted with new management methods instituting competitive career progression, as opposed to the prevailing time-bound promotion and a pre-determined career progression. In sharp contrast, for military officers, promotion to the top depends on outstanding relative performance on the job and in formal mid-service examinations, because the positions at the top are very few, relative to those at the bottom.

Tomorrow’s boots are not made for walking

“Agnipath” is a clever attempt to mask the harsh truth that the military will need fewer sepoys in future as the nature of warfare is changing. This is why only 11,500 (25 per cent) of “Agniveers” out of the 46,000 will be retained after four years. “Agnipath” is a transition mechanism dulling the immediate pain from change. It is only from 2027-28, when 75 per cent of the first cohort of “Agniveers” are to be discharged, that the pain will be keenly felt.

Here too, preferential recruitment in the Central police and paramilitary services, (announced piece meal, subsequently) can assuage the discharged. Also, the lumpsum terminal amount is handsome for a 24-year-old with light qualifications. Private providers of security services have welcomed the scheme. They anticipate the gift of large numbers of pre-trained candidates.

An extravagant induction program

The government is spending far more (life cycle all-in costs) on hiring the temporary “Agniveers” than it would cost to hire a regular sepoy directly, including retirement benefits. Targeting recruitment of 11,500 (25 percent) regular soldiers every year means maintaining a rolling stock of 46,000 Agniveers and paying Rs 5380 crore every year, from the fifth year, as Sevanidhi or terminal benefits to all (this was clarified subsequent to announcement of the scheme) , including those chosen for regularization who would be discharged and then rejoin.

If Agnipath is just as a meritocratic recruitment scheme, it is the most expensive ever, counting just the terminal benefits of Agniveers and ignoring salary drawn during training and other recruitment expenses. To recruit one soldier the cost is upwards of Rs 46.8 lakhs per recruit! (Rs 5380 crores annual payment of tax-free terminal benefits divided by 11,500 regular inductees). This equals to more than nine years of salary for a regular recruit.

However, government seems to view Agnipath as something more than a meritocratic recruitment scheme for the military. Possibly it was conceived as a public good – a skilling program for the economy – on the questionable assumption that civilian skills are merely military skills minus the skilled use of force. The extravagant funding of Agnipath is out of sync with the economics of civilian skilling.

Consider that over 2017-22 the skills gap in 34 civilian trades was estimated at 128.3 million persons. The annual budget of the Ministry of Skill Development is Rs 2999 crores (2022-23). In comparison, the outlay for each cohort of 46,000 Angiveers is Rs 10,753 crores (including salary)- clearly an unsustainable skilling expenditure – particularly in the context of the economy wide need for belt tightening to deal with uncertain economic prospects.

Backloaded benefits for government

Possibly, government got persuaded by the backloaded benefits of the scheme. Is Agnipath a Trojan Horse nudging the Indian Army to upgrade faster technologically, with an added lever of greater flexibility in employment practices —  something that the “gig” economy ensures for employers.

Another, not to be discounted political outcome is that, over a 19-year period, the Agniveer alumnus would number 0.5 million men— a working age, sizable, cohesive political force, indebted to the government for its largesse.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in the Asian Age June 21, 2023

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