Sanjeev Ahluwalia | Agnipath: Bringing the ‘gig’ economy to India’s military

The Union government is experimenting with applying these \'start-up\' human resources management principles to the 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 future candidates for becoming 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.

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

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 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. The problem with the “breaking news” announcements is that, as in allopathy, unintended “side effects” need to be administered to simultaneously. Be in no doubt that “Agnipath”, if it’s implemented rigorously and over a period of time, is truly transformative. More care with communications beyond the top-down press interviews would have been in order.

Third, 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 — Tamil Nadu, 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.

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 seeks to follow 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, but the benefits are also significant.

Selected candidates must serve for only four years. Then, 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.

The fear amongst the traditional recruiting communities is of increased competition from non-traditional areas, making it more difficult to get it. 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.

This 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 time-bound promotion and a pre-determined career progression. In sharp contrast, for military officers, promotion to the top depends on outstanding relative performance because the positions at the top are few, relative to those at the bottom.

Four, “Agnipath” is a clever attempt to mask the harsh truth that the military will need fewer sepoys in future as the nature of warfare will change. This is why only 11,500 (25 per cent) of “Agniveers” out of the 46,000 will be retained. “Agnipath” is a transition mechanism dulling the immediate pain from change.

It can be continued till needed, without affecting the numbers recruited every year. 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 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.

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, including retirement benefits. But back-loaded benefits will flow.
One such is nudging the Indian Army to upgrade technologically, which requires greater flexibility in employment practices — something that the “gig” economy ensures for employers. Also, over a 19-year period, the Agniveer alumnus would number 0.5 million — a working age, sizable, cohesive political force.

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