“We are going to progressively scale up annual recruitment under the scheme. From 40,000 recruits this year, it will go up to 1.2 lakh by the seventh or eighth year and then 1.6 lakh by the tenth or eleventh year. All recruitments (except officers) will be done only under Agnipath,” said the Army vice chief, in an exclusive interview to TOI.
The much-smaller IAF and Navy will recruit 3,000 Agniveers each this year, with the numbers going up proportionately in the coming years. From every batch of Agniveers, only 25% of the “best of the best” will be retained to serve another 15 years as regular cadre soldiers in the Army, with the other 75% being demobilised after four years.
“The aim is to eventually have regular cadre soldiers (erstwhile Agniveers) and Agniveers (on a four-year tenure) in a 50:50 ratio. Reduction of the average age of soldiers from the existing 32 to 24-26 in six to seven years will lead to a much fitter, tech-savvy Army,” Lt-Gen Raju said.
There are widespread concerns that the radical scheme to recruit the bulk of soldiers for only four years on an “all-India, all-class” basis will hit the professionalism, regimental ethos and fighting spirit of the Army. It is also feared it will lead to militarisation of society with over 35,000 combat-trained youth being rendered jobless every year.
The Army vice chief, however, maintained these concerns are largely ill-conceived and misplaced. “Regimentation, ethos and camaraderie is an output of a group of soldiers staying together, eating together and fighting together, irrespective of whether they belong to a particular community or not. There will be no dilution of the basic ethos of ‘Naam, Namak and Nishaan’,” he said.
Around 75% of the Army today is composed of all-India, all-class regiments and units. “Rashtriya Rifles, the Brigade of the Guards, Para-Special Forces battalions and many other such units are practical examples of bonding and operating well together,” he added.
As for the large number of Agniveers entering civil society every year, Lt-Gen Raju said, “Why should the psyche of an individual change merely because he was not selected for the regular cadre? Disciplined and well-skilled Agniveers, with a ‘Seva Nidhi’ exit package of Rs 11.7 lakh, will be eligible candidates for many public and private sector jobs.” The government is already working on a plan to induct Agniveers into the Central Armed Police Forces, Defence Security Corps, PSUs and other agencies and departments.
Will Agniveers be risk-averse, with the bulk of them looking for a second career? “If a soldier has to fire his rifle, he will. Agniveers will be well-trained. They, in fact, will compete with each other to join the regular cadre… I am sure battalion commanding officers will be able to manage and handle this,” Lt-Gen Raju said.