NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new military recruitment scheme, which has triggered violent protests, is a major reform aimed at modernising the military and making it a leaner force in keeping with global trends.
India has around 1.4 million active military personnel, the world’s second-largest military force after that of China which has two million, based on the 2022 Global Firepower Index.
While there is no disagreement on the need to cut down flab in the armed forces and take in younger recruits, concerns remain over the new recruitment terms and potential impact on the military such as its combat readiness.
Called Agnipath, or path of fire in Hindi, the armed forces will this year take in around 46,000 soldiers between the ages of 17½ and 23 years for posts below officer rank for a period of four years. Recruitment could go up in subsequent years.
Only 25 per cent will be kept on thereafter, while the rest will be let go with around 1.1 million rupees (S$19,500) but no pension.
Under previous rules, those aged between 19 and 20 were recruited as soldiers at the lowest ranks for at least 15 years and received a pension after retirement.
The government is seeking to reduce the average soldier’s age from 32 to 26 years old.
The announcement of the scheme on June 14 saw violent protests in which trains were burnt last week, followed by non-violent protests early this week.
This was despite government assurances of gainful employment for those who are let go and warnings that those involved in the violent protests would not be able to join the military.
Aspirants, particularly in central India where the army is seen as a stable source of employment, are seething over being deprived of a sustained military service, along with pensions and health benefits. Central India is considered the core constituency of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Military veterans have also been divided, with some warning that the scheme could backfire if 75 per cent of combat-ready soldiers do not find gainful employment, and questioning whether four years is enough to imbibe the military spirit cultivated over years.
Others have argued that it is a much needed reform and that it should have been done gradually.
“It should be a pilot project first and then rolled out. The scheme has to meet organisational needs and aspirations of the youth. We need to see the impact on the regiment system, the culture, traditions and bonding,” said retired lieutenant-general Vinod Bhatia.
“There are certain apprehensions with the scheme, especially pertaining to combat effectiveness. The next four to five years will be a challenge.”