Home/ Opinion / Columns/  How to pitch Agnipath to the young – talk skills, not jobs

How to pitch Agnipath to the young – talk skills, not jobs

Frame it as a skill programme and encourage those who can’t join the forces to become entrepreneurs

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

In the last few weeks, there has been much discussion on the Agnipath programme. The concerns of those opposing it have mostly been over the future of trainees, or Agniveers, who will not get absorbed into the armed forces after completing their four-year tenure under the programme. What will become of them? I too share that concern.

India’s Agnipath programme will recruit citizens in the age group of 17.5-21 years. This is an age at which the brain’s pre-frontal cortex matures—the part, i.e., that regulates our emotions, controls impulsive behaviour, helps assess risks involved in decisions and thus exercises much-needed control over reward-craving. It is during this crucial and malleable phase of the teenage brain that an Agniveer will enter the training environment of the Indian armed forces, one of the best in the world. The training is not just about strengthening the muscles in their body. It is much more about imparting problem-solving abilities, developing a ‘can do together’ attitude, and inculcating an ethos of camaraderie. A much needed sense of discipline and civic sense will also surely be instilled in every Agniveer.

While Agniveers go through this rigorous training programme, most youngsters of similar age would at best be cramming some text books. After four years of training, an Agniveer will have a resume that will surely stand out in a crowd. More importantly, each Agniveer would have acquired a new identity within his family and the local community. But beside all these good things about the Agnipath programme, there is a significant problem with it.

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science by Robb Rutledge, a neuroscientist at University College London, having high expectations could be a problem. This is because one’s happiness levels do not depend on how well things are going, but on whether things are going better or worse than expected. At the end of four years, 75% of all Agniveers will be rejected by the armed forces. With that rejection, the high expectations that Agniveers would have built over the previous four years will come crashing down. A bigger problem is that an identity of pride the Agniveer would have nurtured for himself for four years in his community would vanish into thin air. All sorts of uncertainties could engulf the ex-Agniveer. Suddenly, one would realize the existence of a huge gap between one’s expectations at the start of the stint (and built over the training period), and the reality of rejection by the armed forces.

If the whole programme were framed as a ‘skilling’ initiative, the 75% who do not make it to the armed forces would consider this phase a skill-equipment stage of their lives, well aware that they would need to look for opportunities elsewhere. But, instead, possibly due to political exigencies, this programme was presented as a job opportunity. In the prime of their youth, close to 37,000 individuals who would have had high expectations will be on the streets after four years, hugely disappointed. This situation could act like a ticking time bomb. Helping 37,000 people climb down from their high expectation levels annually will be the toughest challenge for the Agnipath programme.

This is where the 11.71 lakh of money an ex-Agniveer will get at the end of four years can play a significant role in alleviating the problem. But there is a catch. At the age of 21-22, having a tax-free sum of this size in one’s bank account is a rarity in India. It is actually a windfall gain. Given the brain’s strong bias for immediate rewards, an advertisement of a fancy motorbike could make this 11.71 lakh vanish in a matter of few minutes. If this sort of instant gratification happens, it would count as one of the biggest drawbacks of the programme. So, policymakers must aim to create an environment where this money is used for securing long-term objectives and other productive purposes.

Work by Nobel laureate Richard Thaler has shown that the way we go about spending often depends on perceptions of how we earned the money. So, money that is earned as salary is spent differently from what is received as, say, a bonus. Taking a cue from this, the amount that each Agniveer will be given at the end of four years should be described by a term that connotes its hard earned nature and potential use for the long term.

Hope that the 11.71 lakh earned by an Agniveer would be put to its best possible use comes from the work of Thomas Lindh and Henry Ohlsson. In their study of windfall gains published in The Economic Journal, they reported that the probability of self-employment increases by 54% if someone wins a lottery and by 27% on the receipt of an average-sized inheritance. A study in the UK too has shown a similar trend. From these studies, it is clear that entrepreneurship is an area that former Agniveers could effectively be encouraged to get into.

The book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Señor and Saul Singer reminds us that the mandatory military service of about three years that all Israeli youngsters go through is one of the most significant factors that turned Israel into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. It is also worth noting that a huge proportion of young Israelis after their compulsory military service show an inclination to attend a university in pursuit of higher education. If Israel could achieve so much out of three years of military training, there is no reason why India’s Agnipath programme cannot become a similar transformative force.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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Updated: 30 Jun 2022, 12:58 AM IST
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