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Over the past few years, public finance has conveyed a stark message to national defence: human resource management reforms are urgent and critical.

The impetus for the Agnipath scheme announced by the government last week was a hardening of the government’s budget constraint. Expenditure obligations—for both pensions and modernization —have grown rapidly even as revenue growth looks weaker in the post-pandemic economy. Given the sensitivity of the topic, few government officials will publicly admit that the status quo is fiscally unsustainable even in the medium term. Recruitment reform is part of the answer. Rough estimates suggest that by shortening the basic tenure of soldiers to four years, the Agnipath scheme will reduce the lifetime cost of manpower by several crore rupees per head.

Now that India’s government has chosen the four-year tour of duty model as the way to respond to its budget constraint, the policy challenge is to ensure that it achieves the desired objectives, mitigates the downsides and pre-empts unintended consequences. Essentially, it is about understanding who might join the armed forces given these employment conditions, and how this new demographic will change the defence services and Indian society at large.

Until now, enlistment in the armed forces offered a young adult male with secondary school education a secure job with a decent status until middle age, and a pension and healthcare after retirement. That changes now: only a quarter of the roughly 50,000 recruits will remain in service after four years. The rest will get a golden handshake with further prospect of recruitment in central and state police forces. While there will probably be no shortage of applicants even under this scheme, given the dearth of jobs in the country, the type of person who will wear the uniform will be different: with different career expectations, motivations and geographies of origin. This is the first major change and calls for the armed forces to transform the way they train, manage and command troops.

Second, a fixed four-year tenure will have a differential impact on different arms and services. In addition to the Air Force and the Navy, the Army’s technical units have longer training cycles. They might face a shortage of suitable recruits, or as is more likely, lose people just when they have started performing. In practice, the effective performance period of a recruit might be only two years, with the first six months for training, the last six spent in anticipation of leaving, and several months in between to come up to speed. Morale, motivation and commitment levels will also follow a different curve in this period. Commanders and administrators must discover and learn new ways of getting things done. Moreover, training infrastructure needs to be vastly expanded to cater to a faster cadence.

Third, political economic factors can frustrate the design and the intent of the Agnipath scheme through scope creep. Take the case of the short service commission for officers: what used to be a five-year tenure is now effectively 14. Every single reason given for its extension is justified but a step away from its original purpose. It should not surprise us if there is pressure over time to extend the duration of the Agnipath scheme and make the positions pensionable. Political leaders will find it hard to defend Agnipath’s logic in the face of justifications by recruits, potential recruits and the armed forces themselves.

Fourth, Agnipath could cause an unprecedented shakeup of military culture. National recruitment that cuts across regimental catchments will present units with new and unfamiliar social contexts. The good news is that the defence services are extraordinary in terms of managing diversity and balancing tradition with innovation. Even so, it will create some friction and sharp edges that demands sensitive leadership from junior commissioned officers and officers. It is wise to be conservative about military traditions and let some changes evolve.

Fifth, Agnipath will succeed only if post-Agnipath options work. The post-military career of Agniveers deserves a lot more attention. Close to 40,000 combat-trained twenty-somethings will enter civilian life for the first time as adults. History tells us that this transition can have serious implications for politics and society. It will be unwise to leave this to chance. Not everyone can be absorbed into police forces, nor can they be certain that they will obtain private employment. A Harivansh Rai Bachchan poem exhorts the protagonist not to seek a leaf-worth of shade, but a carefully-designed exit package for Agniveers is necessary. It should include formal higher education, counselling, marriage and housing loans and placements.

Agnipath may well have been triggered by financial considerations, but should also serve as a trigger for long-pending modernization of the structure and management philosophy of the armed forces.

It is just as well that these changes roughly coincide with the envisioned theaterization of the country’s three services. There is a need for far-sighted leadership, and it is crucial that a well-respected officer is appointed Chief of Defence Staff. Senior military officers would do well to realize that India’s political leadership, having taken these policy decisions, has left their implementation to the services. Now that Agnipath is here, it must be made to work.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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