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Just a day after the Centre announced Agnipath, a new defence recruitment scheme, protests erupted in Bihar, later getting violent and spreading to more states. Even though fiscal saving and reforming the military may be the key purposes, the new scheme is being touted as a way to make our forces younger, fitter and more technically savvy. The protesters are dismayed that they will miss out on a chance for a long-term defence job that could entitle them to pensions (Agnipath will offer four-year contracts, with only up to 25% moving on into long-term employment with the defence forces). Time will tell whether Agnipath proves to be the reform it's being promised to be, but there is no denial that India's armed forces are in dire need of modernization. However, that's easier said than done given the fiscal and political constraints. Mint explains:

Protest hotspots

At the centre of the protests are young defence aspirants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, among other states. These four states comprise roughly 38% of Indian troops, hence the anger. High unemployment and a freeze on defence hiring during the pandemic may have added to the angst of the youth who are at the forefront of the ongoing protests.

Protest hotspots
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Protest hotspots

Aim to downsize?

To begin with, the Centre plans to recruit 46,000 “Agniveers", which will increase to 50,000-60,000 annually in the next four to five years and later to 90,000-125,000. If Agnipath becomes the go-to scheme for defence recruitment at non-officer level, it can replace 15% of the current crop of soldiers, sailors and airmen in the next 4-5 years, Mint calculations show. The current pool typically serves for 10-15 years. With three-fourths of Agniveers retiring every four years, the scheme can bring down the average age of the force while being cost-efficient for the government

Aim to downsize?
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Aim to downsize?

Looking for reform

Senior army officers say the scheme will bring down the average age from 32 to 26 years in the next 6-7 years. But can a younger force be necessarily more potent to security threats? Any well-meaning reform should show up most in how threat-ready Indian defence is. India is the third largest defence spender, but the spending is less than a tenth of the US’ and about one-fourth of China’s. Wages and pensions take up 55% of this, leaving less than one-fourth for modernization. Agnipath could help divert that spending towards a ramp-up of India’s defences. But that path is long. Even though the Indian army is the largest in the world, it pales in comparison with China and the US in terms of equipment such as naval vessels and combat aircraft. China, in its modernization effort, has been making its forces leaner and investing more in technology. India, on the other hand, has increased, albeit mildly, its troop size in recent years. Even if Agnipath makes our forces younger and fitter at a lower cost, acquisition and procurement of modern weapons and equipment will have to catch up. A leaner, younger force, without technological aid, alone would not improve our war preparedness.

Looking for reform Chart-1
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Looking for reform Chart-1
Looking for reform Chart-2
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Looking for reform Chart-2
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