Agnipath and the ‘Burden’ of Defence Budget!

It is common knowledge that rural India’s land-tilling families with frugal means are the breeding ground of hardy soldiers. Agniveers also will continue to come from the same background. These soldiers strive hard to save every penny they earn as salary or pension to improve the lot of their needy families who otherwise would yearn for subsidies and freebies. They spend their savings on educating their kids, promoting small family norms, building a house, tube well, buying a tractor and so on – all that help in poverty eradication boostingthe national economy. Reduction in their salariesor pensions will only hurt the core national interests by flaring up rural distress. Karan Kharb
Enter Vol. XV JULY 2022

Sikh Li Regiment Marching Contingent passes through the Rajpath, at the 73rd Republic Day Celebrations, in New Delhi on January 26, 2022.

The unexpected violence against ‘Agnipath’ (Tour of Duty), the newly announced recruitment policy for the Armed Forces was indeed shocking. Why are reform initiatives of the Modi Government so vehemently opposed through violent agitation led by invisible leaders? Rather than political leaders leading peaceful demonstrations, we now see leader-less violent mobs going on the rampage destroying national and private assets. Is it a form of war being tried from within?Earlier too, we witnessed a similar trend of violence against the Farm reform laws and CAA, and now against the Agnipath a military reform initiative aimed at making the Armed Forces future-ready to face new threats already looming. Future security threatsare going to be multi-pronged, hi-tech, more intense and swift.Criticism and agitation against such military reforms notwithstanding, conventional warfare is fast becoming obsolescent. Future wars are not going to remain confined to conventional ‘battle fields’ and ‘war zones’. Therefore, while there may be far more changes in the offing requiring restructuring and equipping units and formations, Agnipath is one such initiative in the right direction.

As is now understood, there are two primary objectives the Agnipath planis intended to achieve: 1) transforming the ageing combatant strength of our armed forces into a more youthful, energetic and tech-savvy force at the unit and formation level;and 2)reducing the ever-rising defence pension budget.As per information available on the Internet domains,recruits (Agniveers) between17.5 to 21 years of age will now onwards be enrolled in Army, Navy and Air Force for a four-year‘Tour of Duty’which is akin to ‘Probation’ for easy understanding. On completion of this probationary period of four years, 25 per cent of them will be retained in service while the rest 75 per cent will be asked to quit and seek other jobsoutside the Armed Forces. The25 per cent who would be retained in service will serve a full term as per the existing terms of servicewhich cater for accelerated promotions on a time-bound framework.The majority will retire after 17 years of colour service with full pension and other related benefits as applicable to ex-servicemen today.The rest 75 per cent who could not get into the regular military stream will be provided preferential entry into other central and state services like CRPF, BSF, state police and other government services.

Although time will tell how much of the desired benefits will accrue once the plan completes its unstated incubation period which may take five to six years after the launch of the scheme, it is anticipated that the government expenditure on defence pensions would be certainly reduced by 40 to 50 per cent. Some apprehensions have been expressed that the Agniveers finally absorbed in service may be brought under the National Pension Scheme (NPS). But such apprehensions are no more than rumours because military personnel will continue to retire at variable age brackets between 35 to 50 years whereas their civilian brethren in government jobs retire uniformly at 60 years of age. Therefore, while NPS provides uniform benefits for 60 years of retirement age, it cannot provide similar benefits to military personnelwho retire earlier and at different age brackets. Even the longest serving JCO level personnel superannuate 10 years earlier than their civilian counterpart. The NPS doctrine, therefore, does not suit military service terms and conditions.

Some distinct advantages of the Agnipath plan will be as follows:

  • The age profile of combat units will be reduced from 32 to 25 years. Since the Tour of Duty concept will be a recurring four-year cycle, this age profile will become static in all combat units.
  • Thanks to the floating population of Agniveers on a four-yearTour of Duty, the effective strength of about 14.5 lakh of India’s Armed Forces will be reduced by 50% by the end of this decade without any adverse effect on their operational efficiency. Besides ensuring a youthful energetic fighting element at combat unit levels, this concept will also give spin-off advantage of substantial savings in the salary and pension budget of the government.
  • Having passed through tough training, skill development, personality development and disciplined regimen in the military environment, the Agniveers exiting after their Tenure of Duty from military service will be better poised to get noticed and accepted in other jobs in government services and even in the private sector.
  • Also, having matured from boys to men armed with skills and a performing character, such Agniveers will be a societal asset in civil society as well.
  • Almost all Agniveers will be unmarried and, therefore, free from family worries. In the prime of their youth, they will naturally be far more daring and aggressive when faced with war-like situations.

The incidental savings accruing to the Government exchequer through the Agnipath concept should be taken as a spin-off advantage, not the objective of the plan. The fallacy of the recurringdebate on the ‘ever increasing burden’ of defence pensions is hurting and insulting for every serving military man and veteran. What about the whopping bill of subsidies that consumed Rs 4,33,108 crore during 2021-22? Even the slashed subsidy bill of the Central Government for the year 2022-23 stands at Rs 3,170,000 crore as per The Economic Times (02 Feb 2022).  Besides, nothing seems to be done about the multiple pensions and lifetime perks doled out to the former ministers, MPs and MLAs/MLCs in India as if these mind-boggling expenses were no burden on the exchequer! When analysed in comparison with such extravaganza and numerous other government expenses on corruption breeding projects like MGNREGA where the Central Government spent Rs 98,000 crore last year, criticism of the defence pension budget sounds ridiculous and unjustified.

A dispassionate comparison between service terms, conditions, salaries and pensions of military personnel vis-à-vis civil government employees will allay such misgivings.It is no secret that military personneldo not get to serve up to 60 years whereas almost every other government servant in non-military services serves and draws full salary up to the age of60 years followed by retirement benefits. This provision itself gives every civil government employee a net benefit of 10 to 25 productive years over the military personnel. In addition, every civilian employee of the government also draws substantial benefits of salary, promotion and the advantage of at least two to three additional pay commissions over and above his mate who chose soldiering as a career.Every soldier, sailor and airman has lived through high risks and hardships unimaginable in any job outside the military. Even the basic norms like working hours and holidays are nota guarantee – and are largely unavailable to the soldier during his service. Moreover, a soldier retires at a critical phase of his life when his family liabilities like expenses on his ageing and ailing parents, growing kids, marriage of siblings and so on multiply and his income is reduced to half. Calling his halved salary (pension) on retirement a ‘burden’ on the defence budget is, therefore, hurting and insulting not only for the veterans but for every soldier who is tomorrow’s veteran. Honourable Supreme Court had once ruled that the pension of military personnel is “salary for the services already rendered.”Therefore, viewing the military pension as a burden on the government exchequer is a fallacy that needs to be viewed and understood in its correct perspective.

It is pertinent here to briefly analyse our budget allocation to further expose this fallacy of ‘unaffordable salary and pension burden on the Defence budget’. The budgeted allocation of funds for defence for the year 2021-22 was Rs 4,78,196 crore,just 2.1% of India’s GDP. The salary and pension component of this allocation totals up to Rs 2,11,614 crore (that is, salaries Rs 1,11,693; and pensions Rs 99,921 of which 36 per cent goes to Defence civilians who serve upto 60 years of age). In real terms, India’s defence expenditure as a proportion of central government expenditure declined from 16.4% to 13.7%. As a percentage of GDP, it declined from 2.4% in 2011-12 to 2.1% in 2021-22. What is even more confounding is that this decline in the defence budget allocation continued despite the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence recommendations in 2018 for enhancing the defence budget to 3% of the GDP. So, in real terms, India’s defence spending is 0.9% less than the optimum allocation recommended by the Parliamentary Committee!The jugglery of numbers is interesting. The same amount of salary and pensionswould appear to rise or fall in inverse proportion to the rise or fall in the overall allocation. The lesser you allocate to defence, the more the same amount of salaries and pensions will appear as a percentage of the total. Had the allocation been raised to 3% of GDP, the same amount of salaries and pensions would decrease in percentage points!

India’s geostrategic environment today is wrought with serious security threats which no other country faces in the world. The largest two of India’s neighbours – China and Pakistan – sharing almost the entire land borders in the north and west are already in cohort against India. That India may be required to fight a major long drawn two-front war in the foreseeable future is very much a reality, not merely an apprehension. And yet, the long-pending military restructuring and modernisation have marred India’s war fighting potential for a couple of decades. Thankfully now, there has been some forward movement in this aspect after Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed for some acquisition projectsin recent years. Even as the quantum of funds needed for military modernisation may appear huge at one glance, such an expenditure is not recurring in nature. Modernisation accomplished today would suffice and no more funds would be required for two decades or more. But any delay in doing so will add up to the budget requirement.

To the alarmist advocates of reduction in defence spending including salaries and pensions, I would suggest they should work out and weigh the costs of defeat and victory in war. Industry, trade and national economy are all easily quantifiable but not so in matters like defence and security on which reststhe very survival of the nation. Let us also look around the world and see what our adversaries and other countries are spending on their defence. As per SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 2019, defence budgets of various countries in terms of their respective GDP were like this: USA 3.4%, Russia 3.9%, Saudi Arabia 8.0%, Israel 5.6%, Pakistan 4.0% and China 1.9%. Although China’s figures are always viewed with suspicion, even 1.9% of its $19.91trillion GDP would be a gigantic sum dwarfing India’s 2.1% of its $3 trillion GDP which is nowracing ahead at a pace faster than China though! Interestingly, China’s defence budget was $116.1 billion in 2012 when her GDP was just $8.28 trillion. In 2022 even as China’s defence budget nearly doubled to $229.39 billion, her economy has galloped to $19.91 trillion despite a slowing growth rate but a phenomenal increase in defence spending! Unlike India, China has developed its hard power as well as soft power more sagaciously to rival the US in her quest to be a global super power. In real terms, a robust military power guarantees not only robust security and national defence but also fosters and safeguardsthe national economy.

It is common knowledge that rural India’s land-tilling families with frugal means are the breeding ground of hardy soldiers. Agniveers also will continue to come from the same background. These soldiers strive hard to save every penny they earn as salary or pension to improve the lot of their needy families who otherwise would yearn for subsidies and freebies. They spend their savings on educating their kids, promoting small family norms, building a house, tube well, buying a tractor and so on – all that help in poverty eradication boostingthe national economy. Reduction in their salariesor pensions will only hurt the core national interests by flaring up rural distress.

It is encouraging that the government has indicated improvements in the scheme and made announcements for lateral absorption of Agniveers exiting the military service after their four-year tenure of duty. Such alternative career prospects could be made more attractive by giving substantial bonus points where the entry into service is based on merit. For government services like BSF, CRPF and provincial police prior military service for four years must be made an essential criterion for enrolment. Such measures would inspire the subsequent batches of young boys to enrol as Agniveers. Such a provision will also promote mutual trust, homogeneity and inter-service cooperation besides ensuring pan-India job security for the skilled, disciplined and physically robust youths.

Whatever shape the final Agnipath plan takes in the coming future, the need for reorganising and modernising the Indian military has been long overdue.Whereas the successive Indian governments have continued to neglect India’s crucial military needs, China has made strident advancements in reorganising and modernising the PLA ever since Xi Jinping came to power.As new security threats continue to arise and multiply with every passing year in the evolving hi-tech,AI-guided multi-front modern warfare scenario, it becomes even more expedient for India to wake up to the emerging realities. It is through the modernisation of armament, equipment, accessories and even more importantly, ‘the man behind the machine’ to match future threats that the Indian military could be made future-ready. Future operational expediencies, not the insufficiency of finance, may suggest organisational restructuring necessitating lesser manpower at various levels which should be welcomed.  With that end in view, the Agnipath (Tour of Duty) plan is a good initiative that should evolve with time to sharpen the cutting edge of India’s Armed Forces.

(The writer is Director at Turning Point India and Former Colonel at  Indian Army )


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