Agnipath and not Agnipast!

“Change is the only thing that is constant” is an oft repeated phrase that has now become a cliché! In a real world that is not Utopia, the only thing that is constant is resistance to change. “Where are the big bang reforms?” This was a familiar question from the commentariat in the first few years of the Modi Sarkar. Then when the Sarkar started implementing reforms of the big bang variety, the question changed to “Why is this needed now?”. We saw this when the much-needed reforms in the agriculture sector were introduced. Finally, the government had to roll back the same. In my blog (read here) when the farm bills were repealed after protracted agitations, I had written on the lessons for the Modi Government in bringing in reforms. There are more lessons coming up!

Here we are, again in the same boat. The Government announced Agnipath, a scheme that brings about radical changes or reforms in the recruitment of jawans for the armed forces. And post the announcement, we have been seeing the same scenes playing out in terms of agitations and approach of the government. Literally speaking Agnipath has set parts of the country on fire, and this is extremely unfortunate.

Most commentators and domain experts acknowledge the need for these reforms. Yet, the section of the population which is supposed to benefit from these have an angst towards these. The result is what we see playing out on our respective screens.

From whatever I have seen and heard on this issue, the biggest issue around the proposed Agnipath program is the timing.  For the past 2 years, due to Covid, recruitment to Armed forces through recruitment rallies have not happened. The process is at different stages and the candidates are going through an agonising period of prolonged suspense, frustration and at the end of the day some hope.  Aspiring candidates are at different stages in the process – some awaiting their medical, some awaiting the final letter, some at different rounds and so on. So, all the while they have been forced to keep themselves fit and ready for the process to come to an end now that things are getting back to normal post Covid.  All along the candidates have been given the reason of Covid for the delay in the process.

Now comes the announcement of Agnipath which totally puts paid to their hopes of not just joining the services that will ensure a settled life but, a 3/4th probability of getting out of the services and start all over again in 4 years. What we see as raucous demonstrations are a result of the pent-up frustration in the first place due to last two years of agonising wait and second now finding that the game has changed.

If one must look at the causes therefore for this unrest, they can be summarised as follows:

  • First the timing.  As I have mentioned before, the proposed changes have come at a time when recruitment has not happened for two years.
  • Second, the proposed changes have made some of the candidates ineligible due to the age limits. They feel slighted.
  • Third, there is an element of uncertainty because of the 25% absorption clause even for those who get selected. Therefore, this is seen as a harbinger of struggle in life if one misses the bus!
  • Fourth, the probability of getting selected even if this is a short tour of duty has reduced since the overall recruitment numbers has been reduced. In general, around 60,000 get selected in a year. Now that has come down to 40,000 of which only 10,000 will get absorbed after four years. This is my understanding. So, the reduction in intake is drastic and therefore the probability of getting into a settled job with the forces has also reduced for the aspirants drastically.
  • And finally, the sudden drastic communication of the rolling out of the program.

Having said all this, since the proposed reform packaged as the Agnipath scheme is much needed for reducing the average age, reducing the pension budget, shifting the allocation from boots on the ground to weaponry, technology and sophistication, the government must stay the course but probably with a few course corrections.  Here’s what the government could have done in rolling out this program and probably it could still do:

  • Over to Overlap: In businesses, when we try to bring in some changes that tend to disrupt long standing processes, we deploy a tactic called “Overlap”. I strongly feel that in this case also, the government could have brought in this new program with an overlap clause. This means, the existing recruitment program will continue as it is for 2 or 3 years while the new program will be introduced in phases. This of course increases the overall intake for two years but that is a smaller cost for bringing in a reform that has benefits in the long run. The candidates who are part of the ongoing process would not have felt slighted. The new candidates would come in knowing fully the contours of the new program. This would have taken care of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th issues mentioned above.
  • Float the trial balloon: Now coming to communication and therefore getting feedback before implementing the same, the government could have used a time-tested technique of leaking parts of the program to select journalists. When key elements of the program appear in the media quoting “as per sources”, it gives a window for the government to own/disown parts or the program in full depending upon the feedback. In this case, the government could have easily got an idea of the ground level feedback and therefore timed it better. Also, aspects of the program which the government is now making changes like the one-time extension of age limit and other ministries bringing in notifications for absorbing Agniveers could have been built into the program itself by floating this trial balloon.

Though some of the commentators particularly from the services feel that this should not be seen as an employment generation program, the fact of the matter is, in India there are districts in states like Bihar, Eastern UP, Bundelkhand, Haryana to name a few, where getting into the forces at the sepoy level is a primary source for employment for the youth. This explains the reason for the skewed nature of the protests and outbursts as far as geographic spread is concerned.  The irony is, what probably started as spontaneous outbursts which resulted in destruction of public property at will has now turned into a more orchestrated campaign to create unrest in the country.  Nupur Sharma issue is now history!

By going full fledged with the announcement, the government has put itself in a quandary and the program in jeopardy. Now coming out of the hole and still roll out Agnipath even with some changes will be a real Agnipariksha for the government! Hope this doesn’t go down as “Agnipast”!