The Agnipath scheme rolled out by the Government with a lot of fanfare has already triggered a raging controversy. There are a number of major issues being debated in print, electronic and social media relentlessly with interlocuters holding passionate views on both sides of the divide. These include the need for tinkering with a recruitment system that has stood the test of time, the need for experienced battle-hardened soldiers vis a vis a more youthful profile, its impact on organizational structure, regimentation, cohesiveness and bonding, employment prospects of Agniveers after four years as well as the impact on Pay and Pension budgets in future. However, the aspect of designing a robust selection system for Agniveers so that the most deserving Agniveers are retained as regular soldiers has not entered the mind space as yet, perhaps being an implementation issue whose stage has not been reached as yet.
The Ministry of Defence, while notifying the scheme, has listed seven key features; one of them states “Based on merit and organizational requirement, up to 25% Agniveers can be selected as regular cadre through a central, transparent, rigorous system after four years”. The keywords here are “Central”, “Transparent” and “Rigorous”. Any system put in place has to adhere to these attributes so that it can withstand subsequent administrative or judicial scrutiny. Make no mistake, there is going to be cutthroat competition amongst the Agniveers for retention beyond four years as a lifelong pensionable service is the foremost objective of most youth who are aspirants for such opportunities. Agniveers who find themselves on the unsuccessful list after four years are not going to reconcile easily to the verdict; some of them may hit the streets leveling allegations of favoritism and corruption while others may take legal recourse. The numbers of such disgruntled Agniveers will be large, maybe more than 50000 every year. Even if a fraction of them fall in the lap of eager lawyers, the legal system will have thousands of cases cumulating every year while leaving the administrative system of the Government and forces distracted and in disarray with revenue lost in legal tangles instead of equipping the forces. Courts can even grant a stay on further recruitment of Agniveers, dealing a hammer blow to the forces. It is not to claim that this will necessarily happen but a possibility exists and the probability has to be minimized by designing a robust and transparent reporting system of Agniveers.
Before dwelling on the reporting system for Agniveers, it will be worthwhile to look at the existing reporting system in the Forces. In the Army, which will get the lion’s share of Agniveers, being a numerically much larger Force amongst the three Services, the annual reporting system commences only from the rank of Naik and upwards. Sepoys do not earn any ACR while it takes anything between 6-12 years for a Sepoy to get promoted to the rank of Naik and enter the ACR category. However, Sepoys do get assessed during their basic training, unit cadres, and advanced courses but these inputs are used more for deciding what duties he is best suited for within a unit rather than deciding their retention in service; a regular cadre already. Possible reasons for not having a formal annual reporting system for Sepoys include the fact that he is not considered a fully trained soldiers capable of a leadership role as also the fact that their numbers are large; the number of Sepoys in a unit may be up to one-fourth of its total strength. Given the fact that ACRs on JCOs/NCOs are presently initiated only by officers and have one or two more officers in the higher reporting chain, the ACR system for Sepoys will increase the reporting workload manifold, thus tying down officers in an activity that may be termed as an unproductive pursuit of reporting on not yet matured soldiers. To give a sense of workload, in a unit, there may be the requirement of writing 200 ACRS for Sepoys with each junior officer being saddled with the responsibility of initiating up to 50 additional ACRs while at the Commanding Officer level it may add up to additional 200 ACRs. Can the reporting be fair and just when such large numbers have to be confronted, that too for the men at the lowest rung in the hierarchy, who are not in contact with senior officers on a regular basis?
Enter the Agniveers in such a scenario!! If a reporting system has to be instituted for Agniveers, relative greenhorns but in large numbers, can regular Sepoys be left out of the ambit of reporting system? Well, one can imagine the plight of the Commanding Officers and their teams, it will be a transformative change for them also. Frisk-taking, risk-taking daredevils committed to ensuring security and wellbeing of the nation, will look more like pen pushers writing many hundred additional ACRs, looking over their shoulders all the time, lest some court hauls them in future for subjective reporting. Even a basic ACR format will include personality traits of Discipline, Physical Fitness, Sincerity, Loyalty, Courage, Adaptability, and Team Work assessed on a 1 to 5 or any other suitable scale. While the first two traits are measurable, the balance is intangible. So, for meeting the reporting requirements, additional feedback measures will have to be instituted in the unit. All this will distract the unit from their main objective which is training for war. Are there options? Well, JCOs could substitute the officers as Initiating officers. Feasible, but can it pass the crucible test of fairness and objectivity, with many JCOs presently not being articulate enough and not insulated from the lure of village loyalties.
It can be argued that technology should be used for assessing Agniveers. A technology system will not only be transparent and rigorous but also lend itself to centralization, thus fulfilling the three tenets listed for assessment of Agniveers by the Government reality check however will be in order; how is technology to be used? Computerization yes, but will there be networked cameras installed in every nook and corner of the unit for monitoring the performance of Agniveers? It is for consideration that a military unit is not a deskbound Government office with a few rooms but a unit spread out over many acres in peace stations or temporary accommodation/bunkers in field areas with more than 500 men and frequent movements to different places. While going for a counter-insurgency operation, will the focus be on surveillance of militants or on surveillance of the courage and perseverance displayed by combatants? The overarching question remains is the HR function going to overwhelm all other military activities in a unit? The inference is that despite technology, reliance will still have to be placed on the human chain of reporting.
Thus, the institution of a central, transparent, and, rigorous system of reporting Agniveers over four years is easier said than done due to a large number of Agniveers and their likely deployment in far-flung locations in mountainous, glaciated, and remote terrains. Even if human ingenuity overcomes the challenges in designing a reasonably robust and just system of reporting, who is to stop an Agniveer from claiming that his unit was very strict in reporting, his deployment was harsh vis-vis his batch-mates in another unit who had a soft environment, there being no level playing field. The judicial overreach can then play havoc with the military hierarchy more attuned to challenges on the battlefield. Clearly, the journey from Agnipath of an aspiring Agniveer to Agnirath of a regular soldier is littered with potholes and fraught with uncertainties.