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More than half of the Indian government’s defence expenditure of $70bn – the third highest in the world after the US and China – goes towards pensions and salaries for Indian military personnel. It was shooting upwards by the year and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government was unable to initiate a substantive reform within the existing structure.

Instead of recruiting professional soldiers to serve for a full career of pensionable service, the Indian military, under a new policy called “Agnipath” (path of fire in Hindi), will now recruit them on a short-term contract basis as “agniveer” (fire-brave in Hindi), a new military rank. They will be contracted for four years, including the training period and exit without any pension, health or education benefits. Up to a quarter of them may be taken back as regular soldiers afterwards, creating competition for retention within the ranks in the bargain. It will fundamentally interfere with how India’s armed forces are organised, with potentially devastating consequences if not handled correctly.

Having stopped recruitment in the armed forces for the past two years under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, even as political rallies and big religious events continued unchecked, this will mean more than 100,000 jobs in the military in the next two years. If shortfalls of the last two years have to be made up, these numbers will only rise further. And a faster turnover of these contracted young men would result in the release of more vacancies every year.

There had been no major studies of the government’s proposal within or outside the Indian defence services, no white paper had been produced by the government, the matter was never debated in parliament or in the parliamentary standing committee on defence and the public was never informed before the announcement was made.

Under the Indian constitution, as amended in 1977, each citizen has a fundamental duty to "defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so". However, the three services have always been all-volunteer forces, and general conscription has never proved necessary. Military service has long been deemed an attractive option for many in a society where employment opportunities are scarce. The technical branches of the armed forces, however, have experienced problems with recruitment. Since the 1980s, as a result of the growth and diversification of India's industrial base, employment opportunities for individuals with technical training have expanded substantially. Consequently, fewer trained individuals have sought employment opportunities in the armed services.

India has one of the largest armies in the world, but women make up just about 4% of the force's over one million personnel. The Indian army has long resisted including women in combat roles, citing concerns over women's vulnerability if captured and over their physical and mental ability to cope with frontline deployments. India's air force and navy, meanwhile, offer permanent commission to women as well as select combat roles.

India's Supreme Court on 17 February 2020 ordered the country's government to grant permanent commission and command positions to female officers in the army on par with men, asserting that the government's arguments against the policy were "disturbing" and based on gender stereotypes. The court's decision meant that Indian women will get the same opportunities and benefits as their male colleagues, including ranks, promotions and pensions, and be allowed to serve longer tenures. At present, female officers can serve for only 10 to 14 years in the Indian army.

The government told the court that women were not suitable for commanding posts such as colonels and brigadiers in the army, saying male troops were not prepared yet to accept female officers. It said most soldiers in the Indian army were men from rural backgrounds who were not "mentally schooled to accept women officers in command."

The army and navy maintain a combined recruitment organization that operates sixty offices in key cities and towns nationwide. The air force has a separate recruiting organization with twelve offices. Army and navy recruitment officers tour rural districts adjacent to their stations and also draw from nearby urban areas. The air force and the navy draw a disproportionate number of their recruits from the urban areas, where educational opportunities are adequate to generate applicants capable of mastering technical skills. The army also recruits outside India, admitting ethnic Gurkhas (aka Gorkhas) from Nepal into a Gurkha regiment.

Initial enlistments vary in length, depending on the service and the branch or skill category, but fifteen years is considered the minimum. The tour of duty is generally followed by two to five years of service in a reserve unit. Reenlistment is permitted for those who are qualified, particularly those possessing necessary skills. The minimum age for enlistment is seventeen years; the maximum varies between twenty and twenty-seven, depending on the service and skill category. The compulsory retirement age for officers also varies, ranging from forty-eight for army majors, navy lieutenant commanders, and air force squadron leaders and below, to sixty for army generals, navy admirals, and air force air chief marshals. On occasion a two-year extension is granted on the grounds of exceptional organizational needs or personal ability.

Candidates have to meet minimum physical standards, which differ among the three services and accommodate the various physical traits of particular ethnic groups. Since 1977 recruiting officers have relaxed physical standards slightly when evaluating the only sons of serving or former military personnel--both as a welfare measure and as a means of maintaining a family tradition of military service.

Educational standards for enlisted ranks differ according to service and skill category; the army requirement varies from basic literacy to higher secondary education. The other two services require higher educational levels, reflecting their greater need for technical expertise. The air force requires at least a higher secondary education, and the navy insists on graduation from a secondary school for all except cooks and stewards. Officer candidates have to complete a higher secondary education and pass a competitive qualifying exam for entry into precommission training. All services also accept candidates holding university degrees in such fields as engineering, physics, or medicine for direct entry into the officer corps.

Enlistment was legally opened to all Indians following independence in 1947. In 1949 the government abolished recruitment on an ethnic, linguistic, caste, or religious basis. Exceptions were army infantry regiments raised before World War II, where cohesion and effectiveness were thought to be rooted in long-term attachment to traditions. Some army regiments have a homogeneous composition; other regiments segregate groups only at battalion or company levels. Others are completely mixed throughout. In general, the army has steadily evolved into a more heterogeneous service since 1947. Regiments raised during and after World War II have recruited Indians of almost all categories, and the doubling of the army's size after the 1962 border war with China sped up the process.

The armed forces have made a concerted effort to recruit among underrepresented segments of the population and, during the late 1970s and the early 1980s, reformed the recruiting process to eliminate some of the subjectivity in the candidate selection process. Since 1989 the government has sought to apportion recruitment from each state and union territory according to its share of the population. Both the air force and the navy are now almost completely "mixed" services and display considerable heterogeneity in their composition.

Pay and allowances for armed forces personnel compare favorably with civilian employment. Monthly salaries vary according to the service, although personnel usually earn similar pay for equivalent duties. Additionally, there is an extensive and complex system of special allowances that depend on conditions and kind of service. Free food for personnel in both field and garrison areas was extended after 1983 to all personnel up to the rank of colonel. All personnel are entitled to annual leaves of varying lengths, and, other than for a few exceptions, the services bear transportation costs for personnel and their families. Commissioned officers and other designated ranks contribute to the Armed Forces Provident Fund, a form of life insurance.

Personnel retiring after twenty years of service as an officer or fifteen years of enlisted service receive pensions based on the rank held at retirement. Retirees without the minimum service requirement receive special one-time bonuses. Additional remuneration accrues to those disabled in the line of service or--in the event of the death of active-duty personnel--to their surviving dependents.

The Soldiers', Sailors', and Airmen's Board, chaired by the minister of defence, is one of the most important organizations dealing with the welfare of active-duty personnel and their dependents. The board works closely with the Directorate of Resettlement in the Ministry of Defence to assist former service personnel and their dependents to find employment on their return to civilian life. The directorate also operates cooperative industrial and agricultural estates and training programs to prepare former service personnel for employment in new fields. Both central and state-level governments reserve a percentage of vacancies in the public sector for former military personnel.

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Page last modified: 20-06-2022 19:07:15 ZULU