Exclusive | Can Consider Positive Changes as We Move Forward, Army Chief Gen Manoj Pande Tells News18 on Agnipath

There is no question of rolling back the Agnipath scheme but positive changes, if deemed necessary, can be considered in the future, Indian Army chief General Manoj Pande told CNN-News18 in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.

General Pande dismissed criticism that the job reservations and one-time age concession made for the Agniveers were an afterthought. He said that when the scheme was announced on June 24, the broad framework was shared and the finer details were announced in the next few days.

Under the Agnipath scheme, youth aged between 17-and-a-half years and 21 will be recruited in the Army, Navy and Air Force on contractual basis for four years, with a provision to retain 25% of them for 15 more years. The upper age limit has been increased to 23 for this year alone.

Speaking to News18, the Army chief also quashed fears that the scheme would lead to “militarization of society” and said the Agniveers entering society after the Agnipath tenure will contribute to nation-building.

Edited excerpts:

What do you think is really on the minds of protesting youth? Why should a youth of 17-and-a-half join the Indian Army and become an Agniveer if he doesn’t have job security and is asked to pave the way for himself after four years?

This is a golden opportunity for the youth to join the Army and do something for the society. Secondly, the question that is arising is what is in it for the youth after four years. According to me, it is a very attractive package. The salary is not only comparable but attractive vis-à-vis what a soldier receives. The Seva Nidhi package is a unique feature that will provide a lump sum amount to the youth. It is a good amount.

Thirdly, the allowances that a jawan in the Army gets will be what the Agniveer will also get. And lastly, in case of death and disability, adequate compensation has been catered for.

Another aspect which is more important than the financial aspect is that when an individual will be associated with the Army for four years and when he will exit, he will have adequate qualification and would have earned some credit points as per the New Education Policy (NEP). We will equip him and he will come out of the Army a much better person with degrees or diplomas of different kinds.

General Pande, we have seen a series of announcements that Agniveers will be given priority in jobs. All of this is being termed as an afterthought. That had you announced these on the first day itself, opposition to Agnipath would have been less.

The announcement made on June 14 was a broad framework and the fine print followed in the next 2-3 days. This was planned and not an ad-hoc thought. This was something which was thought out and now I feel has provided more clarity to the youth of the nation. All concerns regarding what will happen after four years have been addressed.

But the protests have been continuing and you had said that the youth should not get mislead by rumours. Do you acknowledge a problem with communication? That the entire import and intent has not been effectively communicated?

No, I would say that would not be a fair assessment and like I said that on June 14, when the scheme was announced, a broad framework was disclosed and details have followed, and later through notifications, the youth have gotten to know the exact features and now the angst and the anxiety has come down. The youth are able to understand the scheme and its benefits.

One tweak that was done immediately was increasing the age limit. A lot many aspirants have said that they lost a year during the Covid-19 pandemic. Will there be more tweaks to the scheme?

No, the broad framework was announced and I don’t see any major changes taking place. But at the same time, we need to understand that this is a big change. It’s a transformational reform. So as we go along, based on experience, any positive change, if deemed necessary, will be taken into account. As time progresses, I reckon this could happen.

General Pande, you used the phrase “transformational reform”. If it is so, critics ask why couldn’t this have been a pilot launch. The pros and cons could have been understood and then a reform could have been brought in.

I have said this before that the final framework of the scheme has evolved after a lot of deliberations and discussions, with all of its stakeholders over a fairly long period of 1.5-2 years. A lot of the options were discussed as to what should be the final form and a deliberate, well-considered decision was made to launch it in a manner in which it has been done.

We have made a beginning and, as we move forward, we can consider bringing in some positive changes or some minor modifications.

We have seen several corporations come in and make the announcement that they will be giving priority in hiring to Agniveers after four years. PSUs will also give them preference. But protests have continued. Why are the youth not getting convinced?

As far as the protests are concerned, there could be many reasons and I don’t want to get into it. But what I want to say is that the youth have taken some time to understand the scheme. Now that the unique features have come to light, the youth have received the right information and have got a good understanding of it. The worries of the youth have come down.

You have issued the notification for recruitment rally that has certainly showed that there will be no rollback.

That is out of the question and we are not even thinking of that.

There are former veterans who believe that this will lead to “militarisation of society”. What will you say to them?

That is an extreme view and I don’t agree with that. Presently also, we have about 1 lakh soldiers who move out into the society from the CAPFs. All have contributed constructively in nation-building. I see no reason as to why there should be this cynical view. We believe that the youth who will go out will act as a bridge between the society and the military. They will have a unique personality and will contribute to nation-building. They will be value-addition to the society and nothing of what you just alluded to.

How do you see the role of the coaching institutes? Many FIRs, especially in Bihar, allege the role of these institutes in fanning violent protests.

The state governments and the concerned agencies are dealing with this in the correct manner, so I don’t have to comment on this.

The youth of the country want to join the Army. As the head of the Army, what is the message you would like to give them?

My message to the youth is that this is a golden opportunity for you to serve the country and enter the forces. We have announced the recruitment procedures, so they must start preparing for the recruitment, the physical and written exam and focus their energy and attention towards this. And again, I want to reassure them that this scheme, for them, the Army and the country is a win-win situation.

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