Jun 24, 2022

Does Agnipath Scheme Violate a Fundamental Right of Soldiers?

Recently, the central government has announced the short-term Agnipath recruitment scheme for the armed forces. However, limited job security and lack of post-retirement benefits offered by this scheme have led to widespread violent protests across the country.

What is the ‘Agnipath recruitment scheme’?

This scheme restructures the recruitment process for armed forces personnel below the officer rank – i.e. jawans in the Army, sailors in the Navy and airmen in the Air Force. Aspirants aged from 17.5 to 21 years can join all three branches of the Armed Forces through the ‘Agnipath scheme’. These new recruits are called ‘AgniVeers’.

On selection, they will undergo rigorous training for 6 months and will be deployed for another three and half years. At the end of this four year period, only a quarter of the recruits, selected on merit, can continue in service for another fifteen years.

During the limited service period, soldiers have to mandatorily pay 30% of their salary as contribution to the ‘Seva Nidhi’ program to which the government will also pay an equal amount. On completion of four years, the soldier gets the lump sum amount with the accrued interest. Other benefits include a Rs. 48 lakh life insurance during the four year period and a compensation of Rs. 1 crore to the family in case of death of the soldier.

Why was this scheme introduced?

The government introduced the Agnipath scheme to ease the burden of pension payments on the defence budget. Through this initiative, the government aims to decrease the total strength of permanent forces while ensuring young and efficient armed forces. This can help the government allocate more funds for defence modernization and reforms.

What are the criticisms of this scheme?

Besides patriotism, job security and pension benefits were two major motivating factors to join the Indian army. The old system engaged recruits for 17 year tenure (extendable in some cases) and provided them with life-long pension and other benefits. The new scheme offers neither job security nor pension. Early retirement around 25 years leaves them unqualified to join the private sector or any other government service as officers.

Further, though recruitment is open to all, existing Indian army units are organized on region, caste or class based, continuing the colonial legacy. The present system aspires to revamp this system, which could result in possible complications within existing forces.

Can soldiers or army aspirants invoke ‘Right to Profession’?

No. On joining the armed forces, new recruits agree to have their certain fundamental rights revoked to maintain the army discipline and prevent hindrance to their performance of duty. The Supreme Court held that in determining whether a soldier enjoys the ‘right to profession’, interests of the armed forces must be given paramount importance. Army personnel cannot assert a general right to act in breach or defiance of orders. This means that their ‘right to profession’ under Article 19(1)(g) is limited.

What are the restrictions on enjoyment of fundamental rights by armed forces?

Article 33, an exception to Part III, authorizes Parliament to restrict or abrogate fundamental rights of certain categories of government servants to maintain their discipline and safeguard proper discharge of duties. So, enjoyment of fundamental rights of three wings of armed forces, intelligence or counterintelligence organizations, members of police and paramilitary forces, and communications systems set up for these organizations have been limited. For instance, the Army Act 1950, the Air Force Act and the Navy Act explicitly restricts freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly and freedom to form unions.

What is happening now?

Despite protests, the Indian Army has released the official notification for the Agnipath recruitment scheme. Simultaneously, a Public Interest Litigation has been filed before the Supreme Court challenging the same. Meanwhile, the Central government has filed a caveat on petitions against the Agnipath scheme. This is a request to give a fair hearing to the Central Government (i.e. the Caveator) before deciding any matter in any petition against the Agnipath scheme.