Smoke billows out after protestors set on fire a bike at a railway track during a protest against the Agnipath scheme, at Ara Railway Station, in Bihar’s Bhojpur district. ANI

The Agnipath scheme is off to a fiery start given the protests across the country, especially in Telangana, Bihar and the national capital. The Congress led a delegation to the Rashtrapati Bhavan complaining that no one was consulted before the announcement, the scheme was not presented before the Parliament Standing Committee, and at the very least, should have first been implemented via a pilot project. There have also been concerns about jobs for the 24 year old Agniveers who will not be absorbed in the army. Some opposition leaders have also pointed out that as with most of the Modi government schemes, this too was announced in haste without thinking the on ground implementation through.

All valid arguments, though there are equally valid arguments on the other side, the dominant one being that there is a need for a leaner, younger army. As Manish Tewari, Congress Lok Sabha MP and a former Union Minister, told NewsX that armies across the world are going in for a lighter footprint, and what one saves from the pension budget can be spent on modernizing the armed forces. He also pointed out that the idea was not as sudden as it seems, for way back in 1999, the Kargil Review Committee had recommended the same, that we should go in for younger and a learner armed forces. Tewari also wondered as to the opposition against Agnipath when there was no opposition against the Short Service Commission (introduced about two decades ago).

Perhaps as a reaction to some of the protests, the government has come up with assurances that some of the Agniveers would be absorbed in the state and central police forces. In addition, in an obviously choreographed manner, some industrialists have also made statements of job offers. Again, this is a criticism that could have easily been avoided if the scheme had been announced with a mandatory transition arrangement.

The one criticism that the Modi government cannot avoid—even by those praising the scheme—which is the way it was announced and implemented. There was no security risk here as we were told the government explained as to why the abrogation of Article 370 was done in such a furtive and swift manner. This was no surgical strike against black money where secrecy was essential as with demonetisation. This is taking away the dreams of hundreds of youths who spent their lives growing up, training to join the army. Those who had given or studied for entrance exams pre-Covid but their recruitment was put on hold due to the pandemic. Yes the government has addressed some of these fears with a one-time relaxation of the admission age, but again, it’s a step that could have been thought of earlier. And if the opposition had been taken along during the consultation process, they would have lost some of their moral right to protest. So we come back to the same old charge of a non-inclusive government. Though given the mandate PM Modi has, it’s a charge he is not going to take too seriously, despite the opposition crying hoarse, time and again.