1st batch of Agniveers excited, prepared as training course ends next week
The Navy’s sprawling lakeside training facility, INS Chilka, is brimming with verve and cheer as the country’s first Agniveers are on the threshold of a challenging military career
INS Chilka (Odisha): The Indian Navy’s sprawling lakeside training facility, INS Chilka, is brimming with verve and cheer as the country’s first Agniveers — selected under the new Agnipath model for short-term recruitment of soldiers in the three services — are on the threshold of a challenging military career, and prepare to finish their training at the verdant 1,540-acre campus after four gruelling months, in a watershed moment for the country’s armed forces.
The landmark passing-out parade, featuring almost 2,600 Agniveers including more than 270 women, will be held on March 28, with navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar attending as the chief guest.
The Agnipath model is a stark departure from the military’s decades-old recruitment system that ended after the government announced the new scheme last year. It seeks to recruit soldiers for only four years, with a provision to retain 25% of them in regular service for another 15 years after further screening.
The scheme was presented as a fait accompli, and greeted with scepticism by the Opposition parties, large sections of veterans, and hordes of defence aspirants.
The beaming faces at INS Chilka, the optimism among Agniveers about what lies ahead, and the smooth implementation of the scheme thus far appears to allay some of the early concerns about Agnipath. The Agniveers — HT interacted with more than 50 of them at INS Chilka — say they are ready to enter uncharted territory, looking forward to their role in a military that is on the cusp of a new era, and have no feelings of uncertainty about the future.
That’s what training does to you, says Sahil Saini, a 19-year-old from Haryana’s Bhiwani, while taking a break from a swimming class at Matsya, the Olympic-size pool at INS Chilka.
Like several others, he says it doesn’t really matter to him if he gets to serve only for four years as the wealth of skills he picks up in naval service will lay the foundation for him to succeed in any career he later chooses.
“I am no longer the boy I was when I walked through the gates of INS Chilka,” said Saini. “I am not exaggerating when I say training has transformed me. I am a new man with more strength and endurance, I have become more confident, I now have the ability to make decisions, work in a team, and, above all, I have developed discipline. If four months have done this to me, imagine what I will be at the end of four years.”
In June 2022, India announced the Agnipath scheme replacing the legacy recruitment system to lower the age profile of the armed forces, ensure a fitter military, and create a technically skilled war-fighting force capable of meeting future challenges. The scheme is expected to bring down the average age of soldiers in the armed forces from the current 32 years to 24-26 years over the next five to six years. Candidates aged between 17-and-a-half and 21 are eligible for recruitment under the Agnipath scheme.
Tanuja Bhatt, the 19-year-old daughter of a farmer from Uttarakhand, says she will give it her all to be a part of the 25% of Agniveers who will be selected to serve in the regular cadre.
“Training has toughened me up, shaped my personality, enhanced my adaptability skills, and helped me realise my potential. My first priority will be to stay in the navy. However, with the skills and knowledge under my belt now, pursuing another career if needed isn’t a frightening prospect,” she said.
Agniveers will also get job quotas in different government departments, paramilitary forces, merchant navy and other organisations.
She recalls how several girls who reported for training at INS Chilka in late November 2022 wept when their waist-length hair was cut to military standards. “We crack jokes about it now. If you see us on the parade ground, you can’t make out who’s a boy and who’s a girl.”
The Agniveers have been rehearsing for the passing-out parade for more than four hours every day since March 3. The men and women will now go for ship attachments for two weeks before undergoing specialised training at different naval establishments based on the streams they have been assigned to.
The navy began inducting women as officers in the short-service stream three decades ago, but they are being recruited as sailors for the first time, and will soon get opportunities to serve aboard warships, and later submarines. It is the first service to recruit women in the personnel below officer rank (PBOR) cadre across all streams — the army currently recruits them only in the Corps of Military Police. The Indian Air Force will later this year start inducting women under the Agnipath scheme.
Senior officers and instructors at INS Chilka say the calibre of Agniveers is no different from that of the trainees who were selected under the legacy system.
“The basic training has been compressed from 21 weeks to 16 weeks, but the standards have not been diluted. I have been at INS Chilka for more than two years, and have seen many batches. The Agniveers are as good as those who have trained here before them,” said Commodore NP Pradeep, the commanding officer of INS Chilka.
The naval base is named after Chilika lake, which is spread across 1,165 sq km in Odisha’s Puri, Khordha and Ganjam districts.
Some of the trainees say they were discouraged by people known to them from opting for the Agnipath scheme as there was a high chance of being released from service after four years.
“A lot of people asked me what will I do after four years if I don’t make the cut for regular service. They said my future wasn’t secure. But I didn’t care then and I don’t care now as I always dreamt of serving in the armed forces. We are clear about the selection criteria after four years, we know what options we have outside the navy, and we are confident of taking charge of our lives when the time comes,” said Manpreet Singh, an 18-year-old from Punjab’s Sangrur.
In January, the army came out with a detailed criteria to rate the performance of its Agniveers, with their assessment to be based on parameters including operational aptitude, weapon proficiency, physical fitness and tests to evaluate other soldierly skills. The performance evaluation will determine who is released after four years and who gets to serve in the regular cadre. The navy and air force are expected to follow similar rating standards, with focus on service-specific requirements.
The Agniveers of the army and air force began their training in December-end and early January, respectively, and will pass out from their training establishments in June after six months of training.
The army’s first batch of 19,000 Agniveers began training in early January followed by another 21,000 in the second round in March. The army’s Agniveers are training at regimental centres in Ahmednagar, Nashik, Hyderabad, Jabalpur, Bengaluru, Ramgarh, Danapur, Ranikhet and Goa. The IAF’s first batch of 3,000 Agniveers is training at the Airmen Training School at Belagavi in Karnataka.
The entire country is watching how the Agniveers will perform, says Rajesh Barada, a 19-year-old from Odisha. “People have had all kinds of apprehensions about the scheme. Some have even doubted the motivation and commitment of Agniveers as the majority of them will be out after four years. We know we will do our best in the armed forces, and will take the same work ethic wherever we go.”
Financial independence at a fairly young age also matters a lot to these Agniveers. Almost 90% of those at INS Chilka come from rural or underprivileged backgrounds, say officials who are monitoring their training. They will draw an annual salary of ₹4.76 lakh in the first year of service and ₹6.92 lakh in the fourth, will get a non-contributory insurance cover of ₹48 lakh, and an additional ex-gratia payment of ₹44 lakh for death attributable to service.
Those released after four years will get ₹11.71 lakh as Seva Nidhi severance package, including ₹5.02 lakh contributed by them during their service.
Summing up the training experience, Simran Bidhan, a 20-year-old from Kaithal, said, “I have learnt more in the last four months than in all the years before that. I think I took the best decision of my life.”
The Agniveers will be stepping out of their campus for the first time after four months. With a spring in their step.