How battle warriors can become climate warriors: India's visionary policy to rescue a planet on fire

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has operations in more than 130 countries. In places where people are already displaced, Agniveers could help them prepare for and adapt to climate change

Rajendra Shende Jul 05, 2022
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Climate change (Representational Photo)

Never before such game-changing polices were set in motion by the Indian government since 1990s when India embarked on liberalizing its economy. By announcing Agnipath, the short-term but controversial military recruitment programme, India is poised to liberalize the boundless energy of the youth that has been globally appreciated since the digital era came to rule our planet.
 
The overall objective of the Agnipath - which literally means path of fire - is to gainfully deploy the ambitious potential of India’s youth for military training and employment for limited time and then deploy them in the open market for the professional career of their own choice or the choice of the employer who finds them eligible.

Much has been written, talked and analyzed about these policies by 'argumentative Indians'. At the same time, the Indian government has not let any stone unturned to communicate the very purpose of the policy, its structure and intended benefits.

Hidden merits 

However, the unintended advantages and hidden opportunities of these disruptive and timely policies are still not understood by many, not even by the policy makers, leave alone media experts. Why do I say unintended advantages and hidden opportunities?

It is appropriate to re-state the rationale already elucidated by the government. This is a path-breaking policy-transformation for India for three reasons. First, it intends to leverage India’s youthful demographic dividend and the dormant fire raging and seething within them. Second, India’s armed forces need to be of youthful age as is the global trend. Third, the ambitious growth plan of India that is indelibly linked to the target of sustainable development would need not only strong youth but disciplined human character.

Mahatma Gandhi had the vision to create a cadre of  courageous and disciplined youth who would be inspiring role models and change agents in independent India. That would trigger the process of building a healthy nation with a defined purpose. Agnipath would kick off the process to bridge the gap between rural and urban youth to prepare themselves as Agniveers - battle warriors - in a more disciplined and structured manner. 

Younger soldiers 

In reality the work on formulating Agnipath to unshackle the potential of Indian youth started at around the same time when the liberalization reforms were initiated. Exhaustive studies were conducted since then by various committees to review similar plans in other countries. Policies in Israel, South Korea, North Korea, Eritrea, Switzerland, Brazil, Syria, Georgia, Lithuania, Sweden, Greece and Cuba were assessed. The key driver for the Agnipath is to keep armed forces younger, reducing the average age by six years from present to 26.
 
Keeping in mind the Indian perspective, and the ambitious agenda that matters to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally kicked off the desired policy reforms. These started with change in recruitment in the armed forces of youth of age that range from 17.5 to 23 years. The educational qualification for Agniveers will remain as in vogue presently.  

Once selected, they would be called Agniveers and will be enrolled under Army, Navy and Air Force for four years. The risk and hardship allowance in addition to the appropriate ‘in-hand’ salaries ranging from Rs 21,000-28,000 per month would be paid whereas additional Rs 9,000-12,000 per month that would be added into the end-of-four-year fund for handing over to the Agniveer when he or she completes four years of skill building and the service in armed forces. A quarter of the recruits would be retained after four years, and 75 percent would be in open market for employment or business.  

A total of 46,000 Agniveers are needed to be recruited this year. The number of Agniveers would vary in future.

Misconceptions about policy

Agnipath has rocked some parts of the India and is termed as a hurried decision.  Those against the new policy think that after just four years of employment, the youths coming out of forces would be on the roads and left nowhere. Those keen to remain in army (25 percent) conceive that they would need to please and flatter their bosses.

The government and private sectors are coming forward to promise preferential treatment for the remaining 75 percent of youth after four years of service by providing employment opportunities in their facilities by retraining them if needed. These employers obviously value the discipline, integrity and targeted approach the trained armed forces possess.  

Now comes the ‘unintended advantages’ and ‘hidden opportunities’. Agniveers would be the future changemakers to provide nationwide, and even worldwide, responses to the planetary-scale climate-change challenges citizens have been encountering in the 21st century.

Climate warriors 

Our only planet now needs that very warrior-like approach that the military employ  on priority to address the life-threatening challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution and gross neglect of degradation and permanent loss of natural resources.

Soldiers and officers from defence sector are needed not only in war zones but in the front line of war against the climate change in two principle fonts. The mitigation actions and adaptation to climate change. Mitigation requires reduction in the carbon dioxide emissions by enhancing energy efficiency, use of renewable energy and forest cover. That itself would need huge manpower in India and all over the world for action in top gear.   

Renewable energy’s ability to create jobs to meet climate goals is beyond doubt. Renewable energy employment worldwide reached 12 million according to the eighth edition of ‘Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2021’ by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO). The forecast by 2050 for renewable energy sector employment is a huge 43 million. As regards India, as per a study by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) of the US,

India with its ambitious plan of 280 GW solar and 140 GW of wind energy capacity can create 3.5 million jobs by 2030.

Global warming 

The world has grossly neglected and delayed the mitigation actions on climate change. The first target of limiting the temperature rise 1.5 degree below pre-industrial level is now beyond reach. Attaining the second target of limiting the global warming below 2 degree C by end of this century has just 50:50 chance to succeed as per IPCC. We are in for spirally downward trend in terms of meeting the targets of Paris Climate Agreement whereas natural catastrophes are on steep rise. Wildfires are not limited now to developing countries. California, Australia, Spain, Europe are all witnessing them.

Rescue operations by army on land, navy in sea and air force in sky during floods, landslides, fleeing refugees, supplying food to drought-stricken area, collapsing buildings and infrastructure, and even protecting our vital treasures like power-plants and cyberspace are rising with greater frequency and intensity. Restoring normalcy by building bridges, connecting power-grid and installing shelters are the life-saving actions that defence forces are performing for many years. People are looking forward to them and their hard-earned commitment towards disaster-ridden people simply because they see in armed forces the real meaning of the actions on war-footing.

There is urgent need, as per the UN discussions in the General Assembly, to build a ‘green army’ within a ‘khaki army’. The demarcation between khaki and green is disappearing due to our common enemy: climate change. The Indian government needs to include in its training and exercises for Agniveer during the first four years the courses on disaster management.  

Climate emergency 

Disaster management is the traditional core of the army’s responsibility. The armed forces would now be regularly and increasingly required to be ready for climate emergency. Even in a war in the Himalayas, the army needs to take training on how to deal with melting glaciers, roaring streams collapsing down the mountain and continuing the supply-chain for those who fight on the front.

The borders and front lines of the war against climate change are widespread. Civilian volunteers would grossly lack the required ability and discipline to address climate emergency. The Indian Army need to consider ‘business-unusual’ in order to train, skill and make use of Agniveers after their four years of service by providing incentives and reservations in such climate sector. In places where people are already displaced, Agni-veers could help them prepare for and adapt to climate change as UN Volunteers (UNVs) could start their potentially ‘idea packed’ new business, start up or new job in climate emergency.

According to Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation In Action, 2,100 local governments in 39 countries representing 1 billion population have already declared climate emergency as of May 2022. This trend would increase; the world would need disaster and risk assessment and management experts and workers at all level. The number of technologies developed by the armed forces for warfare could also be utilized to fight the war against climate change. Disciplined army personnel with four years of grounding would be a boon.

The Agniveers need to be imparted various military skills and experience, discipline, physical fitness, leadership qualities, courage and patriotism, but also in disaster management. Post the four years, the Agniveers should be ready not only to be infused into the civil society in India but also in other countries where such expertise is needed. The skills gained by each Agniveer will be recognized in a ‘degree-certificate’ to form a part of his or her unique resume.

Vishwaveers 

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has operations in more than 130 countries. In places where people are already displaced, Agniveers could help them prepare for and adapt to climate change. India’s Agniveers would then be ‘Vishwaveers’ or global warriors.

Indeed, global warming has shown that the Earth is on fire. On completion of the four-year tenure, if skilled by the Indian Army to make them future-ready in their prime youth, they will have number of avenues and opportunities that will open up for them in the climate emergency. 

During their service, if Agniveers are inducted in the modern defence laboratories, there would be possibility of the army recruits to become part of ‘StartUp India’. They could be then climate warriors. 

(The writer is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, Pune and a noted environmentalist. Views are personal. He blogs at www.rajendrashende.com/www.rajendrashende.blog) 

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