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Explained: Who Are the Military's 'Personnel Below Officer Rank'?

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Through the agnipath scheme, these personnel below officer rank will be recruited to diverse categories in all three services, and the emoluments accompanying each of their positions.
Representational image of the Indian Army. Photo: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta.

Chandigarh: The Indian government’s ongoing controversial Agnipath scheme to recruit personnel below officer rank (PBOR), has understandably focused public attention on this category of soldiers, but few are actually aware of their diverse categories in all three services, and the emoluments accompanying each of their positions.

A majority of people are relatively more familiar with the extant officer rank structure in the armed forces, especially that of the Indian Army (IA), but are perhaps unaware over configurations in PBOR, even though they comprised the bulk of India’s 15-lakh strong military. Many PBOR ranks, like for officers, were inherited from British colonialists who established the three services, which independent India inherited in 1947, and since adapted them somewhat to its needs.

The IA’s founding dates back to the 18th century East Indian Company, whilst the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) were founded by the succeeding Colonial administration in 1932 and 1924 respectively, albeit with the appellation Royal, which was scrapped after independence.

But over seven decades-and-a-half, many of India’s PBOR have undergone revisions, with some ranks either binned, or localised, or both. In today’s IA, for instance, the PBOR, in ascending order comprises sepoys/jawans, lance naiks, naiks, havildars, naib subedars, subedars and subedar majors (SMs) in the Infantry and other regiments.

However, in cavalry or armoured corps regiments, sepoys are known as sowars (riders), havildars as dafadars, naib subedar’s as naib risaldars, subedar’s as risaldars and SMs as risaldar majors. The term sowar and risaldar originates from risala, or irregular cavalry, which date back to horse regiments fielded by regional Indian chieftains and warlords in the 18th and 19th centuries, and thereafter by the Anglo-Indian army.

In these ranks, lance naiks, naiks and havildars – and their equivalents in the armoured regiments – are deemed non-commissioned officers (NCOs), whilst naib subedars, subedars and SMs are junior commissioned officers (JCOs), who collectively constitute a vital link between officers and jawans in any unit.

The tenures of all such PBOR vary from 17 years for sepoys/jawans to over 30-odd years for SMs, and their approximate monthly salary is between Rs 21,000 and Rs 34,800, which includes a complex aggregation of military service, grade and group pay, which is calculated for all ranks, including officers, on a sliding entitlement scale.

Similar PBOR gradations prevail in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi armies, which too trace their origins back to the British.

Also Read: From Batmen and Sahayaks to Agniveers, Military Brass’s Attitude Towards Enlisted Men is Feudal

Meanwhile, the IA’s equivalent PBOR too encompass six categories and include aircraftsmen, leading aircraftsmen, corporal, sergeants, junior warrant officers, warrant officers and master warrant officers. The IN, on the other hand, also has a similar number of PBOR classifications like seamen, leading seamen, able seamen, petty officers, chief petty officers, master chief petty officers (second class) and master chief petty officers (first class), all broadly harking back to the rank structure in the Royal Navy.

However, all these serving PBOR remain eligible for pensions and related perquisites like lifelong health cover and access to commissary facilities to procure subsidised foodstuff, consumer goods and liquor, amongst other necessities. But their pension bill over years had averaged a little less than a quarter of the annual defence outlay, and its reduction was one of the foremost movers behind the Agnipth plan, though the Department of Military Affairs that initiated the tour of duty conscription scheme, is oddly loath to admit to it.

The initial reasoning behind the Agnipath plan was to lessen the widening gap between the military’s capital budget, aimed at modernisation, and its revenue expenditure that included salaries and operating expenses. In financial year 2022-23, for instance, service pensions equalled Rs 1.16 lakh crore of the Rs 5.25 lakh crore defence budget, or a massive 22.79%, leaving limited moneys for new materiel procurements and upgrade of existing platforms and equipment.

But once the Agnipath scheme is effected, as scheduled by the year-end with the induction of 47,000 Agniveers – of which 41,000 had been earmarked for the IA – pension pay-outs for 75% of them would cease, once they completed their four-year tour of duty in 2026-27. Upon discharge, they would be handed a Rs 11.71 lakh severance package, towards which they would have contributed 30% whilst in service, and would be ineligible for any after-service benefits. Whilst in service, Agniveers would receive a monthly salary of Rs 30,000, which in their fourth and final year would increase to Rs 40,000. On paper, both salary amounts were more than the pay of PBOR presently in service.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh with the three services’ chiefs, General Manoj Pande (Army), Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari and Admiral R. Hari Kumar (Navy) during a press conference at the National Media Center, in New Delhi, June 14, 2022. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

Subsequently, 25% of these Agniveers would be retained in the respective services to complete an additional 15 years of military service which, in turn, would render them eligible for pension and attendant privileges. However, their previous four-year stint will not be counted towards these eventual financial gratuities. Expectedly, over 80% of Agniveers conscripted in future will be for the IA, with numbers rising to 120,000 by 2029-30, according to senior army officers. Within a decade around 50% of the IA – numbering 12 lakh – would comprise Agniveers, the army’s Vice Chief of Staff Lieutenant General B.S. Raju declared last week.

Meanwhile, a cross-section of veterans critical of Agnipath termed it a ‘maze with no exit’ as they maintained that re-employment opportunities for demobilised Agniveers would prove a mirage. One officer cheekily even recommended dubbing the scheme ‘maze-path’ given the myriad unaddressed administrative and operational shortcomings Agnipath posed.

The one-star officer, who opted to remain anonymous, pointed out that the Punjab Ex-Servicemen Corporation (PESCO), one of the oldest such organisations in the country, had employed 3,000 ex-NCOs of a total of 300,000 retired veterans – or a mere 1% – on a monthly salary of Rs 12,000 as security guards in banks, power houses and jails. The obvious inference, he reasoned was that the ex-servicemen’s capabilities were not marketable, largely rendering them unemployable.

“If their skills after 17 years of army service are not adequate enough for employment via PESCO, how will they be better for Agniveers with just four years in the military?” he queried. Operationally too, he said, the IA would face hurdles in deploying Agniveers to critical units like the Rashtriya Rifles, the army’s ‘dedicated’ counter-insurgency force that comprised personnel drawn from all army units for varying periods.

Furthermore, he asked, would someone who knowns he’ll be out with the 75% discards, perform as expected? Probably not.

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