Agniveers And The Corporate Choir

I belong to the 1950 batch of homo sapiens, and wasn’t singled out for any special favours by the Creator when He was dishing out His divine gifts. So, as you can guess, I’m a pretty average Joe- average intelligence, average physique, average health, average abilities and skills; this last one is borne out by my 35 ACRs ( Annual Confidential Reports) in govt. service, all of which categorize me as Average. In the IAS, by the way, Average means Outstanding as I have yet to see an IAS officer who is not graded as Outstanding, but that’s a story for another day!

More relevant to the present, however, is the fact that God did not give me a singing voice- no baritone, no tenor, no soprano, no alto, no bass, no counter-tenor. I could not, therefore, find a place in any choir, a lasting regret I shall carry to the electric crematorium in the fullness of time. (I hope there’s no power cut at the appointed hour). It has been a great disappointment but my admiration for the choir persists, and therefore I was thrilled to hear the rising sounds of a new choir last week, ascending almost to the level of a Wagnerian climax by the weekend, before it petered away into a whine.

This choir was not comprised of your usual singers but of the captains of Indian industry, the Old Money types and the Covid billionaires, the Panama papers and Pandora papers types, those who tweet more often than the sparrows in my garden and dish out more advice on a daily basis than the Sadhguru. There was total silence till the 19th of the month, but suddenly on the 20th there was a chorus of synchronised voices, all singing to the BJP tune of “Hum Honge Agniveer”.

It was a masterful performance, extolling the mythical qualities of the Agniveers, how their six month training would revolutionise Indian industry, fill all the gaps in operations, marketing, supply chains and technical back-ups; how their commitment and patriotism would usher in a 5 trillion dollar economy in four years. I couldn’t see the Conductor but he must have been waving his baton- or truncheon- somewhere backstage because all the singers were looking back over their shoulders while singing, a standard precaution with choir boys, I learn.

But something was not right- the choir was singing in a high castrato, which sounds more like bleating than singing. The lyrics lacked conviction, as in a Prasun Joshi song. And the reason soon became clear, when eminent veterans and social media began asking uncomfortable questions. By then, however, it had become amply clear that Big Capital in India is as spineless as the media, that they don’t give a damn about our youth or about unemployment as long as they can keep cornering more of the country’s wealth and ascending the billionaire ladder, that their ballad to the Agniveer was nothing but a command performance, singing for their dinner, as it were.

The Agnipath scheme has more holes than a target in a shooting range, but that can be better left to the experts to dissect. I am more concerned with the duplicity, hypocrisy and sycophancy of our corporates. Take for instance their offer to provide unlimited number of jobs to the Agniveers discharged after four years: as a number of veterans have asked: how many jobs have they provided to ex-servicemen so far? Given their unrestrained excitement at the prospect of employing these youth with just six months of basic training and three years of hunkering down at Siachen or the Arunachal border, surely they would have employed thousands of existing ex-servicemen with 15 years of experience and far more training? It’s been a week since this question was asked of them, but not one has tweeted a reply or provided any figures!

The DG (Resettlement), the govt agency tasked with finding jobs for ex-servicemen is able to place about 45000-50000 retirees every year, but here’s the catch- 90% of them are as Security Guards! That too on contract, with no job security or pensions. So much for Mr. Anand Mahindra and FICCI’s tweets about “blend of experience and discipline” and ” creating a talent pool” for industry. Admit it, gentlemen- ex-servicemen are a cheap labour force for you, even with their 15-20 years of training/ experience. The Agniveer minnows, with just 4 years, will be even cheaper fodder for your industrial appetite- if you employ them at all, that is.

But let us not make the mistake of thinking that the government has a better track record. An Indian Express report of 20th June by Harikishan Sharma reveals a bitter truth. According to rules, the ex-serviceman quota in central PSUs is 14.50% in Group C jobs and 24.50% in Group D category. But information provided by 90 PSUs shows that the actual utilisation of this quota is only 1.15% and 0.3% respectively! So much for the latest assurance of 10% quota in CAPFs and Ministry of Defence undertakings.

Just about all corporates require a graduation degree for any job above the D, or lowest, grade. The Agniveers will at best be 10+2, and will have little or no meaningful technical skills or training, notwithstanding the Army Chief’s tall claims. They will be soldiers after all, needed at our borders, and the Army will not have the luxury of keeping them in training institutes beyond the very basic training. Are our corporates, therefore, ready to take them on as interns, pay for their skill reorientation and give them jobs in management, and on the shop floor? Their past does not hold out much hope for this: social media these days is full of posts from ex-servicemen- even retired officers- whose applications were not even acknowledged, and who remain unemployed even after years.

But hold on! Maybe I’m being too harsh on our billionaires: perhaps they are just reciprocating the largesse and generosity of this govt. for giving them that corporate tax break a couple of years ago, something which this country can ill afford- almost Rupees 2 lakh crores per annum, which is more than the total pension bill of the armed forces ( including the civilian defense employees). The corporate worthies were supposed to have used these savings for capital investment, increase production and manufacturing, and create some of those 20 million jobs every year that had been promised us in a jumla moment. They haven’t done that yet and have pocketed the savings. Why should they, in fact, when its cheaper to sing in a choir ?

But even a non choir type like me can notice that they have struck the wrong note, a falsetto. You can sing for your supper, but it makes for lousy music.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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