Young Indians protest against loss of army job security

Young people in India have burned tyres, vandalised buses, and disrupted rail and road traffic in response to a new army recruitment scheme that calls time on a guaranteed job for life.

The protests took place in Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh after the announcement on Tuesday of the Agnipath (“path of fire”) scheme, which aims to recruit people aged between 17 and 21 on four-year contracts.

Once the contract ends, 25% of the proposed 45,000 recruits will be allowed to stay on, and the rest must leave. Those who don’t qualify to continue their military careers will receive a lump sum of 1.2m rupees (about £12,000) in lieu of a pension or benefits.

The announcement came as a shock to young rural people who have become accustomed to the idea of joining the army to achieve job security, a stable income and social status.

The protests have been fuelled further by soaring unemployment and inflation.

There has been no army recruitment during the pandemic and young Indian people have been waiting impatiently for it to resume.

“What am I meant to do after four years? What good will the training I get as a soldier be to me as a civilian?” one young person in Patna, Bihar, asked journalists.

Under the old system, those who passed the entrance tests were selected for a minimum of 15 years’ service, and would receive a pension when they retired.

The protests started in Bihar on Wednesday and spread to other states on Thursday. A train was set on fire in Bihar and police had to use teargas at several railway stations to disperse crowds throwing stones at them.

The government says the scheme will give the army a permanently younger profile, reduce its pension and salary bill, and free up funds to buy more technology.

The defence minister, Rajnath Singh, tweeted: “Agnipath … is a truly transformative reform which will enhance the combat potential of the armed forces, with a younger profile and technologically adept soldiers.”

Speaking during the announcement in Delhi on Tuesday, Lt Gen Anil Puri said the scheme would instil confidence and skills. After four years with the army, he said, an Agnipath recruit would have a unique CV to help them “stand out in the crowd”.

However, a retired army officer who did not want to be named said he thought the scheme was ill-advised. “The least the government can do is extend the four years of service to seven, and increase the number of those who should be allowed to continue serving once the contract is over from 25 to 50%.”