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Explained | Why youth are protesting against the Agnipath scheme

Several of those protesting have complained that this new scheme would hinder those enrolled, monetary benefits such as pension
Last Updated : 19 June 2022, 11:24 IST
Last Updated : 19 June 2022, 11:24 IST
Last Updated : 19 June 2022, 11:24 IST
Last Updated : 19 June 2022, 11:24 IST
Last Updated : 19 June 2022, 11:24 IST
Last Updated : 19 June 2022, 11:24 IST

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Massive protests erupted across India, mainly in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, with youths taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the Centre's newly introduced Agnipath scheme. Blocked roads, sloganeering and burnt trains all painted a picture of chaos and mayhem across country. But what are these protests about and why are so many people opposing it? DH takes a look:

What is the Agnipath scheme?

India unveiled a new scheme called "Agnipath" on Tuesday for the recruitment of soldiers in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, largely on a short-term contractual basis, with an aim to cut the ballooning salary and pensions bill.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced the new scheme at a media briefing, shortly after the Cabinet Committee on Security approved it.

Smoke billows from buses after they were set on fire by people protesting against Centre's 'Agnipath' scheme, in Aurangabad. Credit: PTI Photo
Smoke billows from buses after they were set on fire by people protesting against Centre's 'Agnipath' scheme, in Aurangabad. Credit: PTI Photo

"The Agnipath recruitment scheme is a transformative initiative that will provide a youthful profile to the armed forces," Singh said.

However, job aspirants are upset defence recruitment at the jawan level has remained stalled since 2019. They complain that instead of filling permanent vacancies that come with pension and other benefits in the 13-lakh strong armed forces, the government has proposed the new ‘Agnipath’ scheme. The scheme envisages the recruitment of soldiers for a short four-year period and retirement of most without pension and other benefits.

Under the new recruitment scheme, soldiers would be initially initially for four years and a fraction of them would be retained in the armed forces permanently.

"Under the Agnipath scheme, Indian youngsters will be provided an opportunity to serve in the armed forces as 'Agniveer'," the defence minister said.

Why the protests?

No retirement benefits, pensions: Under the Agnipath scheme, the 'Agniveers' are to be enrolled under the respective Service Acts, and a one-time package of Rs 11.71 lakh will be given to each youth once their service of 4 years comes to an end. The scheme offers no gratuity or pensionary benefits. Those protesting have complained that the new scheme hinders their claim for monetary benefits, such as pensions, since the Centre plans to absorb only 25 per cent of the 'Agniveers' after the completion of their 4-year tenure. Protesting youths say that they will be left in a lurch with no retirement benefits after serving the four-year tenure under the scheme.

Period of service: This along with the short period of employment has caused widespread outrage among youths. Most agitators feel that serving in the Army for four years is not reasonable and those leaving the service after 4 years will have a path full of uncertainty ahead of them. Questions have also been raised about whether the training period is adequate and if the recruits will be as motivated as soldiers who are on permanent rolls.

Age: Agitators also want the government to raise the upper limit since several of them have already crossed the present upper age limit of 23 years as defence recruitment was not conducted for two years due to the pandemic. Apart from that, before joining the army, youth often spend years training with the NCC, all that for just for four years after which they will have to reorient themselves to the needs of a different job when they are about to hit 30 did not sit down well with aspirants.

Unemployment: The recruitment scheme comes in the wake of widespread dissatisfaction with the government over inflation and unemployment. Wholesale inflation was at a three-decade high, the rupee has been hitting new lows each day, income inequality is on the rise and young people are struggling to find jobs. Moreover, jobs in the army are a major source of employment for several persons, especially from rural areas.

Economists have long warned of a slow rate of job creation, even as the pandemic pushed lakhs of educated, middle-class Indians on the brink of poverty. India's unemployment rate rose to 7.83% in April from 7.60% in March, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

What are the other criticisms?

Poll Plank: Experts believe that the scheme was not the brainchild of the defence forces but a political move aimed at preparing for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and upcoming state elections. The unemployment problem has not been dealt with but merely pushed to be dealt with after 4 years. Apart from that, solving the jobs crisis seems to be a big poll plank for the Modi government in the run up to his next election.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week directed recruitment of 10 lakh people in various departments and ministries in the next 18 months, a deadline which will end barely four months before the next general elections in 2024.

Does not seem endorsed by the Defence Forces: Sushant Singh, Senior Fellow at Center for Policy Research writes that the scheme seems to not have met the approval in its entirety by the defence top brass and earlier comments show a general acceptance for such a scheme but only on an experimental basis. The implementation at such a rapid pace comes strategically ahead of polls and does not seem to have been the general consensus among security forces, reports say.

A move against rising pensions bill: It is also believed that this scheme is pitted against the Centre's burgeoining pension bills. One major benefit to the government from the scheme is the savings in expenditure on pensions and other retirement benefits. Defence experts have also cast their doubts over the need for short service recruitment in in Indian conditions where there is no shortage of those who seek a regular job in the forces.

Purpose: Where the scheme sees a major shortfall is how the forces plan to utilise these forces. They have repeatedly said that the intent has always been to invigorate the army with more youngsters but the short-term period signifies a minimal training and the greatest use of army resources. How the army will utilise their services in the four years remains unknown.

Congress activists burn an effigy during a protest against the Agnipath scheme, in Shimla. Credit: PTI Photo
Congress activists burn an effigy during a protest against the Agnipath scheme, in Shimla. Credit: PTI Photo

Parties, forces defend scheme; Opposition continues fight

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) on Saturday promised reservation of 10 per cent of job vacancies for ‘Agniveers’ as the Central government continued to announce sops to quell the outrage over the new Agnipath military recruitment scheme.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) too has decided to reserve 10 per cent vacancies in Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and the Assam Rifles for the ‘Agniveers’.

Lt Gen A Puri, the additional secretary in the Department of Military Affairs, strongly defended the scheme, saying that reducing the age profile of the three services has been on the table for quite some time and even the Kargil review committee had made observations on it.

At a press conference on Sunday, Lt Gen Puri said the government was going ahead with implementing the Agnipath scheme and appealed to the youths to end their protest.

Meanwhile, the Opposition continued to keep up the fight against the 'trail of fire' which they believe will shatter dreams and aspirations.

Congress MPs and leaders sat on a 'Satyagraha' at Jantar Mantar here on Sunday in solidarity with the youths protesting the Centre's newly announced Agnipath scheme for recruitment in the armed forces.

Congress leaders and supporters criticised the BJP-led central government and said that the Agnipath scheme is not beneficial for the country's youth and also jeopardises national security.

"At a time when China's soldiers are on our land and Pakistan is still a threat, there are one lakh vacancies in our armed forces. And the government is trying to fill merely 45,000 vacancies through the Agnipath scheme, that too for only four years," AIMIM chief Owaisi said.

"What will they learn in four years? There is no dearness allowance, medical allowance and insurance. The government intends to play with the future of the youths," he added.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray hit out at the Centre and said it was wrong to play with the lives and ambitions of the country's youth.

(With inputs from agencies)

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Published 18 June 2022, 11:54 IST

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