NEW DELHI/BHOJPUR: Catching his breath after a set of push-ups, Indian teenager Neeraj Kumar said waking before dawn for a gruelling military-style training session had become part of his routine — even as his dreams of an army career turn to dust.

Joining the military has long been seen as a route out of poverty in India, but a recruitment shakeup that aims to hire young troops on capped four-year contracts with less favourable terms has angered would-be recruits like Kumar — sparking mass protests in June.

“All I ever wanted in my life was to join the army because it is a dream of every Indian man to be able to serve our motherland, but the government snatched this from us,” Kumar, 18, said in Bhojpur, a district in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. “After four years, we will be left unemployed and people will call us retired,” he said.

For Indians from poor rural areas, the nation’s 1.38 million-strong armed forces is one of their few realistic options of securing permanent employment with a guaranteed pension and additional benefits.

A military job can also raise a young recruit’s social status, and that of his family, convincing many to pay for years of training to boost their chances of being accepted. Kumar said his parents had mortgaged their small plot of land to help pay for the training, which included maths lessons and fitness.

The violent protests in poor northern areas over the army plan, which promises to retain 25pc of recruits beyond four years, followed unrest in January when protesters denounced alleged hiring flaws by the railways department — another major public sector employer.

Thousands of demonstrators attacked train coaches and clashed with police during the protests, which economic analysts said were a symptom of India’s rolling youth unemployment crisis.

“We are very far behind the curve and we sort of missed the bus a little ... in terms of creating enough jobs for the youth coming into the labour force,” said Deepanshu Mohan, an associate professor of economics at O. P. Jindal Global University on the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi. He said the protests over military and railway hirings stemmed from poor government communication, and the sudden loss of a potential socio-economic safety net that had plunged legions of low-income youth into an uncertain future.

The move to contractualise military jobs highlights a steady erosion of quality employment due to a broader shift towards ad hoc work contracts with little to no protections or benefits, he added. The Defence Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Government jobs always attract huge numbers of candidates in India.

Despite the outcry over the recruitment plan, the Indian Air Force received more than 200,000 applications within a week of opening registrations. A total of 46,000 troops will be selected in the military this year.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, he promised economic development that would create millions of jobs for the surging ranks of young, educated Indians.

But national unemployment peaked at 23.5pc in 2020 — at the height of Covid-19 lockdowns — and has stubbornly remained well above 7pc since, according to data from the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), much higher than the global average.

The retired soldiers will receive a one-time payout and could be offered federal or state government jobs, including in the country’s various paramilitary forces or in the police.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2022

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