Agnipath Protests: 3 Long-Term Factors Explain Why Youth Are on a Warpath
A permanent army job isn't just any other other career. It can overnight change the fortunes of an entire family.
The protests against the Agnipath scheme are not surprising. What is surprising is the scale of the protests. According to reports, protests have taken place in at least 14 states, with violence being reported in several places.
One person has also died in the violence, at Secunderabad in Telangana. The protesters set fire to trains and buses and even BJP offices have come under attack in places like Nawada and Madhepura in Bihar.
So, what explains the intensity and scale of the protests?
There are three aspects to this.
The Importance of Army Recruitment and How Agnipath Threatens it
We will not go into the merits and demerits of the scheme. These articles from Lt Gen (Retd) Bhopinder Singh and The Quint's founder Raghav Bahl would give you a fair idea of the pros and cons of the policy. For specific concerns among aspirants regarding the policy, you may read this article.
Instead, let's focus on what an army job actually means for the youth who are protesting.
A disproportionately higher number of applicants for Jawaan level recruitment come from smaller towns and villages.
A permanent job with the armed forces and the benefits and prestige that come with it, isn't just seen as any other career alternative. It is seen as an achievement that can overnight change the fortunes of a family.
For a youngster in that age, it is a means by which he can help his parents in their old age, take care of the education and marriage of his siblings and secure his own future. In many cases it also involves a huge boost in the person's own marriage prospects.
Naturally, families would be keen to marry their daughter to a person who has a permanent job in the army, with the security, respect and benefits that come with it.
Clearly for these aspirants, army recruitment represents a change in fortunes and the hope of a better, and more importantly, secure future in every way. And it is this hope that drives them to prepare for 3-4 years for the exam and go through rigorous physical training to meet the requirements.
It is this hope of security that is destroyed by the Agnipath scheme. Yes, the aspirants do know that they have one in four chance of getting a permanent position.
But the fact that recruitment won't be the end of their troubles and they can be pushed back to where they came from after four years, is a dreadful prospect.
It is this fear and the blocking of an avenue for a secure future for their families that is one of the major causes of resentment against the Agnipath scheme.
Army job aspirants had already been protesting in some places for the past month or so. In May, army aspirants began protesting in Haryana, demanding that the central government resume the army recruitment process. One aspirant in Bhiwani reportedly died by suicide after breaching the age limit for army recruitment.
Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in Parliament that the process was on hold due to the pandemic.
With the Agnipath scheme, the aspirants' fears that the government is tinkering with the recruitment process - have only come true.
The Unemployment Situation
According to data released by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), India's workforce participation rate declined from 47 percent in January-April 2016 to 39.9 percent in May 2022. This means that lesser number of Indians are seeking jobs and this is often because they don't have any hopes of finding a proper job.
The employment rate has fallen from 42.8 percent in Jan-April 2016 to 37.07 percent in May 2022. In absolute terms 41.2 crore people over the age of 15 were employed in Jan-April 2016, while in May 2022, it is 40.4 crore.
While the total working age population has increased by 12 crore, the number of people employed has reduced by about 80 lakh, according to an article in Indian Express.
To give a better idea of how bad things are, had the same employment rate of 42.8 percent continued till May 2022, we should have had roughly 46.6 crore people in employment. Instead we have 40.4 crore, which is over 6 crore lesser.
No doubt a great deal of harm was caused by the 2020 COVID-19 wave and lockdown and the 2021 COVID-19 wave, factors which were not entirely under the central government's control. But it was also harmed by the Narendra Modi government's demonetisation and GST decisions.
Even in Jan-April 2020, just before the COVID-19, the Labour Force Participation rate was about 41 percent, marginally better than it is now and the Employment Rate was still around 37 percent, the same as presently.
So yes COVID-19 did harm and things did improve a bit after that, but we must admit that some decline in labour force participation and employment rates had already taken place between 2016 and beginning of 2020. And this is largely due to the Modi government's economic policies.
In a deteriorating employment situation in the country and decreasing opportunities in the private sector, government jobs are seen as the only way out. And this is why the demand for government jobs has increased manifold.
The ongoing protest against the Agnipath scheme isn't the first protest by government job aspirants in the country. There have been several protests in the past few years.
For instance, in January 2022, railway job aspirants protested in Prayagraj alleging anomalies in the Non Technical Popular Category (NTPC) exam conducted by railways.
Last year, there were protests in Uttar Pradesh by people demanding that the government resume recruitment of government school teachers.
In the past one year, Punjab saw several such protests - from Physical Training Instructor aspirants, police constable aspirants, government school teaching aspirants, just to name a few.
Youth's Alienation from Electoral Outcomes and Political Decision Making
Survey after survey has shown that unemployment is the single biggest issue for the people and also seen as one of the main failures of the Modi government.
The last couple of years have also witnessed some sort of a decline in the NDA's popularity among the youth. Remember this is a demographic that had propelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power in 2014 and again in 2019.
However, if we see the elections in the crucial Hindi belt states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there seems to be some fall in the NDA's appeal among the youth.
In the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections in which the NDA secured a narrow victory, the alliance was actually trailing among younger voters.
According to the India Today-Axis My India exit poll, 34 percent people in the 18-25 years age group voted for the NDA compared to 47 percent for the Tejashwi Yadav led Mahagathbandhan, a deficit of 13 percentage points for the NDA.
In the 26-35 age group, 36 percent voted for the NDA and 47 percent for the Mahagathbandhan, a deficit of 11 points.
In comparison, the NDA had a 10 percentage point lead among those above 61 years of age and five points among those between 51-60 years.
To a great extent this was due to Tejashwi Yadav's strong job plank in the elections.
In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the NDA performed poorest among the 18-25 age group. According to the Axis survey, it secured 41 percent votes among this age group compared to 40 percent of the SP-led Mahagathbandhan. On the other hand, it secured 50 percent and 54 percent in the 51-60 and 61 and above age group.
Consider this, 59 percent voters in the 18-25 age group in UP did not vote for the NDA compared to 46 percent in the 60 plus age group. In Bihar, as much as 66 percent voters in the 18-25 years age group didn't vote for the NDA.
Traditionally non-NDA voting communities - Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs - together would account for 30-35 percent of the electorate in these states. So even if one factors that in, it seems that a sizable chunk of youth outside these communities also voted against the NDA in these two states.
Therefore, it is clear that the electoral verdicts in both these states were against the will of a sizable chunk of the state's population in the 18-25 age group.
It is possible that there is a perception among sections of the youth in these two states that the NDA manages to win with its vastly greater resources and the Opposition is ineffective, so there is no one to protect their interests.
The alienation stemming for this may have been made worse by the unilateral decision making process in the Narendra Modi government.
The feedback mechanism within the BJP doesn't seem to be very effective, with no one - be it MLAs, MPs, ministers or office bearers willing to question the PM, home minister and party president. Pilibhit MP Varun Gandhi and Goa governor Satyapal Malik may be two possible exceptions.
So both electoral results and the BJP's internal feedback mechanisms don't seem to be working, at least as far as conveying the will of disaffected sections is concerned.
Therefore, it is possible that many feel there is no choice but to take to the streets and protest.
However, the rage of the protesting youth is slightly different from that of those behind the anti-CAA protests and the farmers protests.
Muslims and Sikhs, who were the backbone of those two movements respectively, had mostly voted against the BJP and therefore didn't have any expectations from the Modi government.
The protesting youth on the other hand were completely taken by the Modi magic in 2014 and 2019 and did buy in to the promise of jobs and "Achhe Din". Therefore their anger also stems from an added sense of betrayal.
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