When the Agnipath scheme was announced for the armed forces, members of the Manipur Pradesh Youth Congress took to the streets in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, to protest the move, accusing the Central government of trying to play with the future of India’s youth. Security forces were deployed to control the crowd and Section 144 was imposed in the area for a couple of hours. Later, it was reported that the police detained around a hundred protesters.
The new scheme brought radical changes to the process of recruiting soldiers into the military. All soldiers, called ‘Agniveers’ will be recruited for four years, after which the military will retain only 25% of them for permanent incorporation. This incorporation will result in a 50-50 merging of Agniveers and regular soldiers.
India’s northeastern states have been showered with development funds for decades, leading to rampant corruption and overdependence on government jobs. Of the 11.86 lakh active companies in the corporate sector in India, only 9,461 (less than 1%) are in the Northeast.
The financial stability provided by the military service is what motivates people in economically deprived states to join the army. With Agnipath, that ‘stability’ has come under doubt now.
The Northeast faces both internal and external security challenges with its complex web of identity politics, along with a struggling economy.
Faced with dismal job prospects and an uncertain economic future, Agniveers could end up becoming potential recruits for insurgency groups. This could lead to a ‘militarisation’ of society.
Further, though the government has promised to accommodate Agniveers in various departments after their service, the government has a terrible track record in filling jobs reserved for ex-servicemen.
What Motivated People to Join the Army
Before the introduction of the scheme, the financial stability provided by the military service was what motivated people in economically deprived states to join the army – patriotism came only second. As an AFSPA state, tales of misfortunes, such as encounters, have been common in Manipur, which has tarnished the name of the military as a whole. But despite this, the army remained a lucrative option for most in the Northeast – economically weaker sections put their emotions aside in hopes of building a better life.
With Agnipath, that ‘stability’ has come under doubt now. After the four-year tenure, three out of every four Agniveers would be rendered jobless. With prospects in the private sector even bleaker, young aspirants are at a crossroads today.
India’s northeastern states have been showered with development funds for decades, leading to rampant corruption and overdependence on government jobs.
The lack of any substantial private sector development has only exacerbated this dependency, leading to limited employment generation.
The very essence of the Agnipath scheme is to provide an opportunity to the patriotic and motivated youth who have the ‘Josh’ (enthusiasm) and ‘Jazba’ (passion) to join the armed forces. But the nature of the scheme severely hurts India's jobless, along with compromising the country’s national security with poorly trained, contractually hired soldiers.
Northeast's Unique Challenges
The Northeast faces both internal and external security challenges due to its complex web of identity politics, posing a serious threat to long-term regional stability. Faced with dismal job prospects and an uncertain economic future, Agniveers could end up becoming potential recruits for insurgency groups. Thus, for the Agnipath scheme to be a success in the Northeast, given its strategic location, the government ought to formulate a solution to the unemployment crisis. Each state shares an international border with at least one of the five eastern neighbours of the country; the region also faces threats from aggressive neighbours, insurgencies and a sluggish economy, all making it inconducive for economic growth.
The Northeast is thus perhaps a litmus test for ascertaining the practicality of the Agnipath scheme.
The Northeast region has an unemployment rate of over 5%, much higher than the national average of 4.2%; it contributes only 2.8% to the country's GDP in 2019-2020; worse, while Assam is somewhat better-off, the other six states fare worse.
According to the 2020-2021 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), Nagaland has an unemployment rate of 19.3%, Arunachal Pradesh 5.7%, Manipur 5.6%, Assam 4.1%, Mizoram 3.5%, Tripura 3.2%, Meghalaya 1.7% and Sikkim 1.1%. States with high unemployment also face more insurgency, underlining the relationship between social unrest and economic prosperity. Thus, it’s important for the private sector to take a lead so that entrepreneurship and the MSME sector can develop.
The manufacturing sector of the region constitutes a small share of the net domestic product of states (except Tripura) at below 20%. Primary industries are agro-mineral or forest-based.
The region has quite a sparse private sector. Spatial distribution of registered companies in the Northeast, reported to the Ministry of Company Affairs in January 2020, shows that there are 11.86 lakh active companies in the corporate sector in India, of which only 9,461 (less than 1%) are in the Northeast. Further, the distribution of registered companies is highly skewed, with 74.8% of them located in Assam alone.
Can the Govt Really Fulfil its Promises?
Under such a bleak financial environment, the employability of ex-Agniveers will be hit badly. The resulting frustration could then push this trained force towards crime, conflicts and insurgency, which have already tormented the Northeast for decades. This could eventually lead to a ‘militarisation’ of society.
Amid continuing protests and violence over the scheme, the Union government announced several measures to accommodate Agniveers in various government departments after their four-year service.
But a report by The Wire shows that government departments have a terrible track record when it comes to filling jobs reserved for ex-servicemen.
While ex-servicemen should make up 10% of Group C and 20% of Group D posts in Central government departments, they account for only 1.29% and 2.66% of job posts, respectively. Similarly, quotas in Central public sector undertakings, Indian railways, paramilitary forces and public sector banks are far from being filled.
Since economic prosperity is inextricably linked to social stability, the viability of the Agnipath scheme is crucial. Agnipath means a path of fire. Ensuring the stability of Agniveers is a daunting task, and if the government fails in it, it would be akin to playing with fire.
The question, thus, is, can the government ensure that the skills acquired by Agniveers will be put to good use, in a manner that contributes to nation-building? How substantial is the promise of alternative employment based on each Agniveer’s ‘skill certificate’?
How the Act East Policy Can Help
The potential accorded to the Northeast through the government’s Act East Policy and the public-private partnership model can help the development of the region, which can, in turn, spur employment generation.
The Act East policy thus needs to be set in motion at a faster pace. Building reliable and resilient infrastructure is a crucial driver of economic growth and development, fostering investment and industrialisation.
The Northeast, which has largely remained neglected, can end up defining the fate of Agnipath.
(Sangmuan Hangsing is an independent researcher. L Lian Muan Sang is currently pursuing an MA in Economics from the University of Hyderabad. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)