The ‘Agniveer’ agitation has waned as fast as it sprang up. The protests were against the short-service commission of 4 years for army recruitment, where the young soldier would be retired compulsorily without pension benefits. Taking everyone by surprise, the protests engulfed 14 states, and they hogged the news networks because of the extreme anger and violence of the young participants. It seemed like a repeat of the anti-CAA and the farmers protests – government policy-making without application of mind or consultation. But sans leadership and long-term vision, the anti-Agnipath protests have died out.
In all the brouhaha, we missed the Prime Miniter’s guidance on 14 June, the same day the ‘Agnipath’ scheme was announced by the Defense Minister. The PM told government ministries to fill up all vacancies and ensure a million youth are recruited over the next 18 months. That it was to be done on ‘mission mode’ – an acknowledgement of the serious problem of unemployment among the youth. But what came to the fore was the ‘Agniveer’ recruitment. Though it involved recruiting just 45,000 young men, the entire focus shifted to this ‘half-employment’ measure.The extreme violence and anger it triggered among the youth drew condemnation and shock. But it was really a cry of anguish!
Explaining the outburst
All over the country, especially in rural communities and in North India, a career with the army is the dream of countless young men. It guarantees a stable income and good status in society where marriage and the perks that go with it, become easier. This dream had been left to simmer for over 2 years with fresh army recruitment kept on the backburner during the pandemic. The vacancy backlog in the armed forces is currently touching close to 4 lakh. Young men had been preparing for months for the army recruitment exams, not knowing when the gates would open again.
It is in this pressure cooker atmosphere that the ‘Agnipath’ recruitment was announced – an apology for employment. It effectively retired those recruited at 25-27 years, at the prime of their youth, with the chance that one in four might make it to the ranks of the regular army after the 4-year stint. Even then, what explains this huge outburst? Scratch the surface and one finds that extreme unemployment is more rampant among the very young. Mahesh Vyas, CEO of Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), points out that in 2017, in the age group 15-19, about 7% were employed. Since 2020 this proportion has dropped to about 2%.
Effectively every second person in the job market in this age group is unemployed as the unemployment rate has risen from around 23 per cent in 2017 to over 50 per cent since 2020. It must be qualified that the labour participation rate or those looking for work is very low in this age group – less than 5%. In the 20-24 years age bracket, the labour participation rate is higher at 33.5%. But equally, the unemployment rate is also very high at over 41%.
There was a blow-up in January and February, this year, among railway job aspirants too. The Railways, a big and sought-after employer, initially got 1.25 crore applications for 35,000 jobs it had advertised for –a ridiculous ratio of 360 applicants for each railway slot. Finally, 60 lakh sat the exam on 15 January, but when the results came, disappointment boiled over into streets. The young job aspirants alleged they had been bamboozled and there were discrepancies in the shortlisting process, and that an additional examination paper had been added without notice.
Hard times to persist
These protests have to be seen in the light of the general slowdown of the world economy since the pandemic hit in early 2020. The lockdowns threw millions out of jobs. In the waves of retrenchment, the youngest and the most recently employed were the worst hit; those with casual or parttime jobs are always the most dispensable.
By mid-2021, the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost around the world due to the pandemic, according to data from the International Labour Organization.Around the world in 2020, youth employment dropped by 8.7%. For adults the fall in employment was less severe, registering at 3.7%. This means young people stood more than twice the risk of losing their jobs.
We are hardly over the hump yet, and the promised cranking up of the economy to create more employment remains a mirage as new waves of Covid-19 and the Ukraine war continues to slow growth. India’s unemployment rate grew to 7.83% in April from 7.6% in March; while May was only slightly better with an unemployment rate of 7.12%. In a general slowdown, government as employer becomes even more important. In this context, Prime Minister Modi’s ‘mission’ for a million jobs is a big deal considering that in FY2020, the last normal year before the pandemic, India added 2.8 million jobs. How much the ‘million’ target transforms into reality is yet to be seen.
All over the country, especially in rural communities and in North India, a career with the army is the dream of countless young men. It guarantees a stable income and good status in society where marriage and the perks that go with it, become easier
Unemployment among youth
In 2017, in 15-19 age group, about 7% were employed. Since 2020 this proportion has dropped to about 2%, says CMIE CEO