NEW DELHI — Thousands of young Indians took part in violent demonstrations Friday, blocking trains and setting railroad cars and tires on fire to protest government spending cuts that they say will shatter their dreams of more secure military jobs.
The protests began on Tuesday after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced changes to the recruitment process for new troops.
The government has called the moves necessary to make the country’s armed forces “younger, more capable” and “diverse”, but many experts say they are aimed at cutting the country’s defense budget. more than a half of which goes to salaries and pensions.
Under new system, 46,000 people aged 17.5 to 21 will be enlisted this year to serve four years. After that, only up to 25 percent of them will be able to continue a longer military career. The rest will receive a small payment at the end of their service, but not a pension.
Hundreds of thousands of young people seeking secure jobs in long-term military careers took the announcement as another blow to their dreams.
“What will we be doing in four years? Who will give us a job?” said Prince Raj, 23, from the eastern state of Bihar, who hopes to become a soldier. “Our protest will continue until the government accepts our demands.”
The protesters called on the government to scrap the new plan entirely and instead keep the old hiring process, with the prospect of a career that could last two decades and a pension when it ends. “We spend three to four years preparing to be selected and after that, if we get a job for four years, it will not be fair,” said 17-year-old Pankaj Pandir from the Muzaffarnagar district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
This year, hundreds of applicants for work in the railway sector burned wagons in the state of Bihar to protest what they called the unfair recruitment practices of Mr. Modi’s government. More than 12 million people applied for 35,281 vacancies.
In recognition of the unemployment problems, Mr. Modi this week ordered his government to recruit a million people for vacant government posts within 18 months.
“The announcement of a million jobs is good, but it will only fill vacancies,” said Jayan Jose Thomas, an economist and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. “Given the demographic structure of India, if we cannot create more jobs, protests of this nature will continue.”
As protests spread across multiple districts in at least six Indian states on Friday, Mr Modi’s government announced some concessions. This will raise the upper age limit for hiring recruits to 23, allowing those who missed the opportunity to be recruited in the past two years during the pandemic to apply.
The concessions, however, did little to calm the anger that erupted in the streets and train stations in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh. On Friday, the protests quickly spread to other parts of India, including the capital New Delhi and the states of Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab and Jharkhand.
In Bihar, where intense protests have taken place over the past few days, hundreds of protesters armed with sticks smashed railway stations and set train cars on fire on Friday. Violent crowds blocked the railroad tracks, burning tires and cars on them.
Similar scenes played out in Uttar Pradesh, where protesters destroyed trains, buses and shops. Hundreds of protesters, mostly men in their 20s, took to the streets and shouted slogans in the Chandauli area.
In the southern state of Telangana, police and firefighters tried to put out a burning train car set on fire by a crowd. Tensions remained high in the state of Haryana, where authorities shut down the internet on Thursday and Friday to prevent the protests from spreading.
Many protesters said they were discouraged by the government’s recruitment plan, which offered no job security after four years of strict service.
“They will kick us out in four years,” said Lavjinder Singh, a young army candidate from Haryana state. local media, explaining that he has been training for the last seven years to get the job. “What will these 75 percent of people do?”
Ranjit Kumar, a former Indian Army soldier who runs a training academy for 100 army candidates in Bihar, said the protesters were also frustrated by the delays in the recruitment process. According to him, their demands were justified.
And, according to him, one thing was clear: “They are not interested in going into the army for four years. They want to join the army for a full term.”
The protests began as India faced a situation it had feared for nearly two decades: a two-front conflict with hostile neighbors China and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons. Indian and Chinese militaries have been stuck in a border dispute in the Himalayas for more than two years.
India has one of the largest armies in the world, recruiting tens of thousands every year. Military experts say one way to manage such a large army and still afford to upgrade its defense equipment is to recruit people on short-term contracts.
But the job itself must be “attractive” both during and after the service, said H.S. Panag, a retired Lieutenant General who served in the Indian Army for nearly four decades. They shouldn’t look “exploitative” either, Mr. Panag added.
The government’s plan announced on Tuesday falls short of both counts, he said. “It seems exploitative because they didn’t provide all the incentives they are talking about,” including “guaranteed guarantees” for paramilitary recruitment. In total, the military work package will only pay about $15,000, much less than what a soldier earns after about 15 years of service.
Economists say the government also urgently needs to focus on job creation. In addition to the defense sector, which employs more than 1.3 million people, other fields such as education and health care can host hundreds of thousands of job seekers, Professor Thomas said. “A very large number of the working-age population is looking for work,” he said. “And they’re looking for permanent jobs with the security that only government jobs provide.”
Mr. Raj, an army candidate from Bihar, pointed out that the government’s recruitment plan is targeting the most vulnerable in India. “These are only poor families whose sons go into the army and sacrifice their lives,” he said. “Which politicians’ sons sacrifice their lives to protect the country?”