Agnipath Rebellion, Unemployment Crisis, and the Façade of ‘Sab Changa Si’

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On June 14, Government of India announced the Agnipath Scheme for Indian armed forces. The scheme would recruit 45,000 to 50,000 people — between the ages of 17.5 to 21 years — every year. The service would be for a duration of four years, at the end of which one-fourth of the recruits would be awarded permanent commission in the armed forces. One of the objective of the scheme was to reduce the military pension budget and the size of the permanent commission. Several military experts have pointed out that the scheme will impact the professionalism and the preparedness of the military, and will compromise with the national security. The scheme has also been alleged as turning armed forces into contractual work, and increasing the militarization of the society. Further, since the scheme would lay off 75% of the recruits at the age of 21-25 years, it is likely to increase unemployment as well.

A day after the announcement of the scheme, widespread protests and riots erupted in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Lakhs of students, especially those seeking recruitment in Indian armed forces, came out in large number to protest against the scheme. Soon, the agitation spread across North India, and then across rest of the nation. In many places, especially in Bihar, protests turned violent. Trains were set on fire, and BJP offices and homes of party legislators were attacked. Perhaps the youth — who prepare for years to apply in Indian armed forces, and were already agitated against the lack of recruitment in Indian army since 2019 — were not too pleased with the scheme.

Meanwhile, the Government, all too predictably, went on a propaganda mode to explain the merits of the scheme. Posters were released and ministers held press conferences enumerating the benefits of the scheme. The chiefs of armed forces released statements and gave interviews to endorse the scheme and support the government. Yet, as the strategy fell short, the Government started to offer additional incentives for the scheme. Union Government offered reservation and age relaxation for Agniveers in jobs in Defence Ministry (Indian Coast Guard, defence civilian posts, and Defence PSUs), Home Ministry (Central Armed Police Forces and Assam Rifles), Sports, Civil Aviation, and Ports, Shipping and Waterways Ministry. Finance Minister called on the banks to offer reservation for Agniveers in their recruitment. States also jumped in with reservations for Agniveers, including the Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan who had withdrawn 10% reservation for ex-servicemen in the state police earlier this year. When this too failed, threats and warnings were issued against the protesters. Yet, notwithstanding the propaganda, the offers, and the threats, intense protests and riots continue across India.

A few months earlier, in January 2022, India witnessed large-scale protest of Railway recruitment examination aspirants. Tens of thousands of students rose in spontaneous protest at different locations across Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They were complaining against alleged irregularities in the examinations conducted by Railway Recruitment Board. In one of these examinations, over 1.2 crore students — almost 2.5% of India’s total work force — had applied for 35,000 vacancies. The protest was met with brutal repression from the government. In Allahabad and Patna, the police stormed the hostels, beat the students with batons, and arrested several students. Railway Recruitment Board also issued a circular threatening the students against taking part in any protests.

While the reaction of mainstream media and common public towards these protests has largely been negative, it is important to understand the context of these agitations. Before berating the Agnipath protesters as arsonists and mobs, one must try to understand their grievances and their sufferings. The protests against Agnipath Scheme, irregularities in RRB exam, or dozens of similar student protests in recent years, may have different immediate causes, but they are not isolated protests — rather they should be seen as a part of the larger agitation against the unemployment crisis.

When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, unemployment was one of the central issue of his campaign. In his election manifesto, Modi promised creation of two crore jobs every year. However, by the end of his first term, the problem had only worsened. In 2018, there were large protests against the irregularities in SSC exam. More protests took place against the delay in recruitments, alleged irregularities in exams, and other issues related to unemployment. Modi Government’s modus operandi in dealing with unemployment was ‘sab changa si’ model — to ignore, to deny, to suppress, and to claim ‘acche din’. In 2019, a leaked NSSO report revealed that unemployment was at a 45-year-high. The report was suppressed, and further NSSO surveys were stopped. Propaganda and selective data was used to paint a false picture of acche din. In an interview, when asked about the problem of unemployment, Modi denied even the existence of the issue, and asked whether selling pakoda in front of news studios and earning ₹200 a day would not count as employment.

As unemployment continued to worsen, the Government refused to take any step to tackle the problem, and continued to deny the issue. Between 2016 and 2022, employment-to-population ratio fell from 43.5% to 37%, while the number of employed fell by 46 lakh. Frustrated at not being able to find a decent job, a large working age population stopped looking for work, and the labour-force participation rate fell from 48% to 40%. Between 2017 and 2022, over two crore women quit the workforce. The unemployment in the college graduates reached as high as 20%. At the same time, according to Government’s own estimate, there were over 24 lakh sanctioned posts lying vacant in various government departments and ministries, and in education, healthcare, police, and army. According to some figures, the total vacancies, including those in state governments, is over 60 lakh.

In 2016, Modi Government announced the demonetization of banknotes. This was followed by an unplanned introduction of GST. These two shocks destroyed the informal sector and small businesses in India. In 2019, COVID pandemic struck, and the Government imposed a nationwide lockdown at a four-hour notice. Millions of workers went unemployed, yet no help was provided by the Government. With loss of jobs and incomes, millions fell below poverty line and faced hunger and starvation. Between 2018 and 2020, over 25,000 people committed suicide due to unemployment and debt. The number of salaried and industrial jobs, and wages declined, and unemployment reached a record 24%. While, taking advantage of the crisis (aapda me awasar), Government continued to privatize Public Sector Units, and relax labour laws in favour of corporations. At the same time, BJP kept making empty promises in elections. In 2020 assembly elections in Bihar, the party promised creation of 19 lakh jobs. In 2022 UP assembly election, it promised to provide one job to each family.

Under these circumstances — of false promises and betrayal, a bleak future without hope, and the endless propaganda of acche din — a sense of unrest among the youths was easily perceptible. Mainstream media played a huge role in helping the Government create a façade of acche din over the reality of unemployment crisis, and preventing any serious discussion of the subject. As Dr Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard” — the numerous abrupt, unplanned, and violent protests are the outburst of this suppressed anger among the millions of youths of India. Unemployment always has a strong correlation to conflict and violence, and as India’s demographic dividend turn to disaster such conflicts will become more frequent. As such, even if Government manages to crush the Agnipath Rebellion, its fire will not die out. While the crisis continues to deepen — without any political space to raise the issue, let alone being addressed — another large-scale violent unemployment protest will always be inevitable.

Today, India needs a movement that can provide a non-violent platform to the youth to raise the issue of unemployment. Such a movement needs to go beyond the issue of government exams. It should address the question of exploitative work and unfair wages in private sector. It should address the question of minimum support price for farmers, and minimum wages for contractual and daily wage workers. It should address the exploitation of gig workers, working for food delivery services, e-commerce companies, and cab services. It should also address the issue of representation of women and backward classes in the workforce. And most importantly it should rekindle the hope of the people in the future — especially the youths, who have been discouraged and denied by the Modi Government.

Rishi Anand is a political activist, primarily associated with Swaraj Abhiyan. His interest is in workers and peasants struggle, social and economic justice movements, and environment protection. Ideologically, he is a socialist. He has been a part of 2019 CAA-NRC movement and the 2020-21 Farmers’ movement, among other movements in the past, and local movements in Bihar.


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