The riots are not about Agnipath, it’s the fury of the unemployed

Exactly the very same thing can represent very different things to different people. Consider a birthday cake, with lit candles on top, surrounded by an eager bunch of kids, impatient for the main character of the day to get on with it. For the children, the cake represents celebration and a satisfying mouthful of sweet umami. For the bakery that supplied it, the cake is revenue and justification for employing the number of workers it has. For a nutritionist, casting a disapproving eye on the unhealthy plumpness of the majority of those in attendance, the cake represents sugary excess of the kind that needs to be minimized, if not eliminated, from children’s diet. For the cultural nationalist, the willowy candle flames represent the adulteration of traditions with imported practices.

For the government, the Agnipath scheme is key to modernizing the Indian armed forces. India’s strategic rival in the region, China, spends $200 billion more on its armed forces than India’s estimated $67 billion. A growing—it already is more than a quarter—share of India’s defence budget is claimed by pensions. As military capability increasingly depends on technological sophistication and the ability to bring together diverse resources—satellite intelligence from synthetic-aperture radar, remote-operated drones, long-distance artillery, human intelligence and precision ammunition, along with planned logistics—if India continues to devote larger and larger shares of its relatively small defence budget on pensions, it would put its armed forces increasingly at a disadvantage.

But for India’s youth, Agnipath represents slamming shut the door to a major route to secure jobs. India’s unemployment rate has been climbing and is pegged at 7.2% in May, down from 7.83% in April by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The government disputes these figures, but the National Statistics Office’s periodic labour force survey also shows an unemployment rate of 8.2% in January-March 2022.

Now, employment data in India is not entirely reliable. The labour force comprises those available for work, that is, is either at work or is seeking work. The labour force participation rate is the proportion of the labour force to the working-age population, those aged above 15 but below 65. The unemployment rate is the proportion of those seeking work in the labour force. Now, a peculiar thing about India is that its labour force participation rate has been shrinking steadily. It was 47% in 2016, already low for a young population, and just 40% in December 2021. It is 68% in China and 58% in Bangladesh. For women in India, the figure is below 20%. It is entirely conceivable that these figures disguise the true state of unemployment in India. Many people who do not even figure in the official labour force might be altogether ready to work, or even working. There are economists who strongly argue that women’s participation rate is gravely underestimated.

Another problem is the extent of underemployment in India – Rural, especially, agriculture work, acting as a sink that offers some occupation. Many of those who are now out on the streets raging against Agnipath might well be those who are officially counted as employed, as they might help out at the family farm, but are looking for formal sector jobs. They are fervent job seekers, even if not officially unemployed.

Unemployment in prosperous states is high, in excess of 20%, but just 0.7% in Chhattisgarh. In places where people eke out a living on the margins of subsistence, no one can afford the luxury of being unemployed. This makes low unemployment rates a sign of economic stress, not well-being.

What is indisputable is that there is a desperate shortage of decent jobs in India.

India craves strategic autonomy, being able to chart its own course in world affairs, without kowtowing to any other power. That calls for strategic capability.

India needs to grow its economy, particularly in areas of technology, garner an increasing share of output as taxes and allocate more funds to defence. If the enemy can deploy supercomputers and artificial intelligence to break your code, you might need quantum computing and encryption in your toolkit, apart from main battle tanks. In an ideal world, there would be neither constraints on defence budgets nor, for that matter, the need for large defence outlays. In the world we actually live in, India needs both more funds for its armed forces and better ways to spend it, so as to improve the tooth-to-tail ratio — more cutting-edge arms and fewer foot-soldiers and ‘batmen’.

Agnipath is designed to vastly reduce the pension outgo. If most enlisted personnel leave after four years, with no pension benefit, the armed forces would have a young fighting force in peak physical condition and no pension obligation apart from on officers and the small contingent of soldiers who continue to work for 15 years. India also would have a large reserve of trained people who can be called upon to serve, in case of an emergency.

Why, given the Agnipath reform’s evident fit in the larger scheme of modernizing the armed forces, are young people on the warpath against it? Don’t accuse them of being anti-national.

From colonial times, Indians have valued a government job: it offers surety of service, a guaranteed pension and decent work conditions. The trajectory of independent India’s economic development has not particularly eroded this culture. The bulk of private-sector jobs is in the informal sector, with uncertain tenures, low earnings and no pension. So, the armed forces and the Railways remain very attractive career options for most Indians: secure government jobs with decent pay and pension. Agnipath knocks the armed forces out as a ray of light in a world of employment gloom. Now, only the Railways remain.

If India had a vibrant jobs market, loss of an opportunity to risk one’s neck on harsh frontiers or fraught woodlands where insurgent rebels lie in ambush would not grate as much as it evidently does.

India must fix its power sector, so that the food-processing industry can take off in rural areas, creating jobs and incentives for farmers to produce more, build new towns to absorb migrants to city jobs, build other infrastructure, improve the quality of education at all levels and invest in healthcare. This would generate jobs and make India’s young employable.

Till then, all the government can do, when it embarks on vital, unavoidable reform of the Agnipath kind, is to communicate the benefits to the nation better and offer assorted incentives to make the change more palatable.

The government must empathize with the protesters, but not back down on Agnipath. India needs to find more funds for the modernization of the armed forces, from within the stretched allocations for defence that India already makes.

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