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Patna: Rohit Kumar has been preparing to enter the Indian Army for the last four years. His is a family of farmers. Poverty is a constant companion. They live in Anandpur village of Bihar’s Begusarai district.
Since there is no question of “cut off marks” for the Army, Kumar thought it best to set his sights on becoming a soldier. Now the decision by the Union government to appoint young men for four years under the Agnipath scheme has thrown Kumar and his preparations into deep uncertainty.
“According to the new scheme I will work in the army for four years and get a salary of Rs 25,000-30,000 a month. After four years, I may be thrown out of the army. What will I do then? After four years, I will have to sell pakodas! It would be better if I take a private job somewhere else,” Kumar tells The Wire.
According to the scheme, on the completion of the four-year period, recruits will be given the opportunity to apply for enrolment in the permanent cadre. But only 25% of the total number of ‘Agniveers’ will be selected as regular cadres in the armed forces. The Agniveers will get Rs 4.76 lakhs in the first year which will be upgraded to Rs 6.92 lakh in fourth year.
Army job seekers are against this and they have been protesting since the day the Union government floated this scheme.
Protests first started in Bihar where aspirants blocked roads and railway tracks. They have set fire to a train, torched a bus, and become violent during protests in more than a half dozen districts, including Jehanabad, Nawada, Chhapra, Saharsa and Muzaffarpur.
The Railways have had to cancel around two dozen trains and shorten routes for others. trains’ routes were shortened due to protests.
In Nawada, the vehicle of local Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Aruna Devi was attacked by agitators. She told reporters that protester were perhaps agitated by the sight of the party flag in the vehicle. The MLA has lodged a police complaint.
A BJP office, too, was ransacked.
Along with Bihar, protests were held in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.
These protests are largely spontaneous and comprise job seekers who ask that the government withdraw this scheme and implement the old recruitment process.
Eighteen-year-old Shailesh Kumar Rai from Makhdumganj in Bihar’s Chhapra district is also preparing to apply for an Army job.
“I have never thought of going to any sector other than the Army. If the government implements the Agnipath scheme, then my whole life will be ruined,” Rai told The Wire.
“From June 20, we will continue to protest and if needed, we will go to Delhi and present our demand…I have been preparing for two years with the hope that I will have a stable career after joining the Army – and not that I will become unemployed after just four years,” Rai said.
For many, Army jobs carry enormous respect, promise financial security and the fact that there is comparatively little weightage to written exam marks to secure such a job is source of relief. In the absence of resources to ace other competitive exams, youth belonging to rural areas find it easier to tackle physical and medical tests and thus focus on doing well in them. In almost every Bihar village, groups of youngsters can be seen either running or doing rigorous exercises early in the mornings.
Rai said he and his friends have put in at least eight hours everyday.
“We wake up at four in the morning and run for five kilometres. After that we do physical exercises. Then I return home, do household chores and study. We follow the same running and exercise routine in the evening. Even after so much hard work, if we get a job for just four years, then there is no meaning in joining the Army,” he said.
Chandraket Kumar of Chhapra, who has been preparing for four years, has similar thoughts.
“To train, you have to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning. I am tired and don’t get enough sleep, but it doesn’t matter to the leaders. They sit in air-conditioned rooms and make decisions as they please and get all facilities free of cost,” Kumar said.
His father is a farmer. He had always been keen to take up a job that brings respect and could secure his family’s future financially.
“No youth would want to lay down their lives for the country for just the assurance of four years’ employment. If he has to retire after four years, why would anyone join the Army? Will the government bring similar rules for leaders? Will MPs and MLAs also be elected for four years?” Kumar asked.
Kumar is worried that he will soon be unable to meet the cut-off age.
“The government has ruined us, but we will agitate for the betterment of youth who will be preparing for the army in the future,” he said.
Apart from regular army job seekers, among protesters are the young men who had passed medical tests two years ago but have had their written exams postponed since the COVID-19 outbreak.
There is a concern among these candidates that they will have to go through the whole process afresh in the Agnipath scheme.
“I have qualified for the running test. I have also passed the medical test. But in the last one and a half years, the written examination has been postponed eight times. Now I am hearing that under the Agnipath scheme, those who have already passed the running and medical tests will also have to go through the whole process afresh,” said Rohit Kumar.
Kumar had spent Rs 1.5 lakhs for classes at an institute in Uttar Pradesh so that he could do well in the written tests.
“Now I just don’t know what to do,” he said.