India Cancels Train Services As Protests Churn Over Military Recruitment

Indian authorities have canceled more than 500 train services in response to protests against a recently unveiled military recruitment plan. Thousands of young men have taken to the streets in opposition to the scheme, which they say will rob them of the benefits afforded by a career in the armed forces, including a guaranteed pension, other allowances, and social status. This wave of protests marks the first time young people have taken to the streets in Modi’s eight years of leadership, further reflecting the severity of India’s unemployment crisis.

“I want the defense ministry to stop this experiment. I need a secure job and they have no right to offer temporary arrangements,” a young protester in the eastern city of Kolkata said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unveiled the plan, called Agnipath, or “path of fire,” in June, intending to incorporate more people into the military on short four-year contracts. Under the Agnipath, 46,000 cadets will be recruited this year on four-year terms, with a quarter of them kept on following those four years. The government has claimed that the plan’s goal is to modernize their forces and lower the average age of India’s military, made up of nearly 1.4 million individuals.

Policy analysts, however, say that this plan is intended to trim the country’s $76 billion military spending – the third highest in the world – by reducing pension costs. Members typically serve for a period of up to 20 years, after which they are eligible for pension. According to Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution center for research on public policy, the Agnipath plan will reduce the life-time cost of service by tens of millions of rupees per person, as the majority of military spending goes to the payment of wages and pensions.

Since the plan’s announcement, thousands of protesters have attacked and torched trains, blocked railway tracks and roads, and clashed with police. So far, one person has been killed and police have arrested more than 300 protesters.

In response, the railway ministry released a statement that more than 500 trains would be indefinitely called off.

Several of India’s opposition parties have vocalized support for the protesters. Leaders of the opposition Congress Party met with Indian president Ram Nath Kovind hoping to persuade the scheme to be withdrawn. “Given the situation on our borders, it is imperative that we have soldiers in our armed forces who are young, well-trained, motivated, happy, satisfied and assured of their future,” the party wrote in a memorandum submitted to the President. “India’s shared borders with Pakistan and China are a recurrent locale for tension.”

Top defense officials said the plan would not be withdrawn despite the protests, but in a bid to end the agitation, the government has adjusted parts of the plan to offer more soldiers federal and state government jobs after their service.

Regardless of the amendments, it is unlikely that the Agnipath plan will be successful. Many who voluntarily serve in their country’s military are incentivized by the benefits conferred by their service. This plan subjects young men to the perils of war – including personal endangerment and individual trauma – then leaves them devoid of social security or dignity at the completion of their four-year contract. If the Indian government wants to reduce the nation’s military spending, it should first address the vast number of unemployed youth in the country, and perhaps make more efforts towards peacemaking. Less tension over the nation’s borders with Pakistan and China would reduce the need for such a large military.