The angry protests that have engulfed North India since the announcement of the Agnipath project are a sharp indictment of the socio-political moment that India finds itself in. To understand why thousands of unemployed youth resort to violence, we need to look beyond specificity. Ask why the flawed plan for our politics, economy and society, and secure government jobs and their financially burdensome pensions are so important to the aspirations of young India.
Economic vulnerability, particularly unemployment and the social value of government jobs, are at the heart of the protests. In recent times, the government has actively re-packaged AgniPath into a job creation and skills development program that allows firewires – as new recruits are called – to be canceled once in the private sector (and in government paramilitary, defense and ministry posts). But the outraged protesters are not buying it. They understand that Agnipath’s real purpose is not job creation, but to reduce the government’s bloated defense pension and wage bill (50% of the current defense budget). More importantly, they are acutely aware of the financial impairments they face four years down the road, with no guaranteed employment, pensions and no social status.
An angry protester expressed this fear in a television debate I attended. My fellow panellists dismissed him as a “right” young man interested in mild government jobs with a guaranteed pension. In fact, this perception that government jobs are looking for their comfortable terms and lifelong security is widely rooted in our policy imagination. It has been argued that these facilities promote inefficiency and corruption while putting unsustainable and wasteful financial burden on the coffers (full disclosure, I have also made this argument in the case of government teachers). As a result, government jobs, especially in the forefront (teachers, healthcare workers, etc.), are increasingly shifting towards leasing jobs with limited success in solving the efficiency problem.
But this characteristic of government jobs is that these jobs fail to accept the sacred socio-economic context. In contemporary India, the state (not the market) remains the primary mediator of social opportunities. The poignant truth is that despite liberalization, even in the most growth years, our economy has failed to create reliable avenues for long-term secure employment for the vast majority of India. With young people facing informal, unsafe jobs in the private sector, it is not surprising that government jobs are a big political demand.
In addition, access to state power through government jobs is an opportunity for mobility, and these jobs give individuals a new professional identity as a “government official” to escape the clutches of social oppression, which empowers them. In pursuit of this identity (and not soft words), many young Indians leave the private sector jobs that benefit the government, often taking wage cuts. It is this desire for professional identity and prestige that is currently driving protests. As Agnipath’s particular scenario, Sushant Singh of the Center for Policy Research argues, being in the military gives individuals status, prestige and status. It motivates military officers. Agnipath has robbed our young people of this opportunity of status and mobility without offering any real alternatives. These are not the demands of qualified young people. These are desperate demands in an economy with limited opportunity.
This is not to argue that the government itself should be the primary employer. This is not possible. Shall. Indeed, the over-reliance on government as an employer has contributed to the pathologies of the state, including the increased financial burden of wages and liabilities. However, the path to reform is no longer in the state’s piece of lease. It is rooted in the real challenges of the Indian economy, the aspirations of mobility and the social value of government jobs.
Finally, about the violence of these protests. Make no mistake. The violence we see is not just the product of unhappy and unemployed youth. This is the product of our current politics – the politics of hatred and bigotry routinely encourages violence in the pursuit of ideological hegemony. Images of violence during religious parades, scenes of mass murder, groups destroying public property, trolls using barbaric and violent language to demonize fellow citizens are now routine in the daily news cycle. Just days before the protests, the state bulldozed ordinary citizens’ homes with complete disregard for the rule of law and due process because they were accused of a crime. Violence has been legalized in our daily political life and young people are just pawns in this political game. So it is not surprising that they resorted to violence in their own political protest. I make this argument not to excuse violence but to commemorate the mainstream dangers of violence in the pursuit of political power. When politics and violence come together, it devours every aspect of our democratic life.
There are no easy answers to the confusion we face in our political, economic and society that is carrying out these violent protests. But if we do not accept the problem, we risk being burned by the flames that we fail to understand the aspirations of our youth.
Yamini Iyer President and Chief Executive, CPR
The opinions expressed are personal