20 June 2022 12:37:06 IST

India’s military rejig offers delicate risk-return

A police vehicle burns after it was set on fire by the protestors during a protest against “Agnipath scheme” for recruiting personnel for the armed forces, in Patna, in the eastern state of Bihar, India, June 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Change is often met with resistance. In India, across several states attacked trains and vandalised property to demonstrate against a shakeup to the country’s military recruitment policy. The backlash hints at how notable benefits might be overshadowed by wider costs. India’s army enrollees sign up voluntarily with no fixed terms.

The new plan unveiled last week, which borrows from Israel to Singapore, guarantees a four-year tenure, with a promise to retain 25 per cent of recruits for longer. Defence chiefs say the approach will grasp India’s demographic dividend; the average age of cadets should gradually fall by a quarter to 24 years.

More money for weapons

Younger, fitter forces could be helpful on the mountainous borders with China, where tensions are rising. Financial gains should be big, even if unspoken. Those who leave after four years will receive a one-time payout, but no defence pension. It’s a prize benefit in a country with limited social safety nets and where the youth in some villages spend years preparing to get into the armed forces for recruitment was halted during the pandemic.

Training costs will increase, but pension savings raise hope of redirecting funds to buy more equipment and weapons instead. The defence budget is some $67 billion, representing 13 per cent of the national total. While the proportion of capital spending has been growing steadily over the past four years, revenue items including for salaries and pensions account for more than half.

Army HR challenges

The violent protests speak to the depth of employment concerns. Even if 75 per cent of the 46,000 to be recruited this year can’t find work, it pales next to the 450 million Indians who aren’t looking, per Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates. India’s labour participation rate is falling as many jobseekers struggle to find the right sort of roles.

The aim is for military trainees to be more employable by large companies. Officials specifically named Reliance Industries. Tycoon Anand Mahindra, whose empire includes automaker Mahindra & Mahindra, said on Monday he welcomed the chance to hire them. It’s unclear how many others in the picky private sector will do the same. The government has pledged more jobs at state entities. For now, though, the human resources challenge will be with the military.