India’s military — particularly its army — is antiquated in organization and manpower-heavy. After some ill-advised, populist and expensive tinkering with pensions early in its tenure, the government found it was spending all its military budget on personnel, leaving very little for modernization or for hardware.
Meanwhile, for more than two decades, its own strategists have been calling for a leaner and younger army. The average Indian soldier is 32 or 33, making its army one of the oldest in the world.
And so, after two years in which the army suspended its typical annual enlistment of 60,000 young men on 20-year contracts, the government announced it was shifting to a tour-of-duty type system in which new recruits will be taken on for four years and then sent off with a handsome and tax-free discharge bonus of $15,000.
This has set off a firestorm of protest. Literally, in some cases, as angry would-be army recruits set trains — a very visible symbol of the central government even the most remote parts of India — alight.
The problem is that, for many young men in the most economically disadvantaged parts of India, the army is their only hope of a career – or, for that matter, of getting married, given that years of sex-selective abortions have caused the gender ratio in those parts of India to skew heavily male. These men — or boys, since they’re mostly teenagers — have spent years running and practicing drills in hopes of getting selected.
Before the new recruitment system was announced, a typical applicant told a reporter for the Print: “If I don’t get a job in the army, my chances of living with dignity in my society are very low. My chances of marrying go down. People will mock me at every function.” Those who do return to their villages after their 20 years of service, on the other hand, tend to be respected and wind up in positions of local leadership.
It’s telling that the protests, and the anger, have largely been limited to the poorest parts of India, where other employment opportunities are scarce. The government has tried to emphasize the $15,000 payout the four-year men will receive and claimed that army training will make them more attractive on the job market. That argument holds less sway in areas where there’s little prospect of finding a good job today or four years from now.
The government has done itself no favors by obscuring its real motivations. Everyone knows this is about reducing the amount the military spends on salaries and creating an army that is younger and more agile technologically. At the same time, the government won’t reveal its plans for military transformation. Forget about detailing how much money the program would save; we don’t even know for certain how many people are currently employed by India’s military. For some reason, that’s treated as a state secret. (It’s estimated to be around 1.4 million, about half as many again as in China.)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is generally credited with having an instinctive understanding of what voters want. Yet it’s astounding how often his government designs policies that then elicit a furious public reaction. While military reform was inevitable and overdue, surely it could have been discussed in public so that at least the current generation of aspirants would have known better than to run kilometers a day to get themselves in shape.
As with farmer-led protests last year, there’s a chance the government will be forced to retreat in the face of this unwavering hostility in areas that remain politically powerful, if economically weak.
A reversal would carry its own costs, however. In an aspiring superpower the military should be an instrument designed to project power, ensure domestic security and respond to emerging threats. What India is learning is that, given its failure to create jobs, its army must also remain something of an employment generation scheme. If the country wants to play a bigger role in its region and in the world, it will first need to fix its economy.