Agnipath Scheme: Not for the Rural Youth
"Double squat, single-leg squat, monkey pose, turn left, turn right.. Relax for 10 seconds and then do thirty pushups," commands a teacher in an open field drenched with dirt and grass. Nearly 30-40 young women and men follow his instructions firmly. Many gasping for breath continue to exercise while repeating "yes, sir" in a chorus to their teacher, Krishna Bhandari's orders.
These young women and men with hopes to serve the nation as police officers are training rigorously in a small town in Maharashtra's Palghar district. It takes some of these youths nearly two hours to travel from their respective Adivasi hamlets to Wada town, where the training is being held in Palghar, located at a distance of 115 kilometres from the metropolitan Mumbai city.
After three hours of physical training, the students take a respite to talk to me about the latest Agnipath scheme issues. As a way of "increasing employment," on June 14, 2022, the Central government announced a scheme that will recruit youths between the ages of 17 to 23 for four years in the Indian army. The announcement caused a nationwide stir, and protests broke out in India's northern states.
"What will we do after four years? It's been my dream since childhood to serve my country. I don't wish to do it only for a few years. Since when is there a time limit to desh seva," says Karan Nange, who has been training at the Reva police training academy in Wada. The 17-year-old lives with his mother in a small Adivasi hamlet at a distance of 8-9 kilometres from the training centre. He joined the academy by paying fees of 7,000 rupees for three months.
"My mother works on the farm for 200 rupees a day. She saved this money so I can get the training to become a police officer," says Nange, whose father died of an illness when he was one. Since then, it's only been Nange and his mother. On Sundays, like most other students at the academy, Nange, who recently passed 12th class, labours at the nearby farm for a daily wage.
Another 20-year-old student at the Reva academy, Rashmi Patil, from an OBC category, says, "I have taken a break from my education to train here. Getting into the armed forces is tough, especially for us from rural areas. The government says it will give preference to Agniveers but look at the competition. Even with the Agniveer certificate, our chances of getting work post four years is difficult. Lakhs of women like me give exams yearly, and only a few get in. I can't afford to work hard, train for four years, and become unemployed."
Patil's father is a carpenter and farm labourer who did not have any work during COVID. He struggled to pay her college fees and wanted to see her daughter become a police officer one day. Patil believes her father's dreams for her certainly won't come true if she gets into a program like Agnipath with no surety of a future.
One of the qualifications required under the Agnipath scheme is to score a minimum of 50% in the English language in 10+2, Intermediate or equivalent exams.
Samadhan Dhonde, the founder of Reva academy, believes it's easier for his students to pass the physical fitness test than meet the criteria required for the English language under the scheme.
"They have studied in Adivasi schools with minimal resources and sometimes learned under unqualified teachers. It is very difficult for them to learn the English language," he adds.
"Bewkoof banane ka kaam chalu hai(They are making a fool of us)," says Samadhan Dhonde, who belongs to an Adivasi community and is currently a railway officer in the Palghar district. He believes this scheme is not for the rural youth but is to show on paper that the government has created employment opportunities.
"Lakhs of youth are suffering from unemployment. Instead of helping the youth, they are creating enemies out of them. The young women and men with four years of training in weapons and no employment will join Naxalite groups. It is going to create chaos. This scheme is playing with the future of India's youth," says Samadhan Dhonde.
Other teachers at the academy agree with Samadhan Dhonde's views.
"The rural youth already don't get a platform. They come from poor households and work on the farms for a daily wage. Even at this fragile age of 17-18, these students want to work for the country. The least the government can do is offer them a secure future," says Prakash Dhonde, who teaches Maths at the Reva academy.
Niral Misal, 21, training at the academy, says he is ready to lay down his life for the sake of his country.
"The Vardi(uniform) is very important to me. I want to wear it all my life and not just for four years."
As of today, the Indian Air Force has commenced the online application process for the Agnipath recruitment scheme, while the critics and the protests against it continue.
The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist. All views are personal.
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