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India military recruitment uproar exposes modernization challenge

As China adds muscle, Modi caught between aging equipment and troops' career hopes

Demonstrators wave signs protesting India's new "Path of Fire" military recruitment program in Mumbai on June 18, which experts say aims to lower personnel costs.   © AP

NEW DELHI -- Days of violent protests over a new Indian military recruitment program have created a dilemma for New Delhi, which aims to counter China and Pakistan but also faces pressure to placate angry would-be soldiers.

The government says it needs to revamp recruitment to maintain "younger, fitter" and more diverse armed forces. Many analysts, however, see the reforms as an attempt to spend more on badly needed modernization and less on salaries and pensions. Personnel costs currently eat up more than half the budget of one of the world's biggest military spenders.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government unveiled the Agnipath or "Path of Fire" program on June 14 for new recruits aged 17 and a half to 21. Under the scheme, successful candidates would join the armed services for four years. After that, a quarter would be retained for longer careers, while the rest would be shown the door with a lump-sum payment of 1.17 million rupees ($15,000) and no pension.

The plan has been met with fury. Across several states, thousands of protesters burned train cars and blocked key highways, demanding the policy be reversed. Clashes with police have seen hundreds detained, several injured and at least one death so far, according to reports.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in its third year and jobs hard to come by, a stable career in the military with a secure pension is an appealing proposition for many young Indians.

"The government has wronged us with this scheme," said 19-year-old Pawan Singh, a protester from Patna in the eastern state of Bihar. "I have been preparing to join the army, but the latest changes are totally unjust and will ruin our careers and the armed forces."

Another demonstrator who gave only the name Raghav, complained, "We cannot serve in the army for four years and then again start looking for a job. The scheme is going to affect the morale of the armed forces."

But Indian experts see other pressing concerns for the 1.4 million-strong military.

Railway officials douse a fire in train car in Hyderabad, India on June 17: Hundreds of angry youths have taken part in at times violent protests against the military recruitment plan.   © AP

India's defense budget last year was estimated at about $76 billion, behind only the U.S. and China. But in a report this year by India's Centre for Policy Research, senior fellow and army veteran Sushant Singh noted that the cost of personnel "consumes 52% of the allocations for the Defense Ministry, a problem area that has become critical over the past few years but remains untackled, often masked by the big headline numbers of defense spending put out by the government."

The government, which would be hard-pressed to substantially increase defense spending as it confronts multiple economic challenges and pressure on its foreign exchange reserves, may be attempting to shift the balance with the new hiring policy.

Singh also stressed that "the armed forces have been crying out for modernization, with the army complaining of more than two-thirds of its weapons, platforms and equipment being vintage."

Past government reports have warned that if a war were to break out, India would be able to supply its troops with just 10 days' ammunition. Such worries are swirling as India feels pressure from both archrival Pakistan and China, which have sought to increase their armed forces' cooperation and interoperability.

Two years after a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese forces on the two countries' Himalayan border, tensions are still running high. And China's military budget is three times that of India's, with Beijing looking to increase spending by 7.1% this year to about $230 billion.

Deependra Singh Hooda, the Indian Army's former northern commander, told Nikkei Asia he thinks the hiring scheme is aimed at reducing the emphasis on sheer "manpower" in the armed forces. "Modernization is immediately required," Hooda said, calling it a "desperate need."

"From personnel weapons of soldiers to artillery guns, the Indian Army needs to upgrade. Our air defense systems are old," he added.

At the same time, Hooda was critical of how the recruitment program is being introduced, noting that it raises several important questions.

Indian tanks rehearse for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi in January 2021: Experts say the country's armed forces are in urgent need of modernization.   © Reuters

"How will these soldiers get adjusted when there are two types of them?" he asked, referring to fresh recruits and previous entrants on normal career paths.

"Will [the newcomers] have the same motivation as the old ones? How well trained will they be? These are some concerning issues," he said, pointing out that it normally takes three years to train a soldier for duty. Hooda also wondered whether the new system would make the military a less attractive profession, and whether the forces will still be able to draw the best recruits.

For the moment, the army is pressing ahead with the scheme despite the widespread resentment. India's three chiefs of the armed forces were scheduled to meet Modi on Tuesday to brief him.

The government and generals have sought to pacify the protesters with clarifications, assurances and a one-time increase in the age limit for new recruits to 23. This would leave an opening for candidates who have been waiting to join for two years due to coronavirus restrictions.

Meanwhile, India's opposition has seized on the public anger, with the Indian National Congress party coming out to protest.

"The people are not happy. They are screaming and crying," said Salman Khurshid, a former foreign minister from the Congress party, who took part in a demonstration. "It is our duty to present their tears, the cause of their sorrow before the nation."

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