Protests over India contract soldiers plan intensify

Protests have intensified in India over a new reform scheme to hire soldiers for a fixed term for the armed forces.

The demonstrations are particularly strong in the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where protesters have set trains on fire and blocked key highways, demanding a roll-back of the reforms.

Reports say the southern city of Secunderabad in Telangana state is also seeing violent protests - young men have stormed the local railway station and damaged trains and shops.

The "Agnipath" or Path of Fire programme, which was unveiled on Tuesday, is aimed at applicants aged between 17.5 and 21. Successful candidates will join the armed services for four years, after which only 25% of them will be retained.

In a bid to pacify protesters, the federal government announced late on Thursday night that - just for this year - candidates aged up to 23 years could apply under the scheme.

The reform announcement is aimed at cutting the army's expenditure on ballooning salaries and pensions - which consume more than half of its budget - and freeing up funds to modernise the forces. The government said this would also "enhance the youthful profile of the armed forces".

But potential recruits say the scheme does very little to create jobs and opportunities.

The programme has also received criticism from some military generals and defence experts who say it could weaken the structure of the army and could have serious ramifications for national security, especially when India has tense borders with two of its neighbours - Pakistan and China.

"It's a foolish move, one that could affect the efficiency of the security forces," says retired Major General Sheonan Singh.

"Saving money is good but it should not be done at the cost of defence forces. If you go to war with an experienced soldier, will a person with four years of training be able to replace him on his death? These things don't work like this."

India, which shares a heavily militarised border with Pakistan and has been involved in a tense stand-off with China along its Himalayan border, has one of the world's largest armed forces. With some 1.4 million personnel, India's army is also one of the country's top employers - with millions of people applying annually.

Every year, some 60,000 personnel retire and the army holds up to 100 fresh hiring "rallies" to replace them. But the hiring has been suspended for the past few years. Officials attribute it to the pandemic, but experts say the force was already stretched on resources and struggling to modernise.

Under Agnipath, 46,000 soldiers will be recruited this year.

The soldiers will go through training for six months and then will be deployed for three and a half years. During this period, they will get a monthly starting salary of 30,000 rupees ($384; £316), along with additional benefits which will go up to 40,000 rupees by the end of the four-year service.

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