Should we have been surprised by the Agnipath protests?

A government job, with its benefits and safety net, is an aspiration for most Indians. Any perceived rollback in such employment opportunities is bound to fuel anxiety

June 21, 2022 12:03 pm | Updated 05:56 pm IST

Smoke billows out after youngsters set on fire a train in protest against the ‘Agnipath’ scheme, at Chapra Railway Station, in Saran district, Bihar, on June 17.

Smoke billows out after youngsters set on fire a train in protest against the ‘Agnipath’ scheme, at Chapra Railway Station, in Saran district, Bihar, on June 17. | Photo Credit: PTI

What is surprising about the Agnipath protests is that the government appears to be surprised that there should be any protests. To appreciate the anguish underlying these protests, we must look to the importance of government service in the lives of individuals. 

Despite the widespread belief that multinational employers shape private sector salaries, only a select few manage to get these high-paying jobs. For most private-sector employees, wages are far lower than for their brothers and sisters fortunate enough to get a job in government. Data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of 2019-20 document these differences. 

The PLFS provides data on salaried monthly income for employees and self-employment income for individuals working on family farms and businesses. In round figures, based on my calculations from these data, for men ages 15-59, monthly government salaries are about ₹28,000, wages in private companies are about ₹17,000, and monthly self-employment earnings are ₹6,000. The public sector advantage is even starker for individuals without a college education. Among men with Class 10-12 education, government employees earn ₹25,000 per month, more than double the salary of ₹12,000 in private companies.  

The benefits of public sector employment are not limited to higher salaries. These jobs come with many benefits that are not available in the private sector, particularly for individuals without higher education. Among government sector employees with Class 10-12 education, 72% are eligible to receive PF (provident fund) or a pension, while 47% receive gratuity, often in addition to a pension. In contrast, among employees in a private firm, 53% are eligible to receive PF or a pension, and 26% receive gratuity. Those working for private employers have even lower claims to any benefits.

Security of employment

Most importantly, government employees can look forward to a relatively secure position, even during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of the Delhi NCR region in June 2020 by the National Data Innovation Centre at NCAER shows that during the first sudden lockdown during COVID-19, 56% of private sector employees experienced income loss compared to 21% of government employees. 

When coupled with predictable salary revisions and an increase in dearness allowance, it is not surprising that being employed by the government has emerged as the pinnacle of ambition for young Indians. The India Human Development Survey of 2011-12, conducted by NCAER and the University of Maryland, shows that most parents and young people fervently hope for a government position. When asked about the jobs they would like to see in their teenage children’s future, two-thirds of the respondents said they preferred government jobs. 

Herein lies the challenge faced by the Agnipath scheme. It offers many benefits to the nation, allowing India to draw on its demographic dividend and keep its armed forces consistently enriched by young, fit and technologically savvy jawans. It offers well-paid jobs and training for individual recruits, allowing them to leave the service with a capital of ₹11 lakh at the end of the four-year contract. Moreover, there is an opportunity for one-fourth of the Agniveers to be absorbed by the armed forces as regular recruits. Following the protests, the government has offered various other incentives, including priority employment in defence-related public sector undertakings and Central Armed Police Forces. 

Anxieties over Agnipath

However, this scheme also withholds the dream of lifelong security where a 40-year-old, after 20 years of service is completed, can expect to draw a pension for the remainder of his natural life. This security has become even more precious after implementing the “One Rank, One Pension” scheme, which will allow this pension to grow over time. 

The strident demand for regular employment in the armed forces echoes other youth movements India has seen over the past two decades. The requests for reservations among Jats, Patels and Gujjars are also rooted in worries over the employment situation and perceived benefits of a “sarkari naukri” (government job). Although employment generation remains on the national agenda, government employees’ disproportionate benefits compared to their brothers and sisters in the private sector have received little attention. Most government employees belong to Class C and Class D categories, and most military personnel belong to lower ranks. The options in the private sector are limited for this category of employees, and they have the most to gain from a government position. 

It seems likely that the Agniveer protests and other protests of this kind (for example, protests for reservations) would become even more strident if inflation continues to rise and government salaries keep pace with the inflation with continuous adjustment in DA (dearness allowance) while the private sector incomes languish. Recent newspaper reports about the likelihood that the DA arrears from the past 18 months will be paid in July will add to the current protests’ tensions. Until government salaries are on par with private-sector salaries, government jobs, including jobs in the military, will remain the lodestar and competition for these jobs will be fierce. 

Role of government as employer

The present protests highlight the need to reflect on the role of government as an employer and examine the underlying philosophy governing the social contract between the State, government employees and society at large. Two contradictory philosophies add to the tension. The first viewpoint argues that the State, as the first employer of the nation, is supposed to set the standards for fair wages and decent working conditions. The second viewpoint suggests that government workers are public servants whose salaries depend on direct and indirect taxes paid by the rest of the nation’s workers. Hence, privileging their working conditions over those of their equally qualified brothers and sisters is not justified. 

Our public policy has seesawed between these two principles. At Independence, the nation made a conscious choice to dismantle the privileges enjoyed by the colonial civil servants, refusing to let the Indian Administrative Services enjoy the perks and privileges available to the elite recruits in the Raj-era Indian Civil Services (ICS). However, successive Pay Commissions have moved in the opposite direction by increasing the salaries and benefits of the government workers, including the armed forces. Therein lies the root of our present dilemma. 

As the government debates future salary adjustments for government workers and whether to set up the 8th Pay Commission, the Agnipath protests, combined with a host of other protests for reservations, suggest a need to develop a more holistic perspective on government employment. 

(Sonalde Desai is Professor and Centre Director, NCAER National Data Innovation Centre, and Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland. Views are personal.)

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