By Saurabh Sharma
ARRAH, India (Reuters) - Prem Prakash has been trying for five years to get a job in India's armed forces, which used to provide employment for 17 years to the lucky few who passed the exams and physical tests.
But since the government announced a new recruitment system for the military aimed at making it younger and more efficient, the 22-year-old said he was no longer interested and would focus purely on getting a job in the railways – also a tough ask.
"It was my dream to be in the army because it is the best way to serve the country and also get settled at a very young age," Prakash said in his tiny rented room filled with books, a mosquito net and cot in Arrah, a town in eastern Bihar state.
"I am not going to appear for the four-years-only service. I have even stopped my physical training."
Prakash is one of hundreds of thousands of would-be military recruits disappointed by a proposal to lower the guaranteed tenure for most men in the armed forces to four years. What was a route out of poverty for many has suddenly become less attractive.
Violent protests erupted across the country last month because of the proposal. At least one person was killed and more than a dozen injured.
Under the new recruitment programme, called Agnipath, or "path of fire" in Hindi, 46,000 cadets will be recruited this year, the government has said.
The aim is to lower the average age of soldiers to 26 years from 32-33 now and slim down the country's 1.38 million-strong military, which is focused mainly on containing what India sees as potential threats from neighbours China and Pakistan.
Analysts say the move will also bring down the Indian military's burgeoning pension bill, potentially allowing the country to spend more on new weapons.
The proposals apply only to non-officer cadres of the armed forces. A much smaller number of recruits are admitted into officers' schools each year, where employment is guaranteed until at least the age of 50.
The backlash to the change underlines the challenge the government faces to provide enough jobs in a country of 1.35 billion people, where unemployment is stubbornly high.
At the same time, there is pressure to reform state institutions like the police, armed forces and railways, which are over-staffed and unwieldy.
Arrah is in India's poorest state of Bihar, where there are few industries and youngsters flock to various coaching centres that have sprung up to prepare them for government jobs.
While Arrah is known mainly for recruiting soldiers, other Bihar towns specialise in other state sectors.
The government said a quarter of those who qualify for the military would be kept on for another 15 years or so and enjoy benefits including a pension, while the rest would be helped to find other state employment.
Software-to-SUVs conglomerate Mahindra Group has welcomed the "opportunity to recruit such trained, capable young people" after their four years in the armed forces.
Prakash, however, has shifted focus to the railways, although COVID-19 disruptions and a bungled recruitment process mean he is still waiting to sit his tests for positions that opened in 2019.
The disruptions triggered mass protests earlier this year, when tens of thousands of students blocked rail traffic and vandalised trains in Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state.
"People look forward to job security which they get in the public sector," said Amit Basole, an associate professor at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru and the head of its Centre for Sustainable Employment.
To reduce the pressure on the government, "the private sector will also have to come forward and create an equal number of job opportunities", he added.
India's unemployment peaked at 23.5% in 2020 in the first full year of COVID-19 and has remained above 7% since, according to data from Mumbai-based the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), higher than the global average.
According to the government, joblessness among those aged 15-29 years was 12.9% in the fiscal year ending March 31. The age group accounted for an estimated 27.3% of India's population as of last year, higher than 26.6% in 1991, a sign that the pressure to create more jobs has increased.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stormed to power in 2014 promising to create millions of jobs, but the economy has not grown fast enough to accommodate some 12 million people joining the labour force each year, a number that is rising.
Modi, who faces re-election in 2024, told officials last month to ensure that 1 million people were given government employment in the next 18 months, raising hopes among Arrah residents who have toiled at coaching centres for years.
Gupteshwar Kumar, 21, his elder brother and cousins left their village for Arrah years ago to try to land government jobs and leave farming, the family's main source of income.
Kumar is now focusing on the railways and police departments in Bihar and neighbouring West Bengal because the age of entry is higher than for the army and employment duration much longer.
Another 21-year-old, Ravi Ranjan Kumar, said he desperately needed a job, as his father's pay as a private security guard near New Delhi was barely enough.
"Despite getting de-motivated by the Agnipath scheme, I will be appearing for it because I need a job," he said.
(Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Raju Gopalakrishnan)