Report- Harshit Rakheja
Triggered by the rigors of societal nagging over the cancellation of his Indian Air Force (IAF) enrolment, Yash (name changed) has been finding excuses to dodge his relatives who live painfully close by. On some days, he fakes a bout of acidity and hides in the washroom for a good 20 minutes. On other days, he asks his father to convey to the nosy chacha-Chachi pair that he’s out for a late-night run.
Actually, he’s out in the back, smoking. He had kicked the butt in 2019. He had to! His father, who works as a peon in a local establishment in Bulandshahr, had taken a loan to help him put up in a hostel in Rohtak that offered training for aspiring Indian Air Force airmen. Living on a shoestring budget and training for an exam that’s been painted – not wrongfully – as a do-or-die battle for rural unemployed youth had meant that the cost of smoking was prohibitive.
Yash recalled how he would narrate his ‘Victory Over Vice’ cigarette tale and how Rohtak had tested his limits of physical and mental endurance, to his relatives, among them being the nosy chacha-chachi pair, rather proudly last year. In May 2021, while India reeled under the deadly second wave of the Covid pandemic, Yash received some good news. He had cleared all stages of the IAF Airmen recruitment. His name was on the Provisional Selection List (PSL). ‘All India Airmen Rank 27 in x-group’, read his WhatsApp status then.
Yash and his father were the toast of the family WhatsApp group. More than the societal affirmations though, Yash was happy that he’d be able to financially support his widower father – help him pay back the loan that he had secured with much difficulty to finance his son’s preparation; also, help him consult a good doctor for his fluctuating BP and other health problems.
However, starting June 2021, Yash’s enrolment was delayed every month, first due to Covid and then due to ‘administrative reasons. The candidates wrote emails to the Authorities, enquiring when the enrolment list will be published. They received templated responses. On 2 February 2022, around 300 IAF airmen aspirants went to the Delhi office of the Central Airmen Selection Board (CASB). They were assured that their enrolment list would be published soon. That didn’t happen. The candidates protested peacefully at Jantar Mantar and met their local MLAs and MPs. On each occasion, they were promised that the IAF would soon publish the enrolment list.
Over 6,000 Candidates Waiting For Joining Letters, Left In The Lurch
But in June this year, as the Centre launched the Agnipath scheme, the IAF cancelled the pending enrolment of around 6,000 aspiring airmen who had been waiting for their joining letters since May 2021.
Amid the din over the scheme’s pros and cons and the violent protests that engulfed parts of the country, the issue of cancellation of pending enrolment slipped under the radar. When a journalist asked Indian Air Force Air Marshall Suraj Kumar Jha about the reason for the cancellation, he was told matter-of-factly that the “system has changed”. However, for candidates who’d been preparing to join the IAF for 2-3 years, helped by money that their parents had taken out on loans, the Air Marshall’s response reads like a cruel joke.
“When we enquire about our pending enrolment, we’re asked to keep checking the website, airmenselection.cdac.in. But since the Agnipath announcement, this website has stopped opening,” Yash added.
While the media has moved on from the Agnipath debate with a cosmetic assessment of its merits and demerits, these over 6,000 IAF aspirants – the unspoken fallout of the Agnipath scheme – have been venting on social media.
‘Gave Up Indian Navy Joining Letter, Parents Took Loan, All For Nothing’
“My father works in a factory in Surat. I was hoping that once I became an Airman, he won’t have to work anymore and could come live with us. I also wanted to arrange money for my sister’s marriage. I can’t do any of that now,” wrote Govind on Twitter. Other candidates have talked about how they gave up their graduation studies midway after their names had appeared in the PSL published in May 2021, because they were firm in their decision of joining the IAF.
Some candidates gave up joining letters from the Indian Navy and the Staff Selection Commission Combined Higher Secondary Level (SSC CHSL) since they were more inclined towards the IAF.
These candidates have now petitioned the Delhi High Court, asking for the completion of pending enrolment, as per the earlier terms and conditions. The next hearing for the clutch of petitions on Agnipath before the Delhi HC is on August 25.
Discrepancies abound in how the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy recruitment played out.
“The Indian Navy managed to complete its due enrolment in 2021. Even the Indian Air Force simultaneously recruited another batch of candidates through rallies in several states and also provided joining letters to those candidates, who have been employed under the erstwhile terms and conditions with pension and other benefits. But for the IAF candidates who had applied in response to the December 2019 notification and were provisionally selected as per the PSL published on 31 May 2021, the joining letters never came,” explained Brigadier (Retired) Vivek Chhatre.
Taking notice of an online petition on Change.org started by Brigadier (Retired) Chhatre, a couple of news outlets have debated the issue. During these debates, veterans from the Indian Armed Forces have been empathetic listeners for these aggrieved candidates, while also advising them to give up their hope of redressal, to swallow the bitter pill, and appear for the exam, again. “You’ve cleared it once. You have an edge over others. Life is unfair, but sit for your exams and see what happens…”, goes the general tone of these conversations. But numbers dampen these words of encouragement.
The Centre has made a one-time exception and increased the upper age limit for Agnipath from 21 to 23 since several candidates had crossed the age threshold in the last two years. But it hasn’t proportionally increased the number of vacancies. There are 46,000 Agniveer vacancies for 2022-23 for all three forces combined. In contrast, in 2019-20, there were 80,000 vacancies for the Indian Army alone.
Is Agnipath Popular, Or Are Unemployed Youth Desperate For Jobs?
The IAF was the first of the three forces to open applications for Agnipath. And it received 7.5 lakh applications for just 3,000 vacancies this year. Proponents of Agnipath have been drumming up this data to argue that the scheme is popular. But factor in the country’s unemployment crisis and this staggering ratio: 7.5 lakh youth vying for 3,000 vacancies – a selection rate of 0.04% for a job that’s effectively a four-year contract and will pay between Rs 21,000-30,000 in-hand per month, with no pension. It helps put the ‘popularity’ argument in perspective. The aggrieved candidates have said as much.
Yash’s despondency has meant that he’s gone back to his old ways. Others, such as Rakesh Bhardwaj, are still counting the amount of money and time they invested in the process, all of which has come to naught after a year of anxiously waiting for their joining letter. “To clear my medical assessment, I had to undergo two nose surgeries, which cost me Rs 3 lakhs. My parents got the amount on loan and were elated when I made it to the PSL. Today, I’m back to square one and still applying to other government jobs,” he explained.
Another aspirant, Ajay, said he’s not planning to apply for Agnipath again. “If I become an Agniveer for four years, by the time I leave the IAF, I’ll be around 26-27 years old and will be over-age for most other government exams. My height is less than 170 cm. And the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF), which will accord priority to ex-Agniveers during recruitment, requires one to have a height of at least 170 cm. So I won’t be eligible for that. I have pinned my hopes on the case in the Delhi HC.”
“Most of us have been on this journey of training for the IAF for over three years now. After passing all our exams, we’re being asked to walk on an Agnipath, again!”
Brigadier (Retired) Vivek Chhatre, also a practicing lawyer, has started an online petition for these aggrieved candidates. The petition has garnered over 12,000 signatures so far. Change.org/AirmenNotAgniveer
The names of a few IAF candidates have been changed as per their request.
(Harshit Rakheja works at Change.org India. He is a former journalist who has written for Firstpost, Inc42, Business Standard, LiveWire, and TheCitizen.)