Trainer Dashrath Khatana inspects the dozen boys gathered in the morning on a withered lawn on the outskirts of Lala Kherli, in the Indian state of Haryana. It’s Sunday, his pupils were actually counting on a day off – at least half of the teenagers wear flip flops under their sports shorts. Khatana (33), with an uncreased outfit and a neatly trimmed beard, holds his arms behind his back. “This extra training is very important,” he says in a loud voice. “Do not slacken during the selection. I have taught you everything I could – you should be ready to fight for India.” The playground of a small village school doesn’t sound like the location where the newest crop of soldiers of a national army comes to fruition. Yet twenty teenagers train here every day – running, push-ups, lifting weights – in preparation for the Indian Armed Forces selection days. A few hours every day for at least six months. Coach Khatana put together a program for them. For ten years he has been training groups of boys who want to go up for service. Military career Lala Kherli is located in the countryside. The school, with paint peeling off the walls, is the only educational institution in the area. Most inhabitants are farmers; children help with this during the harvest season. So are the boys who report to Khatana. “Strong boys,” he calls them. They are somewhat used to it. He has to teach them some discipline, but there is no lack of motivation. Across India, young people, especially those from more rural areas, are taking a chance on being recruited. A military career is enticing and provides social status. In some families and castes, a military career is seen as a birthright passed from father to son. Above all, there are economic benefits: a good salary, job security and a pension, as with other government jobs, are also in demand. Indian boys try to get fit in Haryana to have a better chance of a successful military career. Photo Siddharth Behli Also read: 75 years after the split of India and Pakistan, the horror stories only come loose Such financial security is hard to find in the Indian labor market. The vast majority of Indians work in the informal economy. The country has a high unemployment rate: in August, 8 percent of the population of more than a billion people was unemployed. The government is one of the few stable employers. The Indian military employs 1.4 million people, about 60,000 of whom retire each year. More than half of the organization’s total budget , about $70 billion , goes to salaries and pensions. Critics say these costs hinder the modernization of arsenals and the professionalization of troops. Analysts point to China’s budget, with which India is at odds: the powerful neighboring country spends less than a third of its defense budget on personnel. Reform The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a sweeping reform of the army’s workforce in June. From now on, the armed forces select via the so-called Agnipath program, a ‘baptism of fire’. Recruits, aged between 17 and 21, serve for four years, after which only the top 25 percent qualify for extended military careers. Pensions and social benefits are no longer a certainty. Anyone who does not make it to the top will have to look elsewhere for a job. The growth of recruits has come to a standstill for almost three years, due to the corona crisis. Young people who reached the appropriate age in 2020 and 2021 continued training on their own initiative. But since the introduction of ‘Agnipath’ many aspirants still fall outside the criteria, much to their indignation. In several federal states, young people took to the streets , furious about their lost prospects for the future. The ongoing protests became so violent in some places that an army chief at a press conference reminded young people in a stern tone that discipline is a requirement in the armed forces. Better family conditions and salary are the main drivers for pursuing a military career The debate about the usefulness of the Agnipath procedure is still ongoing. Experts endorse the need for drastic cuts in the workforce, but doubt whether the ‘rejuvenation’ and rapid advancement of new recruits will improve the Indian military. According to analysts, the armed forces must become more professional and equipped with new technologies. In the shortened basic training, not eighteen months but only six, insufficient expertise would be built up among the young people. Commanders foresee a difficult collaboration between the old cohort on duty and the recruiters hired through the new program. Written school test The first Agnipath selection took place in September: 46,000 recruits passed a fitness test and a medical examination, followed by a written school test. Out of the group of twenty that coach Khatana trained this year in Lala Kherli, eighteen made it to the last round. The endurance test was a breeze for them. One of the teenagers jumps blasé to the top bar of a playground equipment, pulls himself up a few times, and flops back on the floor. “Can we dream.” For these aspirants, the salary remains an important reason to enlist in the army, even if they can only benefit from it for a short time. “Every opportunity to improve my family’s circumstances is one,” it said. And the village has a long army tradition. Behind the school are a few spacious houses that generals had built for relatives. The boys say they have no problem with the new training structure. When a candidate suggests that they “at least get the best new weapons in return” because the budget is better spent, his classmates nod in agreement. And in any case they want “to join the commandos, they won’t be sent away anyway”. Coach Khatana breaks in: “Even if these boys have to leave the army after four years, they have learned to defend India during that time. You can always call on them later. They will be ready no matter what other job they get.” The trainer himself played sports at a top level for a long time, but never served in the army, he says with regret – he was found too small during the medical examination. “By training these guys and making sure they make the selection, I can also serve my country.” As if to reinforce his point, he turns abruptly – conversation over, training is about to begin. In a double row, the boys march to the center of the field for the warm-up. Concerns about reintegration The government expects that the army can count on such sacrifice even after the introduction of Agnipath. But Sushant Singh, who served in the military for two decades and is now an analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, fears that competition will arise between military personnel because they insist on staying in service – and that will hurt morale. While many analysts point to the improved combat effectiveness of the armed forces, Singh is concerned about the social impact of the reform. “What is really going to happen to the boys who have to leave the army after four years?” He points to the current difficult job market. “Tens of thousands of young men, trained in violence, are returning to society. I’m concerned about their reintegration because these guys are losing status. They will get frustrated. It’s dangerous to have such a group in the population that can be roused to react aggressively to problems.” Singh fears that this will create a “militarized” society instead of a strong military better prepared for outside threats. But it remains to be seen, he admits. Agnipath has at least four years to crystallize. A version of this article also appeared in the October 19, 2022 newspaper