At 4 AM every morning, Chintu Sharma wakes up, puts on his running attire and shoes, downs a glass of milk, and begins to jog along the sides of the dusty highway that runs close to his village. His run lines the fringes of his village, Sunai, situated on the banks of the Ganga in Anupshahr, Uttar Pradesh. Sharma, 27, has been doing this for the past 12 years. Everyday. Twice a day.
All this in the hope of joining the Indian Army, something he hasn’t managed to achieve despite the dedication. “The next time would be my last attempt.”
In most villages in Uttar Pradesh, it’s not unusual to find young men running for miles with hopes to become a soldier. Amid mounting unemployment in the country, working for the armed forces is seen as the best option to find work, mostly on the basis of physical prowess. A few men run in straight lines or in groups of a dozen along dusty sidewalks; others run alone. They can be seen at every time—be it early mornings, crushing afternoons, evenings or even odd hours at night.
“Consistency matters the most,” says Sharma. “Boys run like crazy at the height of summers and in cold winter nights. The body adapts after a while.” He is the mentor-like figure for a group of 15 men who practice together. Their idols are the men from their village who managed to get into the army. “When these boys come back, it’s matter of pride for the entire village. Their behavior and language is different from village folk. They have a class.”
Sharma, who is inspired by patriotic films like Border, Tango Charlie and LOC: Kargil, was unhappy at the loss of Rs. 1,200 ($16.4 USD) that he paid for a post in jail services but missed by just one mark. “It’s like you can see the island, but drown just before reaching its shores.”
Around 150 kilometers from Anupshahr, in the village of Hasanpur in Kasganj district, Narendra Singh, 21, runs for an hour before heading to work at 6 AM. He is a ticketing clerk at the local railway station. Four hours later, he heads to the village school, where he works as a teacher/caretaker, earning a total of Rs. 6,000 ($82 USD) from both sources. In the evenings, he helps his family in farming.
“When I see what is happening in Kashmir and other parts of the country, it angers me a lot,” he tells me. “A lot of army men die for no reason at all.” Singh believes he could easily crack the written part, but needs to step up his stamina to last the grueling physical training test for the army. “For most of us here, there are just three options: become a farmer, start a shop or dairy or try to become a soldier.”
Most men like Singh don’t have the necessary education and financial resources to get a job in the cities. Even the ones with “convent education” and degrees are struggling to find jobs, with unemployment rates being the highest in 20 years.
Sourabh Kumar, 18—a man in Chintu Sharma’s group—says middlemen are a big problem for the most of his friends who are the sons of farmers, laborers and dairy workers. “The doctors who check for physical deformities openly ask for Rs. 50,000 ($683 USD). The rate by dalals to get recruited is Rs. 5 lakh ($6,830 USD).” His friend, Mohammad Qasim, agrees that they are not always judged on their abilities. “When you train for years but don’t even get five minutes to prove yourself, it’s demotivating. They test 500 boys, but pick only 50-60.”
These young men have to run on the roadsides because there aren’t any grounds in their area to run. “This is the reason we are way behind Haryana, which has better sports facilities and training academies,” says Gourav Sharma, 18. “We have either farmlands or fields, so roadsides are the only option for running distances.”
However, the roads are not free from their dangers. “A year back, four young men in the neighboring village were crushed by a truck at dawn,” says Sharma. “All died. It keeps happening every year.”
Though the aim for most of these village men is the same, their motivations are different. “I just want to earn some money. Paise ke liye bides ki army me naukri kar lunga,” says a young man, as his friends laugh. “Can you get us the army paper on WhatsApp?” asks another. Another is stressed about having lost his marksheet, preventing him from applying this year.
All of them are aware of the risks that are associated with a job in the army. Adal Sharma, a boy in a Tiranga T-shirt, tells me how he considers it a matter of prestige to die for your nation. “You are a martyr and a reason of pride for your family and village. If you die here on the roadside, who would even notice?”
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.