India’s railway network receives 19m applications for 63,000 jobs as porters, cleaners and track maintainers

India’s railway network receives 19m applications for 63,000 jobs as porters, cleaners and track maintainers

India’s railway network attracted 19 million applications for just 63,000 vacancies as part of a national drive to recruit helpers, porters, cleaners, gatemen, track maintainers and assistant switchmen.

Anil Gujjar, the son of a farmer and the first person in his family to attend university, was one of those who applied for a position. 

He arrived in India’s capital from a small village in the northwestern state of Rajasthan carrying nothing except a backpack and hopes of finding a good job.

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At the test centre in Delhi where he took a mandatory exam in November, he looked around warily at hundreds of young men like him. Nearly all were university students or graduates. Some even had master’s degrees. 

The railways recruitment effort is a potent symbol of India’s employment conundrum. The country is one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world, but it is not generating enough jobs – let alone good jobs – for the increasingly educated young people entering the workforce.

By 2021, the number of people in India between the ages of 15 and 34 is expected to reach 480 million. They have higher levels of literacy and are staying in school longer than any previous generation of Indians. The youth surge represents an opportunity for this country of 1.3 billion, economists say, but only if such young people can find productive work. 

Recent employment trends are not encouraging. An analysis of government data by Azim Premji University showed that unemployment rose in nearly all Indian states between 2011 and 2016. Jobless rates for young people and those with higher education qualifications increased during the same period, in some cases sharply: the unemployment rate for university graduates jumped from 4.1 per cent to 8.4 per cent, according to Santosh Mehrotra, a labour economist.

The fate of India’s millions of job-seekers represents a major political liability for its prime minister Narendra Modi as he seeks re-election this year. Mr Modi came to power almost five years ago promising “development for all” and robust job creation.

But his attempts to increase manufacturing and entrepreneurship have not succeeded in turbocharging employment.

Meanwhile, Mr Modi’s controversial move in late 2016 to invalidate most of India’s bank notes – ostensibly to stem corruption – had a deleterious impact on workers. About 3 million jobs were lost in the first four months of 2017, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a research firm in Mumbai that conducts a national employment survey. Its data also showed that the Indian workforce shrank between 2017 and 2018 – not a sign of a healthy job market.

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“India is rapidly losing an opportunity,” says Mahesh Vyas, the chief executive of the research firm. “We’re just arguing needlessly and endlessly rather than deploying all these young people coming into the labour market into productive work.” The result, he says, is a “slow and insidious crisis”.

For many young Indian people, finding a job is an all-consuming task. An entire industry has sprung up offering “personality development” classes – a combination of basic English, social skills and interview preparation advertised as improving employability. Job scams are common, with fraudsters preying on the aspirations of those seeking work.

Educated youths do not want to be “pakora wallahs” – people who make a quintessential fried Indian snack – according to Radhicka Kapoor, an economist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “They want good, productive jobs, and they’re going to wait it out until they in fact find these jobs.”

Ajit Ghose, an economist at the Institute for Human Development in Delhi, says that India needs to generate jobs not only for fresh entrants to the workforce – who number an estimated 6 million to 8 million a year – but also for people, mostly women, who are working far less than they would be if they could get stable jobs that pay a decent wage. Ghose calculates that India has at least 104 million such “surplus” workers.

That’s a monumental challenge for any government – and one that India’s leadership is not meeting. Judging the Modi government’s track record on job creation is complicated by the fact that it has not released any comprehensive nationwide employment data since 2016. The Labour and Statistics ministries have conducted more recent employment surveys of Indian households, but those results have not been made public.

“It’s anybody’s guess whether we’ll see any employment statistics come out before the 2019 elections,” says Amit Basole, an economist at Azim Premji University. 

Arvind Panagariya, an economist who served under the current government as vice chair of its policy planning agency, argues that no real assessment of the employment situation is possible until new nationwide data is released by the Statistics Ministry. Meanwhile, he says, his sense is that concerns about job creation are “overblown” given India’s high rates of economic growth.

For India’s educated youths, searching for a job that meets their aspirations can feel like a marathon. At the test centre in Delhi, waves of applicants for the railway positions arrived three times a day, each week day, from September until mid-December – a scene replicated at hundreds of exam centres across the country.

The flow of test-takers was so large and consistent that it created its own miniature economy. One entrepreneur operated a makeshift storage locker out of a nearby parked truck. Since the applicants could not take anything inside the exam centre, he kept backpacks and phones for a fee of 50 rupees (around 50p). A vendor sold tube socks and earbuds on the pavement. 

The railway jobs on offer – sometimes referred to as Group D positions – are junior but offer security and a comparatively good salary. The starting pay is 18,000 rupees (£200) a month, plus there are perks such as free train travel. 

The stories of the young men – and they were all men, with one exception, at a test centre in Delhi over two days – are striking in their sameness. The applicants are mostly university students and graduates from the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who are seeking a way out of the villages where they grew up. There are no jobs there, they say.

Gujjar arrived in Delhi for the first time in his life the evening before his 9am exam. He spent the night sleeping on a sheet that he spread on the floor of the railway station. Early the next morning, he took a bus to the exam centre, where he stood, waiting, in a thin striped sweater, arms crossed against the pre-dawn chill. At 7.35am, a guard carrying a portable loudspeaker began barking instructions to the assembled test-takers.

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Too anxious to chat, Gujjar declines to describe how he felt at that moment. “Ask me after I see the exam paper,” he says. The posts at Indian Railways held no inherent appeal, he explains. “It’s not about interest,” he says. “I just want a job”.

Gujjar, 19, helps his parents farm a small plot of land where they grow wheat and millet. A year ago, he tried to join the Indian army, but he did not make the cut in a qualifying exam. There are no opportunities in his village in the district of Jhunjhunu, he says, and most of his friends do not have steady work.

After taking the 90-minute computerised test, Gujjar strides through a blue metal gate with a smile of relief on his face. The exam was not as difficult as he had feared. It will be months before he knows whether he has beaten the odds, which are roughly one in 300. “If I get a job, it will be worth it,” he says.

Washington Post