The world’s biggest exam

And what it says about the state of our educational system

August 26, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:19 am IST

NEW DELHI, 25/02/2011: A scene at the New Delhi Railway Station on February 25, 2011. The Indian Railway Budget for the year 2011-12 is presented by Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in the Parliament House on February 25. 
Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

NEW DELHI, 25/02/2011: A scene at the New Delhi Railway Station on February 25, 2011. The Indian Railway Budget for the year 2011-12 is presented by Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in the Parliament House on February 25. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

From August 9 till August 31, every three days or so, 4.8 lakh candidates, in three shifts of 1.6 lakh each, have been turning up or will turn up at 439 examination centres in 166 cities across the country to give an online test for a potential job as a technician or engine driver (called loco pilots now) in the Railways. In all, about 47.5 lakh candidates are applying for some 60,000 jobs, making it the largest recruitment exercise in the world.

But that record is going to last less than a week. Beginning early September, the Railways will be mounting an even bigger logistical exercise, to test a mind-boggling 1.9 crore applicants for a possible 63,000 ‘Level 1, Category C’ jobs. In less politically correct times, these were classified as ‘Group D’ jobs by the Railways. These are posts of gangmen or khalasis, who maintain the tracks and other infrastructure. It is the lowest level at which you can enter the Railways as an employee.

Large numbers of job-seekers

The sheer number of job-seekers in this category, which is least attractive to educated Indians as it involves physical labour, is itself staggering. But what is more astonishing is the kind of people who are looking for these jobs. For the Assistant Loco Pilot job, lakhs of diploma and degree holders in engineering have applied. And for the khalasi job, reports indicate that over 2.5 lakh engineers, lakhs of graduate and postgraduate degree holders, and even those with tertiary degrees have applied. (The Railways haven’t released official figures for this yet.)

Jobs that are considered secure (permanent government or bank jobs that provide pension) attract staggeringly disproportionate numbers of job-seekers in India. While the Railways have jumped to the top of the league table, others haven’t been far behind. In May, for instance, over ten lakh aspirants applied for 2,000 vacancies of probationary officers in the State Bank of India. Over 7.5 lakh applications were received for about 13,000 police constable jobs in the Rajasthan Police. This number would have been undoubtedly higher if domicile restrictions had not applied.

However, I am not going to talk here about the desperation to get employment as is seen in these insane numbers (although, if I were a leader due to face elections in a few months, I would definitely be very worried). What concerns me more is what this says about the state of our education system.

It is one thing when employers keep inflating the minimum entry requirement for even mundane jobs in a bid to stem this tide of applicants (I don’t understand why you need a college degree to be a sales clerk or to flip burgers). It is quite another when the candidate also starts thinking that his or her technical, professional or academic degree is not enough to get even a labourer’s job.

Seeking a ‘secure’ job

This might be attributed to a pervasive lack of confidence among our youth, but the reality is that most of them know that their degree isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Last week, I saw a report that of the 10,000-odd candidates — all with a minimum B.Com or BA degree in economics — who appeared for a test to select accountants for the Goa government, not even one managed to pass what officials said was a very basic, clerical grade entrance test.

The lure of a ‘safe’ government job, therefore, grows stronger. Safe means that you will not be sacked. The clamour for government jobs shows a tacit acceptance of the lack of preparedness to face the requirements of the real world. The perception is that getting a government job might be a problem, but once past the post, one can relax till retirement. This is why you have engineers and MBA holders seeking jobs as clerks and constables. In a 2017 study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 65% of the youth surveyed said their first preference was for a government job; only 7% said they wanted a private sector job. Seventy-three per cent ranked jobs as the issue they were most worried about.

In India, many acquire an education, particularly higher education, not because they are particularly interested in history or politics or economics or engineering, but because they want, they need, a job. They acquire this degree in the face of considerable competition and often at considerable cost. And by and large it is a wasted investment. For these lakhs of boys and girls desperately writing exam after exam in the hope of even the humblest of jobs, the education system has simply failed them. It is a collective failure of which we should all be ashamed.

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