In his black rexine bag, says Murari Lal, he has been carrying his world around for the past five years, making several stops along the way — most of them at examination centres. The contents include a gamcha, an umbrella, a mat, a folder with his BA and MA marksheets, a mobile charger and the admit card for the Group D Railway Recruitment Board Exam he will be taking in two hours.
There is another thing he carries to all exams, he says: “Ummeed (hope)”; hope for a government job.
This time his halt is the footpath outside the swanky building of the Tata Consultancy Services iON Digital Zone in Noida’s Sector 62. It is the biggest exam centre for the “world’s largest recruitment drive”, being conducted by the Indian Railways.
Lal arrived the previous night, over 12 hours before his 4 pm test. “I don’t know anyone in Delhi-NCR and so decided to wait on the footpath.”
He has just stretched out on his mat to grab some rest when the second batch of candidates walks out after the 12.30 pm test. Hearing murmurs about the question paper being “very difficult”, Lal decides to get up. “I should go over my notes and previous years’ question papers again,” he says, flipping through his well-thumbed copy of ‘Arihant Railway Exam Group D — Solved Papers’.
Of the 2.37 crore people who applied for the exams this year, Lal is part of the largest chunk,1.9 crore, vying for the 62,907 Group D posts — of cabinman, keyman, fitter, leverman, gangman, pointsman, porter, helper, switchman, trackman and welder.
Tests are held online in three shifts every day (9 am to 10.30 am; 12.30 pm to 2 pm; 4 pm to 5.30 pm). In every shift at this Noida centre, 3,450 have been taking the test — a 90-minute, multiple-choice paper, covering Maths, General Intelligence and Reasoning, Science and Current Affairs — since September 17, and will do so till December.
Anyone who has studied up to at least Class 10 is eligible. At 31, Lal, an SC category candidate, still has a few more chances left. But today, that is not much of a consolation. Looking at aspirants milling outside the TCS building, who have taken over roads, footpaths, even a traffic police stall, who ignore the slight drizzle to pore over their books, who take guilty breaks to watch YouTube videos on phones, or defiantly climb onto an elevated structure to take selfies, Lal says, “It appears the entire country is here.”
Lal also understands why. A BA in Sociology, an MA in English, he says he started appearing for competitive exams in 2013, while taking tuitions and working off and on at a factory in Chandigarh. “In 2013, the UP Police exam I appeared for got cancelled after a paper leak. In 2016, I was on the waiting list for a government teacher’s job, that didn’t materialise. I didn’t clear the previous railway exam either,” he lists.
He wishes politicians focused on unemployment, instead of non-issues. “Hindustan ka neta dalaal hai. Berozgaar naujawan dhakke kha rahe hain (Politicians just make money. Unemployed youth keep struggling).”
And wonders why, unlike last time, he didn’t get a free pass to travel to the centre, issued by the Railways for SC/ST candidates.
But Lal keeps going. Explaining why, the second of four brothers, all of them daily wagers, quotes poet Sohan Lal Dwivedi, “Lehron se dar kar nauka paar nahin hoti, koshish karne waalon ki kabhi haar nahin hoti (A boat can’t cross the sea fearing the waves; one who works hard can’t lose).”
“I failed my BSc. What other job can I get?” says Jitesh Kumar, 18, occupying another portion of the footpath, which is a little wet from the drizzle.
Kumar says he couldn’t focus on studies after his father’s death last year. “He had a samosa cart, selling two for Rs 5. Now I do that,” says the eldest of three siblings.
Kumar heard about the railway exam at the local cyber cafe near his native village in Baghpat, western Uttar Pradesh. “The bhaiya there informs us about government jobs,” he says. With the cart only fetching about Rs 1,500 per month, the 18-year-old decided to venture out for his first trip to Noida.
Squinting his tired eyes, he says, “I came here yesterday and have been sitting outside since. The admit card says we have to be here a day in advance, but there are no arrangements, no toilets, no water… My exam is at 4 pm, still a few hours away.”
The morning only left him more despondent, Kumar adds. “I didn’t expect so many people, it seems very tough to crack this exam… Maybe I will try for an Army job… Several men in my village are in the Army.”
Waiting near Kumar is Mohammad Farooq, 21, also from Baghpat, who says he has tried to get into the Army several times. Unlike Kumar, who couldn’t afford coaching, Farooq, an MA student, has come fortified with three months of training at an “institute”, paying Rs 5,000.
The fourth of five siblings, he adds, “At the institute, there were 50 students in my batch. It’s a common preparatory course for the UP Police, Army, SSC (Short Service Commission) and railway exams.”
The Army was Farooq’s first choice as three of his brothers are in the force. A police exam he appeared for on September 18 got cancelled after a paper leak. Now he has made his peace with sitting for a Group D railway job. “I was very upset as I have a master’s degree, but after speaking to people here, I realised there are others like me,” he says.
Like Kumar, he is worried about the exam though. “Physical achcha hai hamara, par hum UP ke ladke written mein reh jaate hain (Our physical test is good, but we UP men, we are defeated by the written exam).” But he hasn’t really decided what to do if he gets in. “Become a trackman or a porter….”
As the faces change every night, for every coming day, some have become fixtures — for at least the exam season. At lunch time, the litti-chokha cart (spotting an opportunity given that most applicants are from eastern India), the paratha vendor and the chola-kulcha stall all do brisk business. Along with the meals, costing Rs 20 to Rs 50, they dish out free advice on where to get Aadhaar card printouts and take photos.
Hari Bans, an autorickshaw driver, offers rides to applicants to and from a local cyber cafe, for Rs 20. In 22 years of driving the auto, the 52-year-old says, “This is the first time I am doing this.” Smiling, he adds, “I have already made 20 trips. The cyber cafe has given me Rs 200 as well.”
At one of the 10 cyber cafes in the market a kilometre away, the owner, a young Avnish Kumar, angrily instructs one of the applicants to not smile while his photograph is being taken. “The exam admit card clearly states the applicants need their original Aadhaar and one photograph. But these boys know nothing. I don’t know what they will write in their exams, phir bhagwan aur sarkaar ko dosh dete hain (they blame God and the government then),” he says.
Back at the exam centre, Vishal, 9, along with other boys his age, goes around the waiting applicants with a glue stick. “Rs 5 to stick one photo on the admit card,” Vishal informs, breaking into a smile.
The boys live in a nearby slum and don’t go to school.
Right next to the centre’s entrance, 24-year-old Pradeep Kumar has set up his shop — to keep bags of candidates. Standing between rows of numbered bags, he says, “Two years ago, I had appeared for the exam and lost two mobile phones. So this year I decided to help the candidates… The candidates are expected to come in advance; they will have their belongings with them,” says the BCom graduate, who hails from Baghpat.
Pradeep charges Rs 50 to keep a bag. Plus plastic cover against the rain. Those with lesser valuables and who find the charge too steep count on a tree outside the centre. From its branches hang belts, handkerchiefs, key chains.
Awaiting their turn, many hold conversations, about the rain, food, politics, and finally another thing they are convinced may prove a hurdle: reservation.
Standing amidst a group next to the board with names of candidates, Rahul Singh, 23, from Hardoi asks why the cut-off for SC/ST candidates is much lower. Another candidate, Rameshwar Singh, adds, “The age limit for SC/ST candidates is also higher.”
Harish Chand, 21, a Dalit applicant from Dhanaura in Amroha, tries to argue, “I have two sisters and my father has been working as a daily wager, earning Rs 100 a day, for years. What is wrong if we get some concession?” But Rahul dismisses this, “We are poor too! Mazdoori keval aap nahin karte (You are not the only one doing manual labour).”
Before the conversation can become heated, comes the guard’s announcement — entry for the evening shift has begun.
As the crowd moves in a wave towards the entrance gate, Preeti Devi, 21, stands in a corner, holding her husband’s hand. Dressed in a blue sari with golden trimmings, her head covered, the BSc Agriculture graduate takes out her admit card and Aadhaar card. When asked what post she is hoping for, she gestures to her husband to answer. “Batao, batao (Say, say),” he suggests, then adds, “I hope she gets a helper’s job at the ticketing centre. She won’t take up the other posts.”
The couple from Shahjahanpur got married three months ago, and Kumar, who works as a ward boy at a hospital in Bareilly for Rs 7,000 per month, says he doesn’t have a problem with a long-distance marriage. “She will get railway quarters and my mother can stay with her,” he says, as Preeti nods. Umesh is trying for a railway job himself, and appeared for the Group C exam in August.
About how she prepared for the exam, Preeti says, “My in-laws were supportive. They said I could cook the meals in the morning and study in the evening.” Umesh again steps in, “Inka thoda computer weak hai, but she has taken classes for that too.”
Kusum Rani, 18, from Dhanaura, who has studied till Class 12, is the only other woman candidate in the evening shift. She sticks close to brother Ankush, 21, who took the exam a day ago, and lets him do the talking. “She has appeared for the UP Police exam as well. She is good at sports,” Ankush says, adding that they relied on “practice papers” to prepare, and ushering the silent Kusum into the exam centre.
As the footpath clears out, a group of candidates, led by 20-year-old Abhinav Kushwaha from Hardoi, begin to raise slogans. They have been denied entry because they did not have any original ID proof. Some claim they were told to leave for being “late”. After a few minutes, Kushwaha leaves in tears, threatening the guards that he would “tweet” about the incident. “I will tag the Prime Minister as well,” he says. “I will also go to the media.”
One of the two guards shrugs, “For the evening shift, the candidates are not accepted after 3.15 pm. We have to scan their documents. We need original documents and we need them to be on time.”
Around 5.30 pm, among the candidates streaming out of the centre is Lal. He is beaming. “Maths and Reasoning were very good, but I may have faltered in Current Affairs. There was a question about the FIFA 2018 winner, I didn’t know. And there was a question on the author of the book Khullam Khulla. Now I know it’s Rishi Kapoor. Aur aapko L’Oreal ka rajdoot pata hai (And do you know the brand ambassador for L’Oreal)? I clicked on Deepika Padukone. I may be right,” he adds, heading to the Anand Vihar Bus Stand to take a bus back to Badaun.
It’s midnight now at the centre, and candidates for the next day have started arriving. Like Lal had done 24 hours earlier, Ankit Verma, 23, spreads out a plastic sheet on the footpath, placing his bag as a pillow.
“I had opted for the Allahabad centre, but was given this,” says the Hardoi resident.
The father of a two-year-old, he works as a labourer in farms in his village. “I earn Rs 6,000 per month. But soon my daughter will start going to school and we will need more funds.”
As the candidates lie down, arranging themselves in rows, covering faces with bedsheets, some lucky enough to find a spot under the lone streetlight decide to study.
Night guard Ram Sharma says earlier he would ask the candidates to leave, but not any more. “They are all very poor, where will they go?” says the 54-year-old. Seeing Sharma in conversation, Verma walks up to him to ask if there are any “private jobs” in the area. Returning to his sheet, he sighs, “Over two crore people are appearing for the exam, my chances are very slim. I have a PG diploma, should I be doing night duty on railway tracks? Iss desh ke neta ko yeh jawaab dena chahiye (The country’s politicians should answer this).”
Tracking the exam
Applicants : 2.37 crore
15 times the number of students who took CBSE Class 10 Exam in 2018
Total rail staff currently on rolls: 12.5 lakh
Total vacancies: 2 lakh
Number of posts being filled: 1.27 lakh
Number of exam centres: 440, across 116 cities
Number of exam days: 60; 5 lakh take test each day
Special trains to ferry candidates:100
Railway budget for 2018-19: Rs 1.48 lakh crore
Railway staff cost alone 2018-19: Rs 76,000 crore
Increase in staff cost after recruitment: Rs 4,000 crore
Total cost of recruitment: Rs 800 crore
Group D eligibility: Class 10
Group D age limit:18-31 (General)
Two-part exam: Online, covering Maths, General Intelligence and Reasoning, Current Affairs, Science; and a physical test
Last recruitment exercise: Feb 2017
Jobs filled in 2017: over 14,000 (approx)
Number of applicants in 2017: 92 lakh
Number of centres in 2017: 800