Debating India

A policy on test


Sunday 14 December 2003, by GOPALAKRISHNAN*Amulya

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003.

THE spate of violence in Assam and elsewhere in the country, which followed the examinations for Class IV jobs in the Indian Railways, has raised serious questions about the Railways’ recruitment policy. The revised policy has been criticised for failing to take regional aspirations into account.

The Railway authorities, however, claim that the policy is designed with the federal polity in mind. Following a Supreme Court order in 1996, railway recruitment in the Group D category (Class IV) is now an all-India exercise, although placement is still made on a zonal basis. "Until 1998, these vacancies were filled through the local General Managers, and it was not a completely above-board process. (Railway Minister) Nitish Kumar dispensed with this system when he took charge of the Railways. Instead, the responsibility of conducting the examination was handed over to the Railway Recruitment Board. The interview was scrapped in order to avoid manipulation and nepotism," says M.A. Siddiqui, a Railway representative.

The Indian Railways have systematically shrunk since 1991 after they were ordered to downsize at a rate of 2 per cent a year. The employee count dropped from 19 lakhs to 15 lakhs, as the Railways tightened their belt. Staff costs were cut down to about 35 per cent of the gross traffic receipts (GTR), excluding pensions. Several job categories were merged.

However, by 2003, up to 76,000 vacancies had accumulated in the essential safety category in the Group C and D categories (such as train drivers or loco-pilots, gangmen and guards). Out of these, 20,000 were left open to be filled through an all-India competitive examination held by the Railway Recruitment Board.

The response the Railways received for an advertisement regarding the vacancies was a staggering 74 lakh applications. "While the minimum qualification required was a pass in Class VIII, we got applications from graduates and post-graduates, including 20,000 engineers and 3,000 MBA degree holders ," says Siddiqui.

The Northeast Frontier Railway zone is split into five divisions - Rangiya, Lumdin and Tinsukia in Assam, Alipurduar in West Bengal, and Katihar in Bihar - and is headquartered in Guwahati. "Out of the five lakh people who appeared for the examination in Guwahati on November 9, 46 per cent were Assamese, 5 per cent were from the rest of the northeastern region, 12 per cent from West Bengal and 15 per cent from Bihar. The remaining were from other parts of the country," Siddiqui said. The presence of the Hindi-speaking "outsiders"’ angered the Assamese candidates, who perceived them as intruding on employment opportunities that rightfully belonged to the region. They beat up 50 Bihari candidates and blocked them from taking the test, which unleashed a bitter round of violence and counter-violence in Assam and Bihar.

"The reason for the recent unrest goes much deeper; it is owing to the frustration and desperation of several unemployed people seeking a secure job," says J.P. Chaubey, general secretary of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation.

S.M. Singla, a Railway Board member, pointed out that "the Railways are a Central government organisation with an all-India character. The national recruitment policy only obeys the Constitution in both letter and spirit."

Yet, making a concession to regional aspirations in the wake of the violence, "the Railways have taken the decision to modify the recruitment process by linking them to individual divisions," he said. Now the candidates even have the option of taking the examination in the local language.

Whether these gestures would have any impact on the discontent among the unemployed remain to be tested.


Pic: N. SRIDHARAN; At the Central Station in Chennai, youth from north India who had come to take the Railway Recruitment Board examination in the city.

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