Indian Railways readies for World’s Largest Recruitment Drive; 25 Million Applications for 95,000 Jobs

NEW DELHI: For the next two months, Satyam Gupta will spend his evenings glued to YouTube. At 9pm sharp every night, he will find a quiet corner in his family home in Kanpur, hold his mobile phone in front of him, place a notebook in his lap, plug in his ear phones, and watch a serious-sounding man tackle every question in the world that he wants answers to, from the logic of Venn diagrams to the quirks of Indian Constitution.

The 21-year-old Gupta is one of the 25 million people who have applied for the 95,000 jobs advertised by Indian Railways. What he is preparing for is a highly competitive exam that will set off the largest recruitment exercise in the world conducted by India’s biggest employer. At 4.755 million applications for 26,500 positions (Automotive Loco Pilot) and 18.9 million for 62,907 positions (Group D: track maintainer, gangman, pointsman, switchman, helper, porter), the numbers are daunting for the applicants as well as the employer.

The only recruitment project that comes close is one Indian Railways last conducted—in 2014, 9.2 million applied for 18,252 job openings advertised by the recruiter. “Eleven hundred centres, 350 cities, 74 shifts, 25 days,” a senior bureaucrat in the recruitment department rattles off the details of the examinations held then. Exams make up only one part of a massive process that goes from sorting applications to inviting objections, involves a shifting combination of workers and technology, and stretches over at least a year. Talking about the task waiting for the railways’ recruitment department over the following months, Ashwini Lohani, chairman of the railway board, called it a “logistical challenge”, but one that his staff is prepared to handle. “We are taking every precaution to conduct the world’s largest recruitment exercise.”

Serious & non-serious

The exercise begins with weeding out “non-serious” contenders. The reasons for millions of Indians lining up for government jobs have been widely studied. At entry level, public-sector jobs are more in number than those in the private sector, promise better salaries and perks, and often come with long-term income security. A job in the railways is particularly coveted. “It’s the first choice for people who don’t come from well-off families. They want government jobs as soon as possible. For a majority of jobs in railways—drivers, carpenters, technicians—you only need to have passed Class 10, which really expands the target group,” says Bhavya Mittal, chief mentor at Exam Formula, a YouTube channel offering live lessons for government exams.

This target group includes college graduates who don’t have any faith in their degrees. “I am anxious for a job and regular income,” says Babulal Meena, who is shortly due to earn an undergraduate degree in commerce from a college in Karnal, but has no qualms about competing with 10th-pass aspirants for a runner’s job in the railways. “You know what the level of education is like in colleges in India. You can’t do anything with it. After three years, you get out with a degree but no knowledge.”

The same reasons make fake jobs in the railways the easiest to sell. The ministry is currently investigating an audacious job scam in which eight people were interviewed for the position of ‘ticket collector’ on the premises of Rail Bhavan, handed out appointment letters, and cheated of Rs 5 lakh each. Yet not everyone who applies for a railway job intends to land one. “Many people apply without any intention of taking the qualifying exam,” says Amitabh Khare, executive director of the Railway Recruitment Board. “Tickets to travel by train to the allocated examination centre are free for people who apply under reserved categories, so many people use this opportunity to see new places. To deal with the abuse of exemptions, we have introduced a system of advance exam fee of Rs 100 that is later refunded.” Of the 30.3 million people who started the application process, only 23 million completed it, he said.

Of the 23 million applications that the railways must sort through now, many are likely to have been filed by people who want to cheat in the upcoming exams. Many carry misleading photographs.

“So the first sorting is done by a computer program that can filter out applications where the accompanying photo is of an animal or a building. But a software can’t do much more than that in distinguishing actual candidates from fake candidates – it can’t flag the photo of Salman Khan or Aishwarya Rai— so then next level of sorting has to be done manually. It’s a time-consuming process,” Khare said.

The question paper

For the chosen candidates who the railways can trust to have applied in good faith, question papers must be created and secured. Questions span the usual field of study for competitive exams for entry-level jobs—English, reasoning, math, science, current affairs—but no question paper can resemble another. The questions are framed in English, translated in 15 Indian languages, and sent directly to the applicants’ computer screens. Irrespective of the level of encryption maintained between the subject matter expert who creates a question paper and the student who has to answer it, the recruitment department invests most of its energy in staying ahead of cheaters. The efforts include releasing ads that ask the applicants not to fall for exam touts and making sure that every student in a classroom receives a different set of questions.

Yet, danger lurks around every corner. Days into the announcement of this latest recruitment drive, Facebook groups dedicated to government jobs started brimming with speculations about the questions to be asked in upcoming railway exams.

“What is measured in cusec?

Identify the diagram that best represents the relationship between profit, dividend and bonus.

Who won the last Wimbledon?”

Misleading question papers “leaked” over WhatsApp on the eve of an exam now count as a routine menace for the recruitment authorities.

“The last time we held exams, we got a cheating alert from a centre in Allahabad. We examined the papers of the 8-10 candidates suspected to having cheated. They had chosen the same answers— all wrong. We are talking of merely one centre, where 254 students were taking their exams, but we added another stage to the exam,” said a bureaucrat in the recruitment department on condition of anonymity.

After the question papers are made and secured, each applicant is allocated an examination centre. Even this routine step in the cycle is fraught with risk. What is the right time to inform an applicant about his or her centre? Too early and they may use the information to make arrangements for cheating; too late and they may not be able to reach the venue in time. “Now we inform them about the city 10-15 days in advance and of the centre two days before the exam,” said Lohani.

The final selection

Executed with a budget of Rs 300 crore, the exams are divided into three stages. The number of students shortlisted for the second stage is usually fifteen times the number of openings. Those who clear the second stage are put through a “psychological assessment” that tests their preparedness for specific jobs built around trains that require “alertness” or “depth perception.”

That done, lists are made of selected candidates, a long process in itself. “We have to enter quotas under various categories: SCs, STs, OBC creamy layer, OBC non-creamy layer, ex-servicemen, physically challenged. There are internal calibrations to be made within each category. There are positions open to orthopedically impaired candidates from which the blind candidates will have to be excluded and vice versa,” said Khare.

This may seem like the last step in the chain, but isn’t. After the results are declared, everyone who has taken the exam is given a chance to object to the fairness of the process. On the “objection tracker” that regional railway recruitment boards put up on their websites, candidates can view the question paper, their own answers, and the correct answers. Large numbers of candidates take this opportunity to point out that the questions they were asked were wrong or their answers to those questions were right. “Ninety five percent of time we are right. However, 7,200 questions are prepared. One of them could be framed wrongly. Or the translation may not be accurate. So each of these objections is responded to,” said Lohani.


Parts of this process are outsourced to external recruitment firms. The selection of a company fit to accept the challenge follows a bidding process that takes months. To qualify, a company must show a minimum turnover of Rs 15 crore and should have conducted an exam involving at least 5 lakh candidates, among other criteria. While the railway ministry has yet to invite bids for this round of recruitment, it has previously collaborated with Tata Consultancy Services, which specialises in large-scale public-sector employment projects. Having set up 1.35 lakh computing nodes in exam centres across India, the company claims to have “assessed” a total of “100 million candidates” so far, including “9.2 million assessments” during the railways’ 2016 drive.

“The scope of our work is extensive,” says Venguswamy Ramaswamy, global head of TCS iON, the company’s recruitment division. “Application collection, centre allocation, question paper creation and distribution, conducting exams, objection management.” Aside from the deployment of staff at exam centres, very little of the remaining process needs manual interference, he says. “Every click is monitored. Errors are minimised.” The system is still vulnerable to disruptive factors, from “poor-quality infrastructure, to power outages, to cyber attacks”, but “the platform-centric activity has introduced a humongous amount of transparency to the process,” in his view.

At his end, too, Satyam Gupta isn’t leaving any aspect of his exam preparation to chance. He’s bought the right books, borrowed the right pen drives, joined the right Facegroup groups and subscribed to the right YouTube channels. This isn’t even his dream job. Given his qualifications– a bachelor’s degree in science– he would ideally have liked to become an income tax inspector, but for now he just wants to be one of the final 95,000.