This morning on National Public Radio, there was a segment on Indian Railway exams.
India has an exam for virtually every government job — no matter how small. The Railway Exams, given to aspiring guards, ticket collectors and drivers, ask a surprising variety of questions — difficult questions. Competition for jobs on the railway is extreme — by one account there are 20,000 applicants for one ticket collector job.
You can listen to the entire story here. NPR Indian Railways exam story
This was a letter from their correspondent in India, Philip Reeves who has been exploring the life of the people who work on India’s railways and the journey they must take to get there. I thought he had a very interesting take on the system of employment to Railway jobs. For those of you who cannot listen, here is the transcript:
This is India’s most magical hour. It is just before dawn. Soon the multitude who live in the city will begin churning out noise and dust and heat. Now though it is hush, but for the birds singing the morning chorus, and the trains singing theirs(train horn sounds in the distance). Those horns are coming from a railway station mile and a half from out home. Every morning I lie in bed trying to visualize the journeys those trains are about to make through the plains, deserts and mountains of India, pausing at countless obscure and shabby towns.
India is knitted together by its railways. The network was originally built by the British, India was part of their empire. It is colossal. If you dug up all the rail track in India and laid it along the equator, you could ride around the world one and a half times. That track carries 20 million people around the country every day plus a mountain of goods and produce. To keep this batted system running requires 1 million 600 thousand people. That is more than the number of people on active duty in the US military. Getting a job on India’s railways is much harder than you think. The other day I met some young Indians trying to become ticket collectors. They first have to pass what are known as the railway exams. So they’ve gone back to school. They come here everyday to a stark and grubby classroom in a private tuition center tucked in a back-alley in New Delhi. The students scribble away in their dog-eared notebook. The teacher poses one of those brain teasers dreaded by everyone except math geeks. (Audio in hindi) That question is about the meeting point of two trains traveling in difference directions at different speeds. There are hundreds of these tuition centers in every big Indian city full of people studying all day, every day. In India the railway exams differ according to the job you are applying for. An aspiring station master will face much harder questions than say a goods guard and will have to take a psychological test and be a graduate. Deepak Pandey, one of the students here says the ticket collectors exam is no cakewalk, ‘It is a very tough exam, tough competition’, ‘And how many people do you think will also be competing with you for this job’, ‘approximately 20,000’, ‘for one job? Do you believe you will get the job?’, ‘I think so’, ‘You have to be an optimist’. That number may be an exaggeration but rail union officials confirm that often thousands compete for one job. India’s railways are state-run. There is huge competition for government posts because of the job security and the perks. The exams are set by railway recruitment boards around India and there’s intense security to make sure there is no cheating. The boards have websites where you can find sample exam questions. Right now I am logging on to a railway recruitment board based in Kerala in South India and there is a trial exam here and there are some questions here on Indian history and culture and language and so on. But how about these general knowledge questions? Whats the deepest place on earth? Whats the capital of Turkey? And who won the Australian Women’s singles tennis title in 2002? Now you can also buy books in India that contain sample papers for the railway exams. I have got one here. This is for a ticket collector’s job, question 67, whats laughing gas made of?
These days before dawn as I lie in bed listening to the trains setting off I think about where they are going and also about who is taking them there. Indians with their heads packed with more general knowledge than some of the world’s presidents and prime ministers. Indians who actually know that laughing gas is made from nitrous oxide.
Did you know that bit about riding along the equator one and a half times with our railway tracks? That made me so proud! Most of the points here about how tough the competition is well known. Also is well known our obsession with knowledge about the world, but isn’t it interesting that a ticket collector in India probably has more general knowledge than a high-ranked government official in the US?