Letter From India: Railway Exams Not A Free Ride

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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.


Now, another letter from India from NPR's correspondent there, Philip Reeves. He's been exploring the life of the people who work on the country's railways and the journey they must take to get there.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

PHILIP REEVES: This is India's most magical hour. It's just before dawn. Soon, the multitude who live in the city will begin churning out noise and dust and heat. Now, though, it's hushed, but for the birds singing their morning chorus.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

REEVES: And the trains singing theirs.

(Soundbite of train horn blowing)

REEVES: Those horns are coming from a railway station about a mile-and-a-half from our 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.

(Soundbite of train horn blowing)

REEVES: India's knitted together by its railways. The network was originally built by the British when India was part of their empire. It's 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 battered system running requires one million, six hundred thousand people. That's more than the number on active duty in the U.S. military.

Getting a job on India's railways is much harder than you'd 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 theyve gone back to school.

Unidentified Man (Teacher): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: They come here every day, 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 notebooks as the teacher poses one of those brain teasers dreaded by everyone except math geeks.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: That question's about the meeting point of two trains traveling in different 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 youre applying for. An aspiring station master will face much harder questions than, say, the goods guard, who will have to take a psychological test and be a graduate.

But Deepak Pandey(ph), one of the students here, says the ticket collectors exam is no cakewalk.

Mr. DEEPAK PANDEY (Student): (Unintelligible) exam. Tough competition in this ticket collector job.

REEVES: And how many people do you think will also be competing with you for this job? How many people?

Mr. PANDEY: Approximately 20,000.

REEVES: How many?

Mr. PANDEY: Twenty thousand.

REEVES: Twenty thousand,.

Mr. PANDEY: Yeah.

REEVES: For one job?

Mr. PANDEY: Yeah.

REEVES: Do you believe you'll get the job?

Mr. PANDEY: I think I'll get it.

REEVES: You have to be an optimist.

Mr. PANDEY: Yeah.

REEVES: 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's huge competition for government posts because of the job security and the perks.

The exams are set by railway recruitment boards around India. There's intense security to make sure there's no cheating. The boards have Web sites where you can find sample exam questions.

Okay, right now I am logging on to a railway recruitment board based in Kerala in South India. And there's a trial exam on here, and there's some questions about Indian history and culture and language and so on. But how about these general knowledge questions? What's the deepest place on Earth - the Caspian, Aegean, Dead Sea or Black Sea? What's the capital of Turkey? And who won the Australian Open Women's Singles Tennis title in 2002?

Now, you can also buy books in India that contain sample papers for the railway exams, and I've got one here. This is for a ticket collector's job. Question 67: What's laughing gas made of?

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

REEVES: These days before dawn, as I lie in bed listening to the trains setting off, I think about where they're going and also about who's 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.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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