The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protesters torch trains in India as frustration over lack of jobs for young people boils over

Smoke billows from a train in Gaya in northeastern India on Jan. 26 after a mob set it on fire in protest over access to railway jobs. Police violently dispersed the crowd with tear gas and baton charges. (Afp Contributor#afp/AFP/Getty Images)

Angry job seekers torched trains and set tires alight in northeastern India this week out of frustration over widespread unemployment and what many applicants say is an unfair recruitment process in the country’s huge railway sector.

The protests, in which young people obstructed rail traffic, were a violent expression of disillusionment with one of the world’s largest employers.

Photos showed flames billowing from rail cars in the northeastern state of Bihar and hundreds of people walking across train tracks there. Protesters in Patna, the state capital, burned tires and blocked roads Friday in a strike called by student associations.

The violent scenes have drawn attention to the joblessness that was worsening in India even before the coronavirus pandemic, as young people — particularly educated ones — struggled to find employment. Many are left helping their families with unpaid domestic tasks as they prepare to compete for a relatively small number of government jobs, according to the BBC.

This week’s unrest began with small-scale demonstrations Monday, after young people seeking jobs in the government-run rail sector claimed that an entrance exam was being run unfairly.

Millions of people had applied for about 150,000 jobs with the railway in Bihar and neighboring Uttar Pradesh state, applicants told the Reuters news agency. Test results for different job categories showed the same names multiple times, and unsuccessful candidates say they feel unjustly excluded.

India’s railroads had 63,000 job openings. 19 million people applied.

“The recruitment process has not been transparent,” Ashutosh Singh, a protester in Bihar, told Reuters. “A number of the selected candidates had their names in various categories, which is very unfair.”

This isn’t the first time the scramble for railway jobs has caused trouble. In 2018, India’s railway system announced a national recruitment drive for 63,000 of the most menial positions in its hierarchy — and 19 million people applied. Nearly all were college students or graduates, and some had master’s degrees.

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Railway positions are desirable because they can offer job security and a comparatively good salary, as well as perks such as free train travel. India’s railway sector employs more than 1.2 million people, according to Reuters.

The unemployment rate in India, Asia’s third-largest economy, stands at its highest in three decades, the BBC reported, exceeding those of other emerging economies. The unemployment rate was nearly 8 percent in December, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent think tank. In Bihar, it was double that.

With a jobs crisis in which desperate law school graduates have applied to become drivers, a railway job can seem like a golden ticket. And not receiving one has sparked acts of desperation.

Protesters this week lobbed stones at train cars and burned effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Al Jazeera reported. Rail services in Bihar were “severely” affected, NDTV news reported, after protesters clashed with security forces in the city of Gaya and set an empty train on fire. No injuries were reported in the blaze, according to the Indian Express.

At least four people were arrested for alleged vandalism, and several others — including teachers at prominent institutes that coach students for the railway exams — have been arrested on accusations of inciting or taking part in violence, according to the Hindustan Times.

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Authorities in Patna told Reuters they have registered police complaints against 400 unnamed people and six coaching institutes.

The Railway Ministry said people found to have taken part in vandalism and destruction of public property could be banned from applying for railway jobs, Reuters reported. The government suspended the exam and said a committee had been formed to investigate candidates’ concerns.

An alliance of opposition parties in Bihar expressed support for students’ ongoing calls for protests, according to the Hindustan Times.

The police response to the protests has been criticized by activists and opposition politicians as heavy-handed. Security forces have used batons and tear gas against protesters. And in Sitamarhi, a city in northern Bihar, police fired into the air to disperse demonstrators, NDTV reported.

Demonstrations against alleged police brutality in Bihar also unfolded in New Delhi on Friday, led by the Indian Youth Congress and the left-leaning All India Students’ Association.

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