BULANDSHAHR (Uttar Pradesh) - Mr Amit Lodhi, a 28-year-old with a master's in political science, was one of 12.5 million people in India who sat entrance exams for 35,000 railway jobs for the post of guards, clerks, timekeepers and station masters.
The exams triggered student protests last month in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where a train coach was burned, over allegations of irregularities in the exam results and a sudden procedural change with a second exam.
The protests were yet another sign of the unemployment crisis in India, which the International Monetary Fund forecast would be the world's fastest-growing economy over the next three years.
Economists believe this will remain a major challenge for the South Asian country, which was already struggling with dismal jobless growth before the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It is so frustrating. If I could get a proper private job, I would. But I can't get anything," said Mr Lodhi, who has unsuccessfully tried to get a dozen government jobs, including as a land record official and a train driver, over the last six years. In entrance exams that he aced, paper leak allegations led to cancellations.
The young man has only been a labourer, just like his 64-year-old father.
"What was the point of studying so much and then being a labourer?," said Mr Lodhi, whose family cannot even afford a television set at home.
India's unemployment problem remains a major problem, some nine years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, promising jobs to millions.
The country has 53 million unemployed people as at December 2021, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an independent think-tank. Most of them - 35 million - are actively seeking work, while 17 million are not, even though they are willing to work.
India's unemployment rate reached 23.5 per cent in 2020, according to CMIE, far above the world average of 7 per cent.
"Through these protests, you get an idea of the unemployment situation in the country. This is the ambition of (many) youth. Their aspiration is aimed towards the government sector," said Mr Rishav Ranjan, national general secretary of Yuva Halla Bol, a national movement against joblessness.
A deep desire for government is particularly true in the Hindi heartland states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, that dominates national politics. All lag in development when compared with southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
"The reason why people prefer government jobs is that it is very difficult to find good quality private-sector jobs. For those with limited skills, good jobs are extremely difficult to get. The only place where one with modest skills or education can hope to get quality jobs is the government," said Mr Mahesh Vyas, CMIE's managing director and chief executive.
He noted that a large chunk of India's youth have "modest skills".
"The Covid-19 situation has badly impacted jobs in the informal sector. The pandemic has only made a bad situation worse."
India has seen three Covid-19 waves, with each disrupting the economy to a different degree. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers lost their jobs amid a national lockdown in 2020. Others found their wages cut with weekend lockdowns when the third wave hit this year.
The government has said that those who lost jobs during the pandemic would get back on their feet as the economy recovers.
Mr Lalit Kumar, 24, another graduate, lost his job fitting solar panels at homes in Bulandshahr six months ago. He was earning 15,000 rupees (S$270) for eight hours of work but now spends his time on household chores.
"I have applied to many companies. I have been calling and calling, but I am not getting any work," said Mr Kumar, who plans to sit entrance exams for government jobs.
"Government or private, I just need a job."
In Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due to kick off on Feb 10, identity politics, meaning caste and religious issues, usually dominate, but unemployment is in sharper focus following the railway protests, with opposition parties promising millions of jobs.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party maintains that jobs are being created.
Still, riots like the one that broke out over railway exams are actually rare, and Mr Vyas believes the job crisis remains a low-profile issue even though it is an “insidious problem”.
“There is no large-scale loss of employment in visible sectors,” he said.
“If a small assembly unit in a small town shuts down, it makes no news, but there could be tens of thousands of such units shutting all over the place. This is a quiet process,” he added.