New Delhi: On July 15, 2022, the first time I spoke with her, Amita Salam had told me she couldn’t go back home without the uniform she had left her village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district to acquire. Her neighbours had thought shfe had run away with a man. “My family has to deal with taunts. I can’t go back without the job for which I have qualified,” said Amita.
Amita had left her village in 2018 to go through the recruitment process for a job in the Central Armed Police Forces, the paramilitary forces that comprise the Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal, the Assam Rifles, the National Security Guard, the National Investigation Agency and the Secretariat Security Force. That was the year 60,210 Staff Selection Commission (SSC) general duty (GD) posts of constables in the paramilitary forces had been advertised.
Amita cleared the exams, had her documents verified, proved she was physically strong and medically fit, was declared qualified, and was tantalisingly close to landing the job for which she had been preparing for years. But like thousands of young men and women from financially marginalised communities, she lost her chance to get the uniform she had wanted so badly when, towards the end of the recruitment process, in February 2021, the Centre decided to leave 4,295 of the 60,210 posts vacant.
Since then, Amita and the other candidates who lost their chance of recruitment have been on a 17 month long agitation in Delhi and elsewhere, trying to convince the government to fill up the vacant seats in the paramilitary forces.
A byzantine process
Few people understand why the 2018 cycle of recruitment was stopped without filling all the advertised posts. Every time the government is asked about it, the answer is different.
For example, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query by one of the candidates for the GD posts, filed on January 5, 2022, the Prime Minister’s Office said that there weren’t any suitable candidates to fill the posts. This response rings hollow because 1,09,552 candidates had been declared qualified by the Centre itself for these 60,210 positions.
Although qualifying for a job does not guarantee recruitment, the Centre did not provide a plausible reason for why the seats have been left vacant.
Later, on April 25, 2022, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai told parliamentarian Jasbir Gill that these positions were ‘carry-forwarded’, meaning that they would be filled in the next round of recruitments.
Even in this case, the government didn’t explain why the seats were left vacant.
After the candidates approached the Delhi high court with petitions against the 2018 recruitment on August 11, 2021, the Centre filed a counter affidavit last June. This revealed a complicated reservation policy based on state-level and other quotas that has contributed to opaqueness and confusion in the recruitment process. Over the years, this practice has robbed thousands of candidates of their chance of a government job at a time when unemployment is rampant.
First of all, unlike recruitment for most other Central government jobs, the recruitment of paramilitary forces is based on state quotas, allocated based on overall population. So even if the youth in a particular state have a greater affinity towards jobs in the paramilitary, an artificial cap restricts the numbers that will get the job. Meanwhile, in another state where the youth perhaps do not gravitate towards such jobs, the allotted job quota remains vacant year after year.
Next, the process is further layered with a complex marking and assessment system that can vary from district to district even within a state.
Candidates first have to give a written exam. Those who pass are then called for document verification, followed by a physical test, and finally, the medical exam. Those who clear all these tests are declared qualified. At this point, they wait for the cut-off marks for their respective castes and district categories, based on which those from the pool of qualified candidates will make it to the final merit list.
Now comes the twist.
In any government recruitment, the cut-off varies and has a caste-based recruitment process. However, the SSC GD recruitment for constables, which is usually thronged by socially and financially marginalised students from rural belts of the country, has layers of complicated criteria which often confuse applicants.
First, each state is allotted a certain share of the total seats based on the state’s population. Next, within each state, there is a district-wise seat allocation by which students are divided into categories based on the nature of the district they come from: border, general or Naxal. Further, within these districts, their cut-off varies as per their caste.
For example, a student from the Dalit community in a Naxal district and a student from the Dalit community in a border district will have different cut-off marks. Based on this cut-off, even if seats in a Naxal district remain vacant, qualified students from the border district will not be selected. On a larger scale, if a state doesn’t have enough qualified candidates, the vacant seats do not go to waitlisted qualified candidates from other states.
Mani Dev Chaturvedi, who retired as a BSF sub-inspector in 2019, alleged, “This whole system is [meant] to complicate the recruitment unnecessarily and make the process difficult to understand. For the paramilitary, the sole focus should be on the physical examination as it used to be in our times, but now there is a much longer process.”
Chaturvedi had joined the BSF in 1988. At that time, the recruitment process was far less complex. The SSC had no role to play in the recruitments. The forces themselves individually released vacancy notices on the recommendation of the Union home mInistry and conducted the examinations. There was no state-district matrix until the SSC took over the entire GD selection process in 2011.
Back then, Chaturvedi stresses, even the process of recruitment was different. There was more stress on the physical exam, for example, as physical fitness was considered the most important qualification for the post of a GD constable. “In our recruitment, the physical selection process was extensive. It began with a height measure and was followed by a 1,600 metres run, a high jump, a long jump and some other tests,” he said.
Chaturvedi added: “The primary reason for the recruitment of GD is human force. If you don’t find an applicable candidate from Punjab, why don’t you hire from Chhattisgarh? If you say the ex-servicemen quota is empty, why is it not possible to hire kids who are duly qualified? I do not see any reason behind not completing these vacant positions.”
Like hundreds of candidates in her position, Amita isn’t young enough anymore to take the exams again. When she applied in 2018, she hadn’t known that qualifying for a seat does not mean automatically getting the post. Even now, she, like the other protesting candidates, cannot fathom the parochial logic of leaving seats vacant in a national force when suitable candidates are waiting in line across the country.
“All we want to do is serve the country. We cleared all the stages, and there are pending vacancies. We do not understand what is coming in the way of our recruitment,” said Raghav Sharma, one of the qualified candidates for the GD post.
Last year, Amita pushed her willpower to its limits to carry on with the protest, knowing this was her last shot at a government job. Nearly 1,200 candidates marched on the streets of Delhi last February, sat on a 72-day-long hunger strike in Nagpur in April, and finally embarked on a 1,000-km protest march from Nagpur to Delhi in the first week of June 2022.
The police and administrative officials of the states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did everything they could to stop the candidates’ march to Delhi. The district magistrate of Sagar district in Madhya Pradesh threatened to jail them if they didn’t go away. The police in Uttar Pradesh detained them in an Agra gurdwara at 5 am, split them into groups of 30, and dropped them off in far-flung areas. In Haryana, the candidates were detained by the police, who phoned the candidates’ parents in their various states and warned them to tell “the kids to lay off or else they were inviting trouble on their heads”.
Personnel of the police forces of the candidates’ hometowns also visited the candidates’ parents, using the excuse of ‘verification’.
The protest is emblematic of the tough time job-seekers face in the country. Government jobs always attract huge numbers of candidates. These numbers tend to rise when the economy is in tatters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 promising to create 10 million jobs. But national unemployment peaked at 23.5% in 2020 and has stubbornly remained well above 7% since, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). India’s unemployment rate rose to 8.30% in December 2022, the highest in 16 months, from 8.00% in the previous month, according to data from the CMIE.
The protesting candidates for the GD post believe that the government is trying to save money by cutting down recruitment. A careful look at the merit list to understand the mathematics of recruitment revealed another place where the hiring has been trimmed, buttressing the fear of the candidates.
The recruitment notification says that 10% of the seats will be reserved for ex-servicemen. If these remain unfilled, the seats will be divided between the other categories. But this condition was violated not just in 2018, but also in the 2015 recruitment cycle, according to the calculations of The Reporters’ Collective based on government data. Most of the seats in this category were not filled and not distributed among the other categories. This makes the numbers quoted by the Centre in response to three RTIs filed by the students suspect. It is not just 4,000 GD seats that remain vacant, but about 9,000, including the unfilled seats for ex-servicemen.
Role of the SSC
The recruitment process is carried out by the Staff Selection Commission (SSC), the government’s recruitment agency for ministries and departments. The SSC falls under the home ministry.
That fewer vacancies are filled than those initially advertised could possibly be called a trend. In 2015, the SSC invited applications for 64,066 posts, but later left 5,376 seats vacant. In 2018, 60,210 GD posts were advertised, but 4,295 were left vacant. The 2021 recruitment cycle is still underway, but judging by the outcome of the 2015 and 2018 cycles, chances are a few thousand seats will be left vacant in the 2021 cycle too.
It is safe to say, however, that all three recruitment drives – 2015, 2018, and 2021 – for the paramilitary forces saw a massive lag in the process, consistently breaching the deadline set by a 2016 order from the Department of Personnel and Training to complete the recruitment process within six months of the release of the advertisement calling for applications.
In 2015, the SSC took more than two years to publish the final merit list from the date of advertisement. In 2018, it took more than two and a half years to publish the final list. If the order had been followed, the recruitment process for the 2018 advertisement should have wrapped up by January 2019. Instead, appointment letters for the 2018 vacancies were still being sent out in December 2022, even as the 2021 recruitment cycle was underway.
The secretary of the SSC blames the pandemic for the delay in the 2018 recruitment drive, which extended up to 2021. However, India saw its first COVID-19 case on January 27, 2020, and the country was not under lockdown until March 2020. The 2021 process, which began in July 2021, remains incomplete even now, the end of January 2023.
The candidates have also found serious discrepancies in the byzantine selection process. For example, the Reporters’ Collective compared the results of two 2018 candidates from the same district and caste in Assam and found that one who had scored much less than the cut-off made it to the merit list while the other, who had scored more than the first, but also less than the cut-off, didn’t make it.
More puzzling is the fact that both these candidates had filled out the application under the Naxal district category, but the SSC had not released the cut-off for their district, which can be seen in the cut-off list, a copy of which is with the Reporters’ Collective. Which cut-off was applied in the selection of candidates from this district is a mystery. Perhaps it was the state cut-off.
“We cannot access everybody’s results as they are kept anonymous. Unless someone who made it to the final list shares their result with you, you cannot identify any discrepancies,” said Prakash, a candidate from Jabalpur.
A sampling of results from other states showed that candidates in West Bengal and Rajasthan who had failed to pass the cut-off bar in the reserved or unreserved category applicable to them still received appointment letters.
Since the government does not release the complicated cut-off matrix for different states, districts, and categories, it is not possible to ascertain how systematic and widespread such flaws could be.
I made many attempts to reach the secretary of the SSC to clarify these issues. The office of the secretary directed the reporter to the deputy secretary, who said this was the job of lower-level officers. I then reached out to the joint secretaries of the SSC, but nobody responded. When I finally got through to the undersecretary of the SSC, H.L. Prasad, and asked why the SSC had not completed the hiring for the advertised vacancies, he said: “These are all false accusations. We have completed (hiring for) the vacancies for which we had applicable candidates.” When we asked about the students who had been declared qualified, Prasad ended the call.
Courts offer hope
In August last year, I tried to contact Amita again on her phone. But the line was dead. Another candidate who had protested along with Amita informed me that the police had seized her phone. But he was able to put me in touch with her.
Amita was back in her home, frail from 30 days of a hunger strike, drained of appetite due to saline-filled hospital stays and typhoid, and mentally and physically sore from the 1,000 km foot march and multiple police detentions. But she still firmly believes that if the government had filled up the vacant constable posts, she would have moved from the qualified list to the merit list as her marks were tantalisingly close to the cut-off.
This is the closest she has come to her dream government job, after failing in the exam for the same post in 2015. But for Amita, there will be no third time lucky.
When Amita qualified for the exam, her family had rejoiced. They had believed this would end all their financial struggles. “I never realised what was coming and that the government would be so cruel to us,” Amita said.
The candidates do have a sliver of hope, however. The courts have delivered their verdicts. After the 2015 recruitment cycle, the qualified candidates who had not been given appointment letters had approached the high courts of Uttarakhand and Bihar against the Centre’s decision to leave vacant 5,376 positions from among the total posts advertised for the GD post in paramilitary recruitment in 2015.
The two courts passed similar verdicts. The High Court of Uttarakhand in its order stated: “The petitioners (applicants) have completed all the stages of the examination and were declared qualified. Still 5,376 posts are lying vacant and respondents (SSC) have failed to show any plausible reason to not complete the vacancies.” The court ordered the Centre to fill the remaining vacancies by October 2022.
The Patna high court observed that “though it is a settled legal position that mere selection does not give the candidate an indefeasible right to appointment but that principle does not hold good in cases where the posts advertised have remained vacant.” The court further ordered the government to fill the remaining seats within 30 days of the judgment.
However, despite the judgment of the Patna high court, the vacancies remained unfilled. This year, on January 11, the Patna high court gave the Centre a final warning to clear the pending recruitment within two months, failing which there will be an inquiry into the SSC Board.
In the case filed by the 2018 candidates, the Delhi high court delivered its verdict passed on December 21, 2022, asking the government “to fill the unfilled vacancies arising due to the non-joining of candidates as well as the leftover seats for the examination of the year 2016 conducted by the Sashatra Seema Bal and examination of the year 2018 conducted by the Central Armed Police Forces; in order of merit, category, and domicile”.
The court also directed the Union government to ascertain the appointment of candidates within four weeks from the judgment date.
More than four weeks have passed since the judgment was passed. But the vacancies, the students say, have still not been filled.
“Convincing my family about what I wanted to do had always been a challenge. To begin with, my father died when I was young. My family faced a lot of pressure from the samaj (society). They always told my mother to marry me off,” said Amita.
She added: “I did not want to go home because I knew if I did, it would be the end of my dreams.”
Hrishi Raj Anand is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.