Ahmedabad: More than 22 crore aspirants applied for Union government jobs between 2014 and 2022. Among them was 27-year-old Pranjay (name changed for anonymity). Trained as an engineer, he applied for a job that required only matriculation – a technician’s role at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research under the Union government. He submitted his application in December 2021. Three years, repeated exams, and an abrupt cancellation of results later, he is still on a list, awaiting a job.

Teen saal ka lamba time lagtaa hai to aspirants frustrate ho jaate hain (If it takes three years to complete the recruitment process for a job, aspirants are bound to get frustrated),” he says. 

He cannot afford to give up. A Union government job would provide ‘security’, he believes.  

Jab tak age and attempt hai, koshish jari rakhunga (As long as I am age-eligible to take an attempt, I’ll keep trying),” says Pranjay. 

This wasn’t the first time Pranjay had faced a failed recruitment process by the government. He had similar experience with state-level government jobs earlier. In 2021, the Haryana Public Service Commission cancelled its exams eight months after holding them, without assigning a reason. Then, in 2022, he sat for the Bihar Public Service Commission exam, which was annulled after the examination papers were leaked. He took another shot at the UPSC civil service entrance exam on June 16, three days before this story was published.

Every year, millions of young Indians like Pranjay sit for multiple such exams. Each attempt incurs costs in the form of mental agony, physical strain from filling out forms, and sitting for exams across various parts of the country. And then there's the financial burden—all in the hope of securing one of the few government jobs available each year.

Source: Answer in Lok Sabha, July 27, 2022

To address this problem, at least in part, the Union government came up with a promising idea in February 2020. A common eligibility test that would serve as the basis for shortlisting candidates for various mid and junior-level jobs. Each year, an estimated three crore citizens apply for these positions.

India’s youth would no longer have to endure multiple stressful and financially debilitating tests conducted by various arms and agencies of the Union government. With this initiative, one exam would suffice, and the score obtained would enable candidates to apply for all Union government jobs at specified levels.

To conduct this test, the government said, it would set up a National Recruitment Agency, or NRA. 

In tune with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tendency to make grandiose statements, and oversell ideas and schemes, this initiative was also announced with florid claims. Modi described it as “a boon for crores of youngsters.” 

Booklet prepared by the Press Information Bureau, GOI on the NRA

Home Minister Amit Shah chimed in with a tweet, “NRA is an unprecedented step taken by the Modi government as it would create a uniform transformative recruitment process.”

For a government that has generally tried to downplay India’s abysmal unemployment situation, the move, if not revolutionary, appeared promising – provided the jobs were actually offered in the first place. 

It was to revamp the maze of applying for government jobs in India. The overhaul was anticipated to accomplish more than mere streamlining of the process. The persistent issue of leaked exam papers leading to cancelled exams was a problem that plagued the process. NRA’s single, purportedly efficient examination system for Union government jobs, was expected to plug the leaks.

However, The Reporters’ Collective found that four years after the announcement, the NRA is yet to conduct a single eligibility test. The agency remains understaffed, and the government offers different excuses each time to justify the delay while the NRA continues to fail. The promised single exam for the youth of the nation wanting to join the Union government remains a plan on paper.

When a system has to recruit a member of the parliament or assembly, the system works very well. But, when the same system recruits ordinary young Indians for a job, it fails. It is obviously for the absence of political will. There is no political will to conduct smooth recruitment exams,” said Anupam (he uses only his first name), founder of Yuva Hallabol, a collective working on youth unemployment issues.

The NRA did not respond to a detailed questionnaire. The story will be updated if and when it does. 

Half Steps to Recruitment

In the 2020 budget speech, the Union government introduced the idea of the NRA, earmarking Rs 1,517.57 crore for the initial three years of operations. 

The then finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman had said, “At present candidates have to appear for multiple examinations conducted by multiple agencies at different points of time, for similar posts. This places an enormous burden on time, effort and cost on young people. To mitigate their hardship, it is proposed to set up a National Recruitment Agency as an independent, professional, specialist organization for conduct of a computer-based online Common Eligibility Test for recruitment to non-gazetted posts.”

This was in February 2020. It took six more months for the government to outline the functioning of the NRA, at least theoretically. By August 2020, the body was officially ‘notified’, the legal term for when the government agency came into existence. 

It was decided that the agency would conduct a computer-based exam for what are called non-gazetted posts of Group B and C (lower level positions) as well as gazetted posts of Group B that don’t require consultation with another government recruitment agency, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). 

These are mid-to-junior level positions in different Union government wings with a wide range of opportunities for those with high school to undergraduate qualifications. Drivers, constables, electricians, stenographers, staff nurses to accountants and sub-inspectors – all fit into these categories. 

The Fine Print

A plain reading of the government notification revealed that the Common Eligibility Test (CET) and the NRA were unlikely to live up to the Prime Minister and Home Minister’s bluster.  

The government order outlined that the eligibility exam conducted by the NRA would cater to three levels of entrants: graduates, those who had completed standard 12, and those who had cleared standard 10. 

The exam would neither be the sole nor the conclusive test for applicants. The government termed them as the ‘first-tier’ of exams for ‘non-technical’ government jobs overseen by three existing government agencies: the Staff Selection Commission (SSC), the Railway Recruitment Boards (RRB), and the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection (IBPS). Candidates could still face additional exams for specific posts imposed by the three recruitment agencies as a top-up.

Essentially NRA’s exam was designed as a preliminary filter for the existing three government recruitment agencies to handle fewer applicants. This meant that instead of three, India would now have four agencies overseeing recruitment for the same number of jobs. 

Office Memorandum, Government of India, August 28, 2020

The government’s order establishing the NRA was open-ended, setting no deadlines for the new agency to become fully functional or even partially operational. This is in contrast to the government’s usual practice for high-profile social welfare programmes, which typically have clearly defined targets and deadlines, and are announced with much fanfare. 

The notification said that during an undefined initial period, the eligibility exam would be held bi-annually. The NRA would “enhance the frequency of the CET at each level in a planned manner so as to reach a stage where it shall afford an opportunity to a candidate to book and take the test on the date and time requested by him.” 

If the NRA were a newly constructed house, there was no move-in date—just a sketch of what it might look like at some uncertain future time.

The structure of the NRA itself was kept muddled. The government indicated it would be set up as a registered society but operate internally like a company. Under the laws, a society follows relatively simpler reporting and accounting norms. In contrast, a company must report its accounts and functioning to the government, making these records publicly available. 

The government further said that the NRA would function autonomously, yet in another line of the same order curtailed its autonomy by stating, “Government of India shall give directions to the NRA and the Governing Body in respect of its policies and the NRA shall be bound to comply with such directions.”

A Bridge Too Far

A year after its announcement, the NRA remained a work-in-progress. On February 10, 2021, Jitendra Singh, the then Minister of State (MoS) for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, informed the Lok Sabha that the NRA was expected to conduct its first exam in 2021.

It was a false promise. The NRA did not take off. Another year passed without any progress. By May 2022, the government claimed that the NRA would conduct a central exam for non-gazetted posts by the end of the year. 

Answer in Lok Sabha, February 10, 2021
Press Information Bureau release, May 22, 2022

The bombastic language continued, with the minister describing the NRA as a  “path-breaking” and “historic” reform  that would “prove to be a major boon for youth, especially those living in far-flung and remote areas.”

He suggested significant progress, claiming, “Test will be conducted in 12 languages, including Hindi and English, and will later on add all the languages mentioned in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.”

Internally, however, the NRA was still to finalise the syllabus, scheme of examination, and fee structure and create a fairness mechanism for students. An expert advisory committee was set up sometime before March 2022 to figure out what technology to use. After a year, the status of the committee’s findings remained obscure. 

It was already behind the delayed timetable the government had claimed before citizens. The NRA wanted to build a ‘digital platform’ for which the government’s informatics arm, the National Informatics Centre (NIC), had submitted a project proposal by July 2022, according to a parliamentary standing committee report tabled in August 2023. The NIC was to send a revised proposal, and once agreed upon, its software team would need another eight to ten months to make the digital portal functional, records said. 

Only then would the NRA consider actually conducting exams, as government and Parliamentary records indicated. By plain logic, it was clear that the exams could not be held by the end of the year in 12 languages, as the government was claiming. 

Predictably, the deadline expired. By December 2022, the government had spent only Rs 20.50 crore on the functioning of the NRA out of the Rs 1,517 crore committed for three years. In Financial Year 2021-22, Rs 13.85 crore was spent, and for FY 2022-23, Rs 396 crore was allocated, but no money had been released by December 2022, revealed an RTI (Right to Information) request filed by this reporter.

Response to application under Right to Information Act, 2005 by NRA, February 8, 2023

In August 2023, three years after the NRA had been announced, Congress Rajya Sabha member Randeep Singh Surjewala asked the government yet again on why the agency had failed to conduct a single exam, let alone establishing and running a full fledged exam system. 

This time around, the grandiose claim gave way to a long-winding technical excuse. 

On August 10, 2023, Minister of State Jitendra Singh responded to Surjewala in Parliament, stating, “The conduct of CET for Group B and C posts is a total paradigm shift which requires availability of reliable IT and physical infrastructure, apart from norms/guidelines for various stages of CET, pan India. Hence, CET can be implemented only after IT and physical structure have been put in place and norms/guidelines for various stages for the same have been evolved.”

Three years on, the NRA and the Union government, under whose strict instructions the agency worked, had failed to put even the basic arrangements in place. 

In 2020, the government claimed that the exam would be conducted at 1,000 centers across the country, covering all the country’s districts. However, in August 2023, in response to another RTI filed by this reporter, the government admitted that the exam centers had not been finalised. 

By then, the NRA itself was working at less than planned capacity. It was supposed to have seven regional offices, but none had been set up. Of the 33 sanctioned positions in the headquarter of the NRA, 24 (72%) remained vacant.

The government’s reply to the Right To Information Act application highlighted the government’s sluggishness. The NRA  operates under the guidance of an Apex Level Governing Body comprising a chairman and eight members, representing various organizations, including the Department of Personnel and Training, Railways, and Staff Selection Commission. 

Response to application under Right to Information Act, 2005, by the NRA August 16, 2023

Since its inception, the governing body met only twice. First on June 21, 2022, and then again on January 12, 2023. The government refused to disclose the minutes of these meetings, citing confidentiality.

It is around the same time, the Union government came under criticism from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice. 

In August 2023, the committee’s report noted, “The Committee emphasises that the much awaited National Recruitment Agency (NRA), which was mandated to conduct examinations for Group ‘B’ and Group ‘C’ employees, is not fully functional as of now.”

The report recorded that the NRA was still not operational even after three and a half years. It wondered when the agency would actually begin functioning.

It said, “NRA cannot take another two years to get fully functional.” 

The committee members concluded that given the sluggish pace, the agency should at least try to get smaller-scale exams off the ground. 

“The Committee advises the NRA to start with graduate level examinations so that the number of candidates with required eligibility is reduced. In case it starts with an exam which requires eligibility of class 10th, all graduates will automatically become eligible and hence the numbers would be large and unmanageable,” the committee recommended. 

In what would be seen as a snub, the NRA was asked to consult other government recruitment agencies, such as the SSC , on how to conduct exams – the very agencies it was meant to partly replace.

That was a report in 2023. 

By February 2024, the government seemed to have forgotten the NRA. When it passed a hurried law to prevent cheating and paper leaks in exams, it made the law applicable to all other central recruitment agencies, such as the UPSC, SSC and RRB, but the name of NRA was missing. 

As the government entered the Financial Year 2024-25. The NRA and the Common Eligibility Exam was yet to take off. But Parliamentary elections was around the corner. 

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hid its dubious record behind even taller promises.  

In its manifesto the party claimed, “We have set the example for conducting recruitment exams in a transparent manner and recruited lakhs of youth for government jobs. We will continue to fill the government vacancies in a time bound and transparent manner.”

While the manifesto didn’t mention the NRA directly, that was the only new mechanism the government had set in motion for transparent and timely eligibility exams.

Although the government had failed to hold recruitment exams for jobs in the Union government, that did not deter the BJP from stating in its 2024 manifesto, “We will also extend the central government capacity to states that request support in conducting recruitment examinations.”

With Narendra Modi now in power for a consecutive third term, the common eligibility test remains a promised dream which refuses to come true. Aspirants like Pranjay continue to sit for multiple exams despite fears of cancellations and paper leaks. 

While the NRA did not respond to written queries, an official speaking off the record told The Collective that the exam syllabus, the identification of promised 1,000 exam centers across the country and a date for the first common eligibility exam remained a work-in-progress.

Suchak Patel is a TRC Investigative Reporting Fellowship grantee. He is an independent journalist and researcher.