Dream job or arranged marriage? An Indian woman reflects on the future. | ET REALITY

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Arti Kumari, 22, crouched on a dusty dirt track while doing a runner’s lunge, hoping to leap forward as soon as his mother started the stopwatch.

Although Arti had gotten up before dawn to train, the oppressive heat overwhelmed her. It was May and northern India was experiencing its worst heat wave in 45 years.

But Arti was determined to continue training for a race that could change her life. She, like millions of other young people in India, dreamed of getting a job in India’s central government. But the exams to win those positions are extremely competitive. Only a small fraction of applicants achieve passing grades, and many study for years to do so.

Arti had already beaten the odds and passed the written exams for India’s Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a paramilitary body responsible for protecting critical infrastructure. Now, to earn one of his coveted spots, he would also have to pass a physical test, including running a mile in seven minutes or less.

So, while others in their village wiped the sleep from their eyes at 3 a.m. to spend five hours picking wheat and mustard seeds from the fields before the sun forced them back inside, Arti and her mother, Meena, they headed to a nearby makeshift path.

Bend. Begin. Run.

Because seven minutes could change everything.

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His people considered it shocking. that a woman of Arti’s age is still single. But Arti and Meena bet that the risks of delaying Arti’s marriage would be worth it if she got the lifelong security of a government job.

For more than two years, Arti had negotiated a series of delays in the marriage her father had arranged for her to a young man named Rohit Kumar.

First, he managed to win a one-year commitment extension to finish his college career. Then, when that came to an end for her, she managed to delay the wedding for another year to take the civil service exams that stood between her and her dream of a government job.

But as time passed, Rohit’s family began threatening to break off the engagement and find another woman more willing to marry immediately.

Arti’s father and his family were worried that having to find her a new boyfriend could lead to a high dowry and other uncertainties. The bet that he would get a government job began to look increasingly risky.

But if you were to make that bet on any young woman from Belarhi, a small village surrounded by farmland in the poor, mountainous state of Bihar, Arti Kumari would be the favourite.

She seemed like the kind of girl for whom superlatives were invented: the smartest, the strongest, the most determined. Her bedroom wall was adorned with medals from her school’s math race, an event that combined sprinting and solving equations. Arti, blessed with intelligence and athletic ability, got clean with him.

Arti could not depend on money from his father, a poor farmer. But she had an unusual advantage for a small-town girl: a mother who worked outside the home and was determined to ensure that her daughter never became a trapped, dependent wife.

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Meena, Arti’s mother, had big ambitions as a child. In Meena’s hometown, His studies ended in primary school, so he convinced his parents to let him take the bus to another village. She became the first girl in the family to finish high school.

But when he just graduated from eighth grade, his parents decided it was time for him to get married.

“I loved studying. I wanted to study hard and get a good job,” Meena said. “I used to see people on the bus with wallets full of money and I thought, ‘When I’m older, I’ll get a good job that pays well and I’ll have a wallet full of money too.’”

Meena managed to finish high school shortly after her wedding, when she was 17, and took her final exams while already heavily pregnant with Arti. But there, for many years, was where her freedom ended.

Her husband’s family controlled the money and all other resources in the home, and they refused to provide Meena with basic sustenance.

“Anything I asked for, even soap or laundry detergent, they told me, ‘You don’t need it,’” he recalled. Worst of all, he often lacked food to feed his children.

After eight years, when there was a real risk that Arti and her younger sister Shanti would starve to death, Meena’s mother-in-law finally allowed her to get a job at a local women’s NGO. Her job was to go door-to-door in surrounding villages to encourage rural families to take advantage of prenatal care and vaccines provided by the government.

The work was often exhausting. But the salary allowed Meena to educate her two daughters despite her husband’s objections.

“I decided that my daughters will not live like this,” she said. “They will not depend on anyone.”

***

As Arti’s hard-won days of freedom passed, she was beginning to face an uncomfortable truth: Government job opportunities were few and far between, even for Belarhi’s most successful daughters. But those were the only jobs that offered the security Arti craved.

“Unless you steal, unless you go crazy, unless you die, work will not go away,” said Trijita Gonsalves, a political scientist at Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta and author of a book on women in the Indian civil service. Government jobs also offer better retirement programs and more protection from harassment and gender discrimination, she said, although those rules are often not enforced. “These are the reasons why people pray so much for government jobs, and not for private jobs,” Gonsalves added.

But federal government jobs in India are fiercely competitive. Since 2014, there has been an average of only three government jobs per thousand young Indians chasing one. Those who finally make it often spend years studying and retaking exams. Although quotas for women and members of scheduled castes give some candidates better opportunities, the time and freedom to study are still out of reach for many.

The high demand for government jobs points to a broader problem. Although India has a remarkably young population, with more than two-thirds of the country of working age, it has struggled to create enough jobs to take advantage of that “demographic dividend,” and the situation is steadily worsening. In the 1990s, when India began a dramatic economic liberalization project, about 43 percent of Indians aged 15 to 24 were employed. When the pandemic hit in 2020, only about 23 percent of this same group was employed, according to the World Bank.

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Arti had taken what seemed like countless civil service exams.. But although she was a star student and studied at every opportunity, she failed almost every exam.

Then came the last hope, in the form of a notice that Arti had passed the written exam for the industrial security force. He still had a chance to get the job he dreamed of, as long as he could pass the physical phase of the test, including running that seven-minute mile.

But after ultimatums from Rohit’s parents and Arti’s own family, who threatened not to speak to her again if she didn’t get married before the end of the year, their wedding had been irrevocably set for the first week of May. 2022.

After their marriage, Arti’s time would not be his. She and Rohit would live in her parents’ house, and Rohit’s conservative mother had made it clear that she expected Arti to be a traditional daughter-in-law, focused on taking care of her husband and her parents.

Rohit, who had a more progressive view on things after two years of conversations with Arti during their engagement, had promised to support Arti’s ambitions after they got married. He hoped that would mean he could continue training and accept the government job if he got it. But if he changed his mind after the wedding, or if his parents overruled him, there was little she or her mother could do about it.

So, as his last days of independence dwindled, Arti got up early to train whenever he could, even as the dangerous heat began to take its toll on his health.

A few weeks before the wedding, she collapsed from dehydration and had to be hospitalized. But as soon as she recovered, she returned to training in the hot mornings. There was no time to lose.

Bend. Begin. Run. Seven minutes, to have the opportunity for a better life.

Bhumika Saraswati, Nikita Jain and Andrea Bruce contributed with reports.

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