Arti Kumari, 22, crouched on a dusty dirt track in a runner’s lunge, waiting to spring forward as soon as her mother started the clock.
Although Arti had risen before dawn to train, the oppressive heat bore down on her. It was May, and northern India was experiencing its worst heat wave in 45 years.
But Arti was determined to continue her training for a run that could change her life. She, like millions of other young people in India, dreamed of getting a job with India’s central government. But the exams to win such positions are extremely competitive. Only a tiny fraction of applicants achieves passing grades, and many study for years in order to do so.
Arti had already beaten the odds and passed the written exams for India’s Central Industrial Security Force, or C.I.S.F., a paramilitary corps responsible for guarding critical infrastructure. Now, to win one of its coveted jobs, she would also have to pass a physical test, including running a mile in seven minutes or less.
So as others in their village pushed sleep out of their eyes at 3 a.m. to spend five hours collecting wheat and mustard seed from the fields before the sun forced them back inside, Arti and her mother, Meena, went to a makeshift track nearby.
Crouch. Start. Run.
Because seven minutes could change everything.
Her village considered it shocking for a woman of Arti’s age to still be single. But Arti and Meena gambled that the risks of delaying Arti’s marriage would be worth it if she won the lifelong security of a government job.
For more than two years, Arti had negotiated a string of delays to the marriage her father had arranged for her to a young man named Rohit Kumar.
First, she managed to win a year’s extension of the engagement to finish her university degree. Then, as that drew to a close, she managed to delay the wedding another year to take the civil service exams that stood between her and her dream of a government job.
But as time wore on, Rohit’s family began threatening to break off the engagement and find another woman more willing to wed immediately.
Arti’s father and extended family worried that having to find a new groom for her could bring about a high dowry and other uncertainty. The gamble that she would get a government job began to seem increasingly risky.
But if you were going to place such a bet on any young woman from Belarhi, a small village surrounded by farmland in the poor and mountainous state of Bihar, Arti Kumari would be the odds-on favorite.
She seemed like the kind of girl for whom superlatives were invented: the smartest, the strongest, the most determined. Her bedroom wall was festooned with medals from her school’s math race, an event that combined running sprints and solving equations. Arti, blessed with both intelligence and athletic ability, cleaned up in it.
Arti could not rely on money from her father, a poor farmer. But she had an unusual asset for a village girl: a mother who worked outside the home, and who was determined to make sure her daughter would never be a trapped, dependent wife.
Meena, Arti’s mother, had high ambitions of her own as a girl. In Meena’s home village, education ended at primary school, so she persuaded her parents to let her take the bus to another village. She became the first girl in the family to finish middle school.
But when she was freshly graduated from the eighth grade, her parents decided it was time for her to marry.
“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 grow up, I will get a good job that pays well, and I, too, will have a purse full of money.’”
Meena managed to finish high school shortly after her wedding, when she was 17, writing her final exams while already heavily pregnant with Arti. But that, for many years, was where her freedom ended.
Her husband’s family controlled money and all other household resources, and they refused to give Meena basic support.
“Anything I asked for, even soap, or detergent to wash clothes, they would say ‘You don’t need it,’” she recalled. Worst of all, she often lacked food to feed her children.
After eight years, when there was a real risk that Arti and her younger sister, Shanti, might starve, Meena’s mother-in-law finally allowed Meena 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 government-provided prenatal care and vaccinations.
The work was often grueling. 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 be dependent on anyone.”
As Arti’s hard-won days of freedom ticked by, she was beginning to confront an uncomfortable truth: Government job opportunities were few and far between, even for Belarhi’s most accomplished daughters. But those were the only jobs that offered the security Arti craved.
“Unless you steal, unless you go mad, unless you die, the job is not going to go away,” said Trijita Gonsalves, a political scientist at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, and author of a book about women in the Indian civil service. Government jobs also offer better retirement programs and more protections against harassment and gender discrimination, she said, although those rules are often not enforced. “These are the reasons people pray for government jobs so much, and not the private jobs,” Gonsalves added.
But jobs with India’s federal government are dauntingly competitive. Since 2014, there have been an average of only three government jobs for every thousand young Indians pursuing one. Those who eventually succeed have often spent years studying and retaking the exams. Although quotas for women and members of disadvantaged castes give some candidates a better chance, the time and freedom to study are still beyond the reach of many.
The vast demand for government jobs hints at a broader problem. Although India has a remarkably young population, with more than two-thirds of the country within working age, it has struggled to create enough jobs to take advantage of that “demographic dividend”— and the situation is growing steadily worse. In the 1990s, when India began a dramatic project of economic liberalization, about 43 percent of Indians aged 15 through 24 had jobs. By the time the pandemic arrived in 2020, just about 23 percent of this same group was employed, according to the World Bank.
Arti had taken what felt like countless civil service exams. But although she was a star student and studied at every opportunity, she failed nearly all of the exams.
Then, the final hope had arrived, in the form of a notice that Arti had passed the written exam for the industrial security force. She still had a chance to get the job she dreamed of — as long as she could pass the physical phase of the exam, including running that seven-minute mile.
But after ultimatums from Rohit’s parents and Arti’s own extended family, who threatened to never speak to her again if she did not marry before the end of the year, her wedding had been irrevocably set for the first week of May 2022.
After her marriage, Arti’s time would not be her own. She and Rohit would live at his parents’ home, and Rohit’s conservative mother had made it clear that she expected Arti to be a traditional daughter-in-law, focused on caring for her husband and his parents.
Rohit, who had a more progressive view of things after two years of conversations with Arti during their engagement, had promised to support Arti’s ambitions after they were married. She hoped that would mean she could continue to train and take the government job if she landed it. But if he changed his mind after the wedding, or his parents overruled him, there would be little that she or her mother could do about it.
So as her final days of independence dwindled, Arti rose early to train whenever she could, even as the dangerous heat began to take a toll on her health.
A few weeks before the wedding, she collapsed from dehydration and had to be hospitalized. But as soon as she recovered, she went back to training in the steamy mornings. There was no time to lose.
Crouch. Start. Run. Seven minutes, for a chance at a better life.
Bhumika Saraswati, Nikita Jain and Andrea Bruce contributed reporting.