Manoj Jatav possesses a rare distinction in the village of Murlipur, a crowded hamlet some 15km outside Meerut in Uttar Pradesh: he is the first scheduled caste member in the village’s history to get a doctorate in philosophy (PhD).

But all his education hasn’t helped him attain his ultimate goal: a government job as a lecturer.

Extended study: Craig Jeffrey of St John’s College; and (top) students at the Chaudhary Charan Singh University campus in Meerut. Priyanka Parashar / Mint

Jatav is one of hundreds of unemployed graduates in Meerut, qualified on paper but unable to find work in the elusive but sought-after government sector, which offers unparalleled job security and benefits, and remains the desired career for graduates in small-town India. Many are from poor farming families for whom higher education was once a pipe dream. Most, like Jatav, are first-generation students, encouraged by their parents to reach for a piece of the New India that has opened up in the last few decades to the underprivileged, especially those from the scheduled castes or other backward classes, thanks to programmes that reserve seats for such people in colleges.

Still, education doesn’t always mean jobs. In some cases this is because the graduates (or postgraduates or PhDs) are simply unemployable, a reflection of the quality of education in some schools and colleges. Manish Sabharwal, chairman of Teamlease Services Pvt. Ltd, perceives a divide between what he terms “learning for earning" and “learning for living" in the mindset of some of India’s educational institutions.

“There should not really be a contradiction between the two," he says, acknowledging that many graduates are simply without the vocational skills they need in the workplace.

In Uttar Pradesh, which has has a literacy rate of 56.3%, as measured in the 2001 census, much lower than the national average of 64.8%, however, the issue seems to be rather more complex—and poignant.

According to Craig Jeffrey, a lecturer and fellow at St John’s College, Oxford University, “The sheer scale of the problem of youth unemployment is staggering. There are regularly more than 10,000 applicants for a single government post in Meerut."

Dogged pursuit: (from right) Manoj Jatav, his wife Manju Singh and his brother Deepak Singh. Manju is studying for a master’s degree, while the others hold PhDs. Priyanka Parashar / Mint

Jeffrey perceives a “perfect storm of socio-economic trends" that has resulted in the current situation in Meerut.

And so, in the two years since he got his PhD, Jatav has supported himself through several temporary assignments offered to him by friends, a bit of guest lecturing in private institutions, some tutoring and research work; none of this is enough to make him self-sufficient. “I’m dependent on my family," he says. “I’m searching, but there’s no job."

Educated unemployed

Jeffrey’s “perfect storm" of factors includes a spike in Uttar Pradesh’s youth population in the 2000s (according to the 2001 census, there were nearly 50% more young men in the 15-29 age group than in the 30-44 age group). This surge, Jeffrey states, combined with a decline in the standard of the state’s secondary and higher education and a reduction in the number of new jobs created by the state government, has caused “a vast gulf to open up in the state between a tiny upper stratum of higher educational institutions offering internationally acclaimed qualifications and the mass of poorly funded government and private institutions, for the majority of the population".

In Meerut, the result is widespread graduate unemployment.

On the campus of Chaudhary Charan Singh University (CCSU) in Meerut, a group of graduates in their 20s and 30s are gathered in the shade of a local Hindu temple to bemoan their lack of job prospects. “We have no option but to return to farming," says Snehveer Pundir, the son of a farming family, who has been studying at the university for 10 years. Pundir has three degrees and completed his PhD in 2007. Unable to secure a coveted government job, he is dependent on his family and travels home during harvest or sowing season to work on the farm.

Ashok Panwar, 30, is working for his fifth degree at CCSU, a PhD in political science. His farming family supports him and considers the forthcoming PhD a necessity for future employment. His double master’s degree (in education and political science) is the result of a premeditated strategy to increase his chances of employment. “If I can’t get into one line then I can choose the other," he explains.

Neither Pundir nor Panwar seem keen on private sector jobs. Manoj Chokker, with three degrees, finally settled for one, having applied fruitlessly for 20-30 government jobs. He is now a lecturer at a private college in Budhana, north of Meerut.

According to Pankul Sharma, a journalist with Amar Ujala, who has studied the issue of graduate unemployment in Meerut, it isn’t that there aren’t enough jobs. It’s just that the quality of education in Meerut is poor. “To say that the number of jobs is decreasing here is not true," says Sharma. “There are huge numbers in the private sector but there is a lack of qualified graduates here. We are getting the degrees, but not the competence that should come with them... The syllabus is 30, 40, even 50 years old. These PhDs and MPhils (master’s in philosophy) can’t compete in the fight against graduates from Delhi University."

Sharma points to systemic failure in university management and claims that corruption and complacency have allowed standards to fall, producing unemployable graduates. “The parents expect that their children will get jobs," said Sharma. “When you’re living in a small town you think that when you get admission to university everything will be fine."

University spokesperson S.C. Pitlani denies that Meerut’s graduates are at a disadvantage as a result of teaching methods and claimed the students learn in a mix of English and Hindi. Many enrol with little or no knowledge of English and thus require tuition in Hindi, he says. Pitlani also says the syllabus is changed every three or four years and that from 2010-11 the university will abandon the current annual term and switch to a more modern semester system.

Unintended fallouts

A side effect of the lengthy, and often futile, search for jobs is that it leaves a lot of young men in Meerut with a lot of time on their hands. For many, the alternative to returning home is to eke out a living in the university hostels, relying on family members for money and registering for yet another degree.

“What else are they going to do?" asks Jeffrey. “It’s shameful going back to the village without a job. It’s not that expensive to stay in education."

Jeffrey has built a thesis around the phenomenon of extended studying in Meerut. He suggests that there are several parties with vested interests in the concept of multiple degrees, from hopeful parents to private entrepreneurs who offer tutorial services and promise that final qualification to help you clinch your ideal job. “It’s ‘one more degree, one more degree, and you’ll get your job’," he says.

It’s hard to miss the numerous billboards advertising private tutorials and coaching and, according to Jeffrey and the students, this kind of incentive-based “help" exists within the university framework too, with ex-students setting themselves up as “fixers", offering to guarantee admissions, good exam results and lucrative business contracts to those who can afford it.

Student malaise and discontent in Meerut has also sparked renewed interest in university politics. Digvijay Bhatti is a member of a group that calls itself the Student Struggle Committee and which organized a five-day hunger strike in January in protest against a proposed fee hike by the vice-chancellor. Bhatti has a bachelor’s in arts, a master’s in business administration and an MPhil in public administration, but he wants to be a politician. Bhatti speaks animatedly as he flips through a fat clippings book of photocopied newspaper articles covering various student protests. In each picture, he has circled his own face with a yellow highlighter pen.

Bhatti, who says he is 24, is also from a farming family and dependent on his parents. His elder brother has a government job as a lecturer in a degree college. His parents nag him, Bhatti admitted, comparing him to his brother. “I’m not married yet; if you don’t do anything for a living then how can you get married?" The men listening nod and laugh their agreement. Leaning on each other’s shoulders, they might be a group of teenagers, if not for the wrinkles and streaks of grey about their ears.

Jeffrey’s forthcoming book, Timepass: Youth, Class and the Politics of Waiting in India, to be published in November by Stanford University Press, is a study of the state of limbo in which the young men of Meerut find themselves; adrift in a kind of no-man’s land between student life and employment. “A lot of the students in this situation are just waiting," Jeffrey says, “waiting for something to change."

“The word (timepass) should have a positive connotation," explains Jeffrey, “but for these men it has a melancholy, sad feeling. They feel that they are being left behind; for them, life has just become a timepass."

In Murlipur, Manoj Jatav, his wife Manju, now studying for a master’s degree in Sanskrit, and his brother Deepak Singh, the second PhD in the village, sit in the sparsely furnished reception room of their brick house, discussing the advantages of an education. Deepak, a grave young man, wears a perpetual frown.

“There’s a lot of depression," he says, furrowing his brow still deeper. But, “I am optimistic", he says, reasoning that he is the only one of his caste in 15 villages to have a PhD in commerce.

“I think there’s a full chance of getting a government job as a lecturer."