Rupesh Moharkar pulls his cohort of men and women in their 20s into a huddle for a quick pep talk.

“Stay focused,” shouts the 31-year-old as the young people listen attentively to his brief sermon. “There is no room for lethargy!” It is now or never, he reminds them.

Nodding in affirmation, faces serious, the bunch erupts in a victory cry. All pumped up, they go back to sprinting, running and stretching – physical-training that they’ve been doing for a month.

It’s early April, 6 a.m. and Shivaji Stadium in Bhandara – the city’s only public ground – is crowded with boisterous youth, sweating it out, sprinting 100 metres; running 1,600 metres; practising shot put and other drills to build stamina.

The last thing on their minds is the General Elections looming ahead where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a re-election for the third successive term. Bhandara-Gondia Parliamentary constituency votes on April 19, 2024 in the first phase of what will be a long, arduous, and sweaty election season.

Far from election battles, these young men and women are focused on preparing for the ensuing state police recruitment drive, applications for which close on April 15. The examination – which will be a combination of a physical and a written test, will be held in a couple of months to fill vacancies for police constables, constable drivers, State Reserve Police Force, police bandsmen and prison constables.

PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar
PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar

Rupesh Moharkar (left) is a farmer's son in Bhandara, eastern Maharashtra who is training for his last chance to join the state police. He also coaches young people from Bhandara and Gondia districts – children of small farmers who are aiming to secure a permanent state government job

India’s youth account for almost 83 per cent of the unemployed workforce, while the share of those with secondary or higher education among the unemployed has increased from 54.2 per cent in 2000 to 65.7 per cent in 2022, according to the 2024 India Unemployment Report released recently by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Institute of Human Development (IHD).

If unemployment and simmering anxiety among the country’s rural youths had a face, it would pretty much look like a swarming Shivaji Stadium at this moment where everyone is competing with everyone else, but know only a few will sail through. The going is tough. Lakhs will vie for a few vacancies.

Bhandara and Gondia are forest-rich, high rainfall districts, cultivating paddy, but without any notable industries to absorb the sizeable Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes population. The last two decades have seen heavy out-migrations from these districts to other states, of small, marginal and landless farmers.

The Maharashtra Home Department announced a recruitment drive to fill up 17,130 posts with a district-wise quota. Bhandara police have 60 vacancies, 24 of which are reserved for women. Gondia has some 110 posts.

Rupesh is vying for one of those posts. Raised by his mother after his father passed away when he was a child, Rupesh’s family own an acre of land in Sonuli village near Bhandara. This is his last chance to crack the recruitment drive and get the vardi (uniform).

“There’s no Plan B for me.”

PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar

Rupesh Moharkar’s cohort of about 50 men and women during a recent training drill at Shivaji Stadium in Bhandara

And while he pursues his dream, he volunteers to guide nearly 50 youngsters, men and women, in this economically-lagging district in eastern Maharashtra.

Informally, Rupesh runs an academy aptly christened ‘Sangharsh’ after their own struggle. Every member of his group is from non-descript villages of the Bhandara and Gondia districts – children of small farmers, aiming to secure a permanent job, hoping to bag the uniform, and ease their families’ burdens. Each of them has passed the higher secondary school, very few have a degree.

How many of them have worked on the farms? All of them raise their hands.

How many of them migrated for work elsewhere? Some of them did in the past.

Most of them have worked on the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) sites.

This is but one group. The stadium is filled with several informal academy groups, mostly led by individuals like Rupesh who’ve made unsuccessful attempts before to crack the exam.

PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar
PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar

At the only open public grounds in Bhandara city, young men and women in their twenties are sweating it out in the run up to the State police recruitment drive, 2024. Most of them are first or second-time voters, anxious about their future

Many of the youth doing physical drills here are first or second-time voters. They are angry, but also quietly anxious about their career and future. They told PARI that they covet secure jobs in other sectors too, quality higher education, better life in villages and equal opportunities. They demand a quota in district police vacancies for the local residents.

“This recruitment is happening after three years,” says Gurudeepsingh Bacchil, an aspirant who, at 32, like Rupesh, is looking to give it a final shot. The son of a retired policeman, Rupesh has been trying for a decade to bag a job in the police. “I clear the physical tests but get stuck in the written part,” he says as he walks across the stadium filled with aspirants.

There’s another catch: many better-prepared and resourceful aspirants from better parts of Maharashtra apply for vacancies in lagging regions like Bhandara and Gondia, outclassing the locals, most aspirants lament. Gadchiroli, one of the left-wing-extremism (LWE) affected districts, is an exception where only the local residents can apply and get police jobs. For Rupesh and others, the going therefore gets tough.

So, they all practise, and practise hard.

The air in the stadium is filled with red dust raised by the scampering sprints of a hundred legs. The aspirants, wearing modest track-suits or pants; some of them with shoes on, others bare feet, are trying to better their timing. Nothing can distract them, much less elections that look so distant here.

PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar
PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar

Left: Rupesh Moharkar at work in his aunt’s chicken shop in Bhandara. Raised by his mother after his father passed away when he was a child, his family own an acre of land in Sonuli village near Bhandara. This is his last chance to crack the exam. The young people he trains in physical drills seen here at a recent morning session to discuss strategy and talk about their shortcomings

At his aunt’s shop in Bhandara, Rupesh works as a butcher though he’s not one by caste. That’s his contribution to his aunt Prabha Shendre’s family. Wearing an apron, he hacks chickens like an expert and deals with a steady stream of customers. He’s been doing it for seven years, dreaming he’ll get the khaki uniform one day.

That most of the aspirants have an uphill task is borne out by their poverty.

To endure hard physical drills, Rupesh says, you need a good diet – chicken, eggs, mutton, milk, fruits… “Most of us can’t afford a good meal,” he says.


Bhandara is like a hub for the poorest rural young men and women to come, stay and prepare for the police recruitment drive – every time it’s advertised.

A billion dreams jostle with each other at the Shivaji Stadium. More youth from the district will arrive on the ground as the days progress. Like the one we meet at the MGNREGA worksite in Araktondi village, in Gondia’s Arjuni Morgaon tehsil, bordering Gadchiroli: Megha Meshram, 24, a graduate, is ferrying sand and boulders along with her mother Sarita and about 300 other villagers, young and old, at a road site. So is Megha Aade, 23. The former is a Dalit (Scheduled Caste), the latter an Adivasi (Scheduled Tribe).

“We run and do our drills in the village in the mornings and the evenings,” Megha Meshram tells us with a resolute voice. She lives in a thickly forested landscape and works through the day helping her parents, earning a daily wage. Both the Meghas have heard of the Bhandara academies and are thinking of moving there in May to join the hundreds who aspire to be in the police force. They are saving their wages to pay for their expenses.

PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar
PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar

Left: Megha Meshram has applied for the police recruitment drive; the young Dalit girl currently works at the MGNREGA site in her village, helping her mother Sarita. Right: Megha Meshram with Megha Aade, are friends working at the MGNREGA site. Both are graduates and aspire to join the police force in the state police recruitment drive 2024

Once there, they will rent rooms and live in groups, cooking and preparing for the exams together. When someone cracks the exam, they all celebrate. Others return to the tracks the next morning, waiting for the next recruitments to be announced.

Young girls are not behind their male counterparts, never mind the hardships.

“I lose out on my height,” says Vaishali Meshram, 21, with a sheepish smile that betrays her embarrassment. That’s not in her hands, she adds. So, she applied in the ‘bandsmen’ category, where her height won’t be a roadblock.

Vaishali has been sharing a room in the city with her younger sister Gayatri and another police force aspirant, Mayuri Gharade, 21, from another village. In their neat and tidy room, they take turns to cook food. Their monthly expenditure: at least Rs. 3,000. Their protein intake: mainly gram and pulses.

Skyrocketing prices are impacting their budgets, Vaishali says. “Everything is expensive.”

Their daily schedule is hectic: they get up at 5 a.m., cycle down to the ground for physical training. From 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., they study at a nearby library. Rupesh drops by, between his work at the meat shop, and guides them with mock test paper drills. In the evening, they are back on the ground for physical drills; they wrap up the day with test prep.

PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar
PHOTO • Jaideep Hardikar

Like other young women in the photo, Vaishali Tulshiram Meshram (left) is trying for a state police job. With her roommate Mayuri Gharade (right) who is also aiming for the Maharashtra police recruitment drive 2024

Individuals like Rupesh or Vaishali are actually trying to move out of agriculture, in which they don’t see their future – most of them see their parents do the hard work on the fields without any returns. They don’t want to migrate long distances as footloose labour.

As they grow older, they become desperate to land secure jobs, a livelihood that they say is dignified. But jobs – in the private sector and government – are few and far between. As the elections 2024 kick-off, they are frustrated that the incumbent regime isn’t talking about their future. This police recruitment drive is the only chance for those who have passed Class 12 but don’t have more qualifications.

Who will they vote for in the coming elections?

A long silence follows that question. It’s out of syllabus!

Jaideep Hardikar

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist and writer, and a PARI core team member.

Other stories by Jaideep Hardikar
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David