Kill for the IAS

Nandini Nair Priyanka Kotamraju | Updated on August 22, 2014

Pelf in the gloomThe lure of officialdom - the white Ambassador, the red beacon, the power. Photo: Monica Tiwari

Civil societyMembers of the NSUI protest against the use of force against UPSC aspirants in Delhi earlier this month. Photo RV Moorthy

UPSC aspirant Mohammed Aftab in his papery world at Mukherjee Nagar. Photo: Monica Tiwari

The bustling Aggarwalwala lane, also in Mukherjee Nagar Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Service industryShashibhushan Chaubey outside the photocopy shop he set up after exhausting all his CSAT attempts

Sunday morning nine lakh candidates will sit for the Civil Services Aptitude Test. Aspirants give years to this exam… this cause. BLink maps their story of hope and inertia

Shashibhushan Chaubey is the master of all he surveys. He bestrides the pavement, arms akimbo, shirt stretched across paunch, teeth stained with paan and gold chain peeping out from under a denim collar. The hopefuls bow, fawn and ask for his advice. “Vajiram guide,” he decrees, as if revealing a secret panacea. The repeaters dive straight for the piles of yellow and white stacks, they flip left, they flip right, make a quick purchase and scurry back to their rooms. Those who have cleared the prelims (PTs in local parlance) or even the mains, shake his hand, do salaam and swagger on.

Forty-two-year-old Chaubey runs Atul Photostat opposite Batra Cinema in Mukherjee Nagar, north Delhi. The piles of guidebooks and study material he sells from his 10x10 feet shop might one day distill Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers from candidates. Started in 2005, in a basement, today Atul Photostat is a meeting point for aspirants, who arrive in lakhs to north Delhi from across India. ‘Seniors’ counsel ‘juniors’, recommending certain coaching institutes while declaring others bogus, ‘juniors’ provide newbies with all-important paying guest and dabba advice.

Chaubey first came to Delhi from Aurangabad district, Bihar, in 2001. At that time, there was only one coaching academy on the block. He refused to join, believing that he could study better on his own. For four years, he shared a room with three others and studied every day for 14 to 16 hours. Did he see much of Delhi? What did he think of the city? He throws a disdainful stare, “Mera matlab aur maksad sirf padhai se tha...” (My only goal and purpose was studies.) He married during those years, but his wife remained in Bihar with his parents so he could study. They didn’t urge him to return; while failure is a festering fear, there is nothing stronger — or more human — than hope. Once he had exhausted his chances, he had little interest in finding another profession. The UPSC had ensnared him. If he couldn’t make the hallowed service, he’d help others do it. And what better way than providing students study guides.

The Cause

Sunday (August 24) morning nine lakh candidates will sit for the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT). Of these, less than 200 will make it to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and 1,200 into any service at all. This is easily the most competitive exam in the world. However, year after year, the number of aspirants only increases. In the ’70s, the lure of a sarkari job was obvious — security, power and prestige. Nearly 40 years later, it is unfortunate that little has changed. And while no one admits it, the IAS is also seen as the quickest and smoothest way to make money. For the lakhs sitting for the exam, the IAS (the top choice edging out even the Indian Foreign Service) remains the only door not only for samaaj seva (social service), but also the power to make decisions and implement one’s own preferences and predilections. In the Indian mindset, power arises not from economic clout but the authority of the State. The notion in the traditionally feudal Hindi heartland is that wealth follows on the heels of power rather than the other way round.

The increasing number of candidates from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar tells the larger story of the lack of opportunities and exposure in these States. The careers these candidate will carve out if they enter the Service remains unknown, but the world of the aspirant is one of perseverance bordering on obsession, a determination that seems like madness. They put their lives on hold, they surrender themselves to the whims of this exam... this Cause. They survive on little else but hope. This is a story of hope.

Rites of passage

At this weekend’s exam the maximum number of candidates are from Delhi, home to hundreds of coaching academies. Mukherjee Nagar has always been a bastion for Delhi University students. Baroque balconies bedecked with laundered underwear, parks packed with students poring over books, the occasional coffee shop, the omnipresent beauty parlour, the rickshawwallah, the samosa-seller, the alley where one can score (marijuana that is) — these are the hallmarks of this area. But Batra complex has always been all this and something more. Packed with hundreds of coaching institutes — ALS, Omniscient, Paramount, Ujjwal, Chanakya, etcetera, etcetera — that promise to make Leaders for Tomorrow, this is the national hub for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam, which every aspirant must clear to enter any of India’s premier services.

Aspirants dwell in lanes called Meerutwalla and Aggarwalwala, named after the sweet shops at their entrance. At around 5pm, they pour out of their rooms, notebooks under arm, and march in twos and threes toward various classes. On the rare leisurely evening, they gather around the litti-chokha stall for Batrabaazi — informal discussions on exam patterns or even matters of the heart. Batra complex is as rich in dreams as it is in desperation. The average age of entrants to the top services today hovers at around 28, whereas a few years ago it was closer to 24.

PK Mishra, former UPSC member and chief secretary of UP, says very few candidates get in on the first attempt; the average today is three attempts. He believes if a person doesn’t get in by the fourth try, it’s highly unlikely he or she will on the fifth. General category candidates can write the exam six times till the age of 32, OBCs and SC/STs are allowed more attempts and also enjoy a higher age cut-off.

But who is to tell that to the thousands of hopefuls? At Mukherjee Nagar, Ajay Devgn jostles against posters of institutes and ‘Room hi Room’ because the locality is on a war footing for the PTs. Here, no one has time for Singham.

The lesser lanes

Ber Sarai, a warren of IAS institutes and PGs in south Delhi, is Mukherjee Nagar lite. Presided over by a Made Easy academy, here too three men live to a room. We walk in uninvited on Aditya Jha and Sudhanshu Shekhar Thakur on the morning of Independence Day. Their room is empty of all distractions other than essentials and textbooks. Towels are draped over window frames. Razor, comb and toothbrush hang near the mirror. We pretend to not notice the kachchas (underwear) on the floor. Aditya is an electrical engineer, with a few attempts under his belt; Thakur is also a veteran with a background in Chemistry. They’re not too worried about the impending CSAT or the changes that have been wrought to the exam. This locality, they say, is rife with stories of repeaters. Their neighbour is particularly famous for making it to the interview stage thrice, with three different optional subjects. “He sits (for the exam) every year, but doesn’t make it. Who will take him when he already has a well-paying bank job? The interviewer will think yeh toh corrupt hoga (he must be corrupt),” says Aditya. Why do they want to join the civil services? “Samaj seva karna hai. Lekin power jo milta hai, that’s the thing (we want to do social service, but the power you get is the real thing).”

C/O Hindi heartland

In Mukherjee Nagar, 26-year-old Shyam Chand from Allahabad, UP, concurs; he will take the exam for the fourth time. “IAS main power milta hai. Aur main toh UP se hoon, politics main kaafi interest hai (And I’m from UP, so I’m quite interested in politics),” he says. The lure of the red beacon culture runs rampant in candidates from UP and Bihar. Students from more affluent States that offer greater opportunities, such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, throw up far fewer candidates. VK Singh, from Allahabad, who opened the Excellent Civil Academy in Karnal in 2005, says that when he first put up posters screaming ‘Prepare for Civils’, people would ask whether he could get them a job at the Civil Hospital. He quickly realised that in this dusty town in Haryana, the word ‘Civils’ did not have the same currency it has in his hometown. He had to change the posters to ‘Prepare for IAS and IPS’ to draw in students.

In UP, it is a different story altogether. Julia Simlai, associate professor and head of the Geography Department at Isabella Thoburn College, has been teaching Geography to UPSC aspirants in Lucknow for more than 20 years. She says most of the students come from rural backgrounds and towns such as Balia, Bahraich and Badaun. Coaching academies — in Lucknow or Delhi — cost ₹75,000 to over one lakh a year. The money is seen as an investment — possibly a life-changing one — and certainly, the only route to power and prestige.

The business of kingmaking

Across the institutes, we meet former UPSC aspirants, like Chaubey, who prepared, took the exam and failed. Instead of casting aside this world, where the chances of becoming an IAS officer are nearly one in 10,000, they chose to remain in it, and to help others learn from their mistakes. Anita Sharma, who sits in an air-conditioned room, which also passes off as the Omniscient IAS Academy at the top of a rickety steel staircase that runs up Batra cinema, has a similar story. The first female graduate from her village of Jagner, outside Agra, she decided to become an IAS officer in Class VIII, the day she saw the Agra District Magistrate come to her village for some land reclamation work. She wrote the exam thrice but could not clear it. “If you can’t be king, you become kingmaker,” she says with a laugh, while trying to stop her two-year-old daughter Cherry, who she keeps with her at the office, from leaping off the table.

Even while considering these improbable, no, ludicrous chances, aspirants surrender lucrative jobs for a chance at the Services. In November 2005, 25-year-old mechanical engineer Tirumala KV left his job in Bangalore and moved to Jia Sarai in south Delhi to prepare for the Civils. Six years and four attempts later, he joined the Indian Trade Services (ITS) or Indian Tatta (shit) Services, as his ‘Punjabi biwi’ lovingly christened it. The Shimoga-native kept a blog of that time, recording the daily travails of being an IAS aspirant. He names his desert cooler Marvin, eavesdrops on girls living upstairs through the ‘chimney’ in his room, and writes of the anxiety of result days and the heartbreak after. When a former Jia Sarai-ite visits their adda and introduces himself — “Hi, I’m Sanjay… IRS” — Tirumala is full of scorn. “The man is no longer a name, he is a designation, and he believes it. He lives it. He breathes it. I am XYZ IRS. I am ABC IAS. I am KLM IPS,” he vents on his blog.

During those six years, Tirumala took up jobs in Bangalore, saved money and returned to his modest quarters at Jia Sarai to attempt the exam. He failed twice before clearing it. Newly married, only the prospect of the honeymoon would soften the blow of the result. Seniors would offer mostly unsolicited advice on subjects as varied as the choice of study material to the colour of the interview-tie. “Initially, we all wanted to join the IAS to change the world, serve the nation,” says Tirumala, now the deputy director general of Foreign Trade in Bangalore. “But by the third or fourth attempt, it is basically about cracking the exam, making the cut.” Many aspirants, he says, are graduates from ordinary colleges (not the IITs, IIMs or NITs) for whom preparing for the IAS becomes their sole hope. Families buy into it, sending pocket money month after month. Students live the dream, year after year, preferring to remain IAS aspirants rather than graduates on a break with no Plan B. On another blog, an aspirant confesses to concocting a frightening tale involving a near-death experience, rather than reveal the actual result of the exam to his family. He had failed and only the possibility of death could present that failure in a better light.

Campus calling

Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi has churned out IAS officers since the ’70s. Here, students spend years trying to crack the exams, while also completing their MAs, MPhils and even PhDs. Michelle Bolouruchi from California, and formerly with JNU, has just submitted her MPhil thesis on ‘UPSC aspirants in a University setting’. Based in India since 2008, she realised that at JNU she could find a mini ethnography and chose to focus on a group of 16 aspirants. With her viva still pending, she does not want to divulge too many details of her thesis, but says that while power is a bait, many candidates do wish to do something for their country. She has been told that to get into the IAS means seven generations will be happy. While JNU might provide a Plan B, it is eventually a settling, an act of finally conceding that the dream has failed.

Chaubey and Aditya Jha agree. “What would they go back to,” asks Chaubey. Pressure runs high as “stakes get higher,” says Tirumala. Some like Anita Sharma take up titular posts at coaching centres, some like Kalpana Sharma open their own institutes. Others like Ashutosh Tiwari become subject experts offering classes to students thronging the lanes of Mukherjee Nagar, Jia Sarai and Ber Sarai. “If you don’t make it, you’re left with nothing,” says Tirumala. “You think you are a failure; I can’t quite explain it. I went through it. But I had the support of my wife, and my child was on the way. It’s much tougher for the single ones,” he says. It’s not surprising then that dating sites (some that are exclusive to Mukherjee Nagar) have cropped up, teeming with requests from men whose “dream is to crack IAS” looking for “cute” girlfriends.

Despite the draw of this world, it isn’t without its flaws. Kush Verma, director general, National Institute of Administrative Research, believes that the present exam format tests knowledge rather than competencies. A senior IAS officer himself, he has submitted a thesis that says the administrative service in India is still a colonial construct and a generalist system. A serious problem with the IAS, according to him, is that policymaking and execution have not remained independent, rather one world interferes with the other. While the brightest and the best do come into the system, Verma believes that economist Kaushik Basu was right when he described IAS officers as “F1 drivers caught in a traffic jam”.

In Mukherjee Nagar, thousands are hoping to become F1 drivers, even if the road ahead is filled with potholes and the traffic light is stuck at red. Lakhs would agree with Chaubey, who says, “The trouble with this line is, you never think it won’t happen or that you won’t make it...”

Published on August 22, 2014

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