Thursday, April 15, 2010

ANUPREETA DAS checks out the lonely planet of IAS aspirants
At 27, Nayan Mohapatra doesn’t have to explain why he doesn’t hold a job and has never earned a single rupee. ‘‘I’m studying for the IAS,’’ is his stock reply to anyone who wonders what he’s been doing in Delhi for the past three years. Not that the ‘what-are-you-doing’ question comes Nayan’s way very often, given that he allows nothing — no morsels of leisure, walks to the market, hair cuts — to distract him from realising his goal.
Nayan, who’s surviving in this mad city of 12 million on the strength of his ambition, and a lot of generosity and goodwill from his Rourkela-based parents, has cleared the Preliminary civil services exam twice, but hasn’t made it past the Mains yet. ‘‘I’m not leaving any room for doubt this time,’’ says Nayan, who lives on a paltry Rs 1,500 a month, which comes to him through a money order (postmarked Rourkela) every 30 days.
He doesn’t cook because it’s ‘‘a waste of time,’’ hasn’t been home in three years because there’s no one to pay his train fare. Sixteen-hour days, beginning at an unearthly 4.30 am, have run into monochrome months, even years. His ‘residence’? One corner of a room that measures no more than six feet by eight feet, which he shares with fellow IAS aspirant Sreenivas: 24, Bihar-born, first-timer. A wood plank framed in metal serves as a bed (blanket, sheet and no pillow). Stacked in two neat columns beneath the bed is evidence (a) of his progress, which is the number of study books he has mastered, and (b) of the task ahead, which is the number of books he still has to go through.
No, Nayan’s not a freak case whose HI (human interest, human interest) story you can despatch to your newspaper for a congratulatory note from the editor. If anything, he’s the prototype of a sub-species — the IAS aspirant (person with a ‘mission’), usually from small-town India, who has shifted base to Delhi, chasing the power dream, sitting in on coaching classes — who has an existence on the borderlines of city life.
Basket Case Studies
What would you do if you didn’t
make it to the civil services?
Take inspiration from these
real-life instances:
A certain journalist, formerly with The Asian Age spent the better part of his 20s studying for the IAS. Upon failing to make it past the interview stage for the third time, he gave up hopes of joining the bureaucracy and settled for a career in journalism instead.

Himanshu Kotwal’s coaching classes ‘‘to crack the IAS exams’’ get aspirants signing up by the droves, but he himself is an IAS flunkie. Four attempts, but he has never cleared the exams. ‘‘I know what it’s all about, though,’’ he reasons.

A science student at JNU, who sat in on classes for the Indian Political System only to improve his IAS info fund, lay down on one of the campus roads, liqour bottle in hand, crying brokenly for nearly six hours, when his name wasn’t on the IAS list.
The IAS aspirant lives like an ascetic, but aspires for a life flush with comfort. So if Nayan hasn’t been to a movie theatre ‘‘since Hum Aapke Hain Kaun,’’ it’s because movies remind him of ‘‘how far I have to go.’’ And while James Lotha, an Economics graduate from Nagaland, cherishes the ideal of a Hum Do, Hamare Do family, ‘‘I can’t think of marrying or even having a girlfriend until I clear the exams.’’ The only distraction Lotha allows in his study area is a scribbled-on poster of Hollywood hottie Alicia Silverstone.
You’ll never bump into the IAS aspirant on a regular day. If you want to seek him out, remember the following must-check-out places. In Delhi University’s North Campus, they peer at you from youth hostels and anonymous one-room shacks, mostly dazed, at times revelling in their cubbyhole existence. In N-41, Mukherji Nagar — a three-storeyed building in the University area — for example, each austere floor is home to four IAS aspirants (that makes a total of 12 men), all in their 20s, all in different stages of preparation.
Srinivas Kolli, a 27-year-old MBA graduate from Vishakhapatnam, gave up his marketing job with Videocon International, and landed in Delhi to prepare for the IAS. ‘‘I lived in a hostel in Vizag where everyone was preparing for the civil service exams, and before I knew it, I was hooked,’’ he grins. An addiction? So it would seem. Srinivas’ college mate Vijay Babu is a veteran at the IAS exam. Next year, the qualified mechanical engineer will sit for the Mains (chosen subjects: History and Geography) for the third time. What if he doesn’t clear the exam? ‘‘I’ll try again and again till I do,’’ answers Babu, chagrined at the very thought. While rules are relaxed for SC/ST and OBC candidates, who command 50 per cent of all bureaucratic posts every year, regular candidates can take the civil services exam up to four times. The upper age limit for regular candidates has also been extended from 28 to 30 years. But while the number of exam takers hovers between one and one-and-a-half lakh every year, barely 400 make it into the services.
In the opposite direction from Delhi University is another nerve centre for the IAS aspirant, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where a section of the library has been named Dholpur House, after the UPSC headquarters. Dholpur House is almost always deathly still, but that’s not because there’s no human presence. Every table is host to a row of bent heads, busy cramming the brain with book-loads of information, or taking practice tests.
‘‘They take the IAS exam as a mission and fight till the end,’’ says A. K. Mishra, Director, Chanakya IAS Academy, of these young men (and some women). Coaching classes at the Chanakya Academy, conducted by 96 faculty members, run into six hours every day, six days a week. Of the present batch of 300 students, says Mishra, a majority are from Bihar, followed by Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. ‘‘The craze to enter the civil services is strongest among the youth from these states,’’ he observes. In the 10 years of the Academy’s existence, 40 per cent of all candidates have been from Bihar.

7.00 - 7.30: Taking bath
7.30 - 8.00: Taking breakfast (food)
8.00 - 11.00: Geography (optional)
11.00 - 11.30: Rest
11.30 - 12.30: News + Magazines
12.30 - 1.00: Lunch (food)
1.00 - 3.00: General Studies
(Polity, History, Science. + Technology, Statistics)
3.00 - 3.30: Rest
3.30 - 5.30: Economics (Optional)
5.30 - 6.00: Preparation for the class
6.00 - 9.00: Class (or General Studies on Thursdays and Sundays)
9.00 - 9.30: Dinner (food)
9.30 - 12.00: Economics (General Studies on Thursdays and Sundays. Revision of class lectures)
12.00 - 7.00: Sleeping
This is a copy of a timetable pinned above the study table of an IAS aspirant
There are two reasons for this: a low rate of private sector investment in these states means that the government is still the largest employer. ‘‘In a scenario where private sector jobs, if available, leave much room for insecurity, getting a government job means you’re made for life,’’ says JNU professor Anuradha Chenoy. The clout that a Deputy Commissioner or Superintendent of Police wields is very visible in small towns and villages. Truly, they are the maibaap, the personification of the power and perquisites that come with a bureaucratic post. No wonder then, the civil services aspirant will not hesitate to tell you that he only wants to ‘‘become an IAS’’ because of the ensuing power and prestige. ‘‘Your idealism does get compromised, but if you’re an idealist, you’ll be frustrated in the bureaucracy,’’ admits Kolli, adding that it’s hard to think of the intangible ‘‘good’’ when everyone else around you (dotcommer, financial consultant, IIT engineer...) is making money.
Chenoy recalls an incident: a student of hers eloped with another (Scheduled Tribe, Northeast) a few years ago. The upper caste, north Indian parents of the girl came knocking furiously on Chenoy’s door, demanding an explanation, vociferous in their condemnation of the ‘‘good-for-nothing-boy-from-a-lower-caste’’. Two months later, Chenoy received a wedding invitation from the parents. The boy had ingratiated himself with them, because he cleared the civil service exams. ‘‘That’s how powerful the myth of the IAS is,’’ says Chenoy.
Mishra makes a second observation about the social background of the IAS aspirant, which is directly related to how deeply entrenched the caste system is in a particular state. From the days of the pre-independence Indian Civil Services till the mandatory reservation for the ‘underprivileged’ happened, those recruited to the Indian bureaucracy belonged to the Western-educated, upper sections of society. While the social base of the administration has now broadened — it’s a behemoth, size eight million — its elitist sheen, instead of dimming, continues to be reinforced by the power myth. ‘‘It’s the shortest route to the highest level of power,’’ says Mishra of the bureaucracy.
Academics offer an interesting take on the socio-economic profile of the Indian bureaucracy. In a process called ‘Sanskritisation’, it is argued that there is a tendency among the lower castes to adopt the traits and mannerisms of the upper castes upon gaining access to the bureaucracy, to alter their historical social position. It’s a theory that the IAS aspirant often proves correct. ‘‘See, a civil servant will get respect and enjoy privileges whether he is from an SC/ST or otherwise. I want that respect from my people,’’ reasons 24-year-old Imkong Ao. This Nagaland youth hopes his ST status, which he wears like a badge, will make his maiden entry attempt into the IAS club ‘‘less competitive.’’ But a scribble on his wall, which says ‘‘Do or Die — Work Hard for the IAS’’ gives a clue to Imkong’s determination.
AND what happens when the aspirant becomes the bureaucrat? ‘‘My father’s wishes will be fulfilled, and everyone in my town will have regard for me,’’ is what Shivendru Kumar believes. The 27-year-old from Bihar lived through a ‘‘traumatic phase’’ when he failed his first attempt, after which he shelled out Rs 12,500 to join an IAS study circle in Delhi. The fact that he has never earned a single rupee so far doesn’t bother him: ‘‘I’ll get into the IAS, and then we’ll see.’’
Obviously, clearing the civil services exam is an end in itself. Stories of drunk, I-made-it men, sprawled on the ground, chanting ‘‘meri life ban gayee’’ have been elevated to the status of IAS lore. The IAS aspirant is not an idealist, and either does not want to, or think it possible to introduce changes in the swollen and festering system. A few years of absolute penury and relentless studying, obviously, are not a big deal, when the power-perquisite package deal swirls so seductively in your dreams.
But beneath the determination, contingencies abound (what if you don’t make it, ever?). The state civil services are the second option for most, while others, like Mizoram’s Khawlsiamthanga Khawlaring, 24, have ‘‘reserved’’ a teaching post in their hometown universities. Santosh, a qualified mechanical engineer from Madhya Pradesh, says he’s taken up studying for the IAS exams ‘‘as a challenge’’ — a job with Bharat Petroleum is still waiting. ‘‘At least I’ll be personally enriched, if nothing else,’’ reasons Santosh, who hasn’t had a haircut in nine months — ‘‘too much trouble.’’
Of course, the IAS aspirant now has another forum to exhibit the information overkill in his brain: Kaun Banega Crorepati, where the now-famous Harshvardhan Nawathe recently made his first crore.
HARSH MANDER, a former teacher at the Mussoorie Academy, questions the basis for selection of bureaucrats
I have just returned from a visit to a remote tribal district that straddles the hills in the fertile Imphal valley of Manipur. Amidst rich green paddy fields and forests, the people find themselves trapped helplessly in the unending cross-fire of the underground and the security forces. The district is located within the life-line of the thriving trade in trafficking of drug and arms. As despairing youths destroy their lives by getting hooked to drugs, clans kill each other in pursuit of mindless, ancient vendetta. Forests are depleted, and a bloated and corrupt state apparatus criminalises shifting cultivation. In such a bleak terrain, people have pinned their hopes on an unlikely figure, the Deputy Commissioner, Sajjad Hassan, a young man, who in a few months has won the hearts of the ravaged people who live within the district of his jurisdiction.
Powerful youth groups swear by him, village people have been touched by his humanism and courage. He refuses to move around with security, despite threats from persons in high places with close links to the underground.
Such men and women are rare in the Indian civil and police services. But they exist. And it is the unsung, unacknowledged heroism of officers such as this DC in distant Manipur, that sometimes provides temporary succour to people who have learned to live mostly without hope. The legal and regulatory regime that has invaded the lives of ordinary people in the furthest corners of the country, has ensured the utter and continuing dependence of people on state officials for daily survival. And yet, people mostly encounter only corrupt, arrogant and arbitrary exercise of state power as they valiantly struggle to survive.
Despite this, the elaborate system of recruitment that we have inherited from our colonial predecessors, finds no place to assess qualities of character in selecting people into the civil services. What is measured, and that too imperfectly, is the sharpness of mental abilities and the stamina to work through a long, arduous and in most ways pointless examination. What is relevant to the real job in the civil services, is only above-average intellectual abilities, not academic brilliance. What is most required instead is steadfast courage of convictions, compassion, empathy, respect for people and democratic traditions, and unshakeable integrity. The fact that these qualities are unusual in the civil services, is partly because these are never actually sought in those who are chosen to join the ranks of the still elite government service. And if they are found in new recruits, by some happy accident, there is nothing that is done by the government to nurture these qualities of heart and character. Instead, battered by frequent transfers, marginal postings, peer pressure, and regular manifestations of ministerial displeasure, the system does all it can to wear down these qualities, and to fit the officer into the mediocrity of character and convictions, that are so characteristic of the mainstream. All but the most resilient and maverick survive over the years.
What is the solution to all of this?
People have debated over new systems of recruitment to select people of character rather than intellectual skills for the civil services, but nothing has actually changed. There are many who believe that tests of character are impossible, and instead it is training and nurturing of people of moral fibre once they are recruited, which is the answer. Yet others believe that training of men and women who are already past their mid-twenties is futile, even more so in today’s cynical age. In my own years of service on the faculty of India’s training institute for fresh senior civil servants, in Mussoorie, my experience was that young people entering the civil service are very often searching for meaning and value in their work. I found a great many that I could believe in, and love, and trust. And as I now travel across the length and breadth of the country, I find deep satisfaction in the fact that there are many like the DC in Manipur who continue to cling steadfastly to justice and probity in very hard circumstances. However, such people remain exceptions, and their tenuous place within the vastly overgrown and wasteful system of governance, renders them in the last analysis, utterly ineffective and marginal to larger social processes of oppression and marginalisation.
In the end, the hope for people living in poverty lies not so much in finding better civil servants, although this search should never end, but instead in dismantling the huge and parasitical superstructure of negative powers of the state over their lives. It is the hands of ordinary people themselves that need to be strengthened, to make government more accountable, transparent and responsive to them. The age of the overarching state must come to an end, and there will be few tears shed at its demise.

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