Upamanyu Chatterjee, a 1983-batch IAS officer of Maharashtra cadre, is perhaps the quintessential civil servant of the 1980s and 90s—the kind that flourished well into the 21st century. He went to ‘The College’, as Delhi University’s St Stephen’s college is referred to by its alumni, several of whom found their way into the civil services, giving it a tint of elitism.
Chatterjee captured the zeitgeist in his novel English, August through the protagonist Agastya Sen, who after clearing the IAS finds himself posted in Madna, a small town described as “a dot in the hinterland” —a place he can’t relate to and finds hard to decipher.
An increasing number of civil servants, including IAS officers, are now emerging from these “dots in the hinterland”. One such ‘dot’ is Shedgaon village in Jalna district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region. In 2015, a 21-year-old from Shedgaon, Sheikh Ansar Ahmad, became the youngest to crack the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). Son of an agricultural laborer mother and an autorickshaw driver father, Ahmad is currently posted as the sub-divisional officer of another “dot”—Dinhata in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. He is often seen walking around, fully at ease as he interacts with people, explaining to them the importance of wearing masks in fluent Bangla. “Learning Bangla was not difficult as it felt like a mixture of Marathi and Hindi to me. I insist that people talk to me in the language and I listen intently,” he tells Outlook over the phone from Dinhata.
Ahmad doesn’t carry his thrice-marginalized status with a sense of victimhood. “As a Muslim belonging to an economically backward family from a poor district of Maharashtra, I have seen all kinds of problems and hardships. But I never wavered from my decision to join the civil services,” he says.
It was in Class 10 that he made up his mind to become an “officer” after his favorite teacher made it to the local newspapers on clearing the state civil services examination. Ahmad says he loved going to school, as it was the only way to escape the all-pervasive negativity around him. His father, a Class 1 dropout, nearly withdrew Ahmad from school after Class 4 as he thought it was enough. A teacher dissuaded him, saying Ahmad was an intelligent kid with a bright future. His family supported him thereon, even selling off their small house in the village to send Ahmad to Pune’s Fergusson College, another hub for future IAS officers. Studying eight to nine hours a day, Ahmad made it to the IAS in his first attempt.
This year, Pradeep Kumar (see interview), son of a farmer from Tevadi village in Haryana’s Sonipat district, made it to the top of the list among nearly eight lakh candidates. Pratibha Verma, daughter of a schoolteacher couple from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, secured the third rank. Yashaswini B. ranked 71, hails from Banur village near Chikmagalur in Karnataka and studied in a Kannada medium school till Class 7.
“The market takes care of those who live along the GT Road,” says Sanjeev Chopra, director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie, who refers to aspirants from the hinterland as those living away from the GT Road. “The government remains the largest employer in the country. The fact that aspirants from the interiors are making it to the civil services is a very positive trend. They are not coming from Doon School and Welham. The trend of diversity will ensure a more inclusive, vibrant and open bureaucracy.”
It is not just exclusive and elite schools that are falling off the civil services map. Even the representation of higher education institutions like Allahabad University, JNU, and Calcutta University has gone down considerably. Former Delhi chief secretary Shailaja Chandra welcomes the trend of an increasing number of aspirants from village government schools and district colleges breaching the civil services barrier. “It is a great moment in the country’s history and ought to be celebrated,” she says. The public service is finally becoming public in the real sense as people from diverse backgrounds and places take the lead.
“With the steady and desirable trend of more candidates from rural areas, small towns, and dispersed institutions qualifying for the IAS, the earlier charge of social elitism may no longer be valid,” says former UPSC chairman Deepak Gupta. An alumnus of St Stephen’s and a 1973-batch IAS officer, Gupta believes the IAS still retains an elite status within the civil services. “There must be something in the IAS if more than 10 lakh candidates apply every year for the civil services exam, and many of them, even after qualifying for other services, try repeatedly for making it to the IAS,” he adds.
Yashaswini had cleared the UPSC last year too in her first attempt, but with rank 293, she did not get her service of choice. So she took the exam again and bettered her rank to 71, making her eligible for the IAS. For this year’s topper Pradeep Kumar, it was the fourth attempt. Failing the first two attempts, he had made it to the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) with 260th rank in his third. The lure of IAS made him take the exam again in 2019, propelling him to the top.
The IAS is still the most significant part of the bureaucratic architecture of governance. Gupta says it remains the premier service that provides the widest variety of experience possible in any job, notwithstanding the consequent generalist tag. “Several factors make the IAS almost irresistible: leadership positions and challenges at the very start of the career and continuing throughout; possibilities to rise to the highest positions in states and the Centre; maximum opportunity to do public service and contribute to the public good, and also to make a real difference during the many years in the field, and later in the making of policy and implementation of national programs,” he adds.
According to Gupta, many candidates are not even satisfied with the Indian Police Service (IPS), once considered as powerful as the IAS, especially because of the overt display of power through the uniform. “Now we find so many IPS probationers on leave, trying to prepare for the IAS,” he says.
There also continues to be a heavy tilt towards some states that produce more civil servants than others. Though the latest break-up of figures for 2019-20 is not available, the earlier trend shows that the largest number of IAS officers come from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Bihar. In 2017-18, 17 candidates from Delhi made it to the IAS—surpassing larger states like Bihar (12 candidates), Tamil Nadu (8) and Karnataka (6).
“Some northern states still have a feudal culture. In a village or small town, power still means the collector, whom everyone salutes, so clearing the IAS is like becoming the kingpin of the ‘biradari’,” says Shailaja Chandra. Pointing out that a rural agricultural background doesn’t necessarily mean being poor, Gupta adds: “Many come from rural landed families. For them, it is about the status, power and prestige.”
While diversity among those making it to the civil services is a welcome trend, it takes more to make the system truly inclusive. “There remains an innate prejudice against candidates who aren’t English speakers,” says a retired bureaucrat, who served on UPSC’s interview panel for five years. He cites an example of a woman candidate from a border village in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. “She was the daughter of two beggars and studied in the local government school. Seeing her aptitude, a teacher recommended her for admission to a Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya. She was brilliant in her interview. She put all of us to shame with her knowledge and poise. It’s just that she was not fluent in English, with Hindi being her preferred language of communication. While I was in favor of her making it to the IAS and awarded her high marks, the chairman of the panel, and IFS (Indian Foreign Service) officer, did not find her ‘officer material’. I argued in her favour as I believed she would make an outstanding officer, but the chairman asked me not to worry, saying she would probably make it to the IRS.”
The panel member claims he does not know the final outcome of her interview, which accounts for 275 marks out of the total 2,025. He says the entire experience of the interview can be intimidating for anyone, more so for a person coming from a small village. “Just walking into the imposing Dholpur House (the UPSC building) with formidable liveried guards manning the premises can leave anyone overawed,” he says.
The RSS has been urging the government to do away with the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), and to replace the interview with a psychological test. The organization believes the CSAT puts to disadvantage those who take their exam in Hindi. The aptitude test was introduced in 2011 to test a candidate’s comprehension, communication and decision-making skills.
Devendra Singh, national convener (competitive exams) for the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, says the UPSC exams must provide equal opportunity to people of all backgrounds without any discrimination. “Ninety per cent of those who qualify the CSAT are from English medium background and it is discriminatory in nature,” he adds.
However, the ministry of personnel claims that a candidate needs to secure only 33 per cent marks in the CSAT and it is only a qualifying exam for the next level, which is the interview. As per the latest 2019 figures, of the 326 civil servants who attended the Foundation Course at LBSNAA, just eight had taken their exam in Hindi, with 315 opting for English. In 2018 too, of the 370 trainees at LBSNAA, eight had taken Hindi, with 357 taking the exam in English.
The UPSC results announced earlier this month also show the continuing under-representation of Muslims in the civil services. Only 42—about five per cent—of the 829 candidates who made it are Muslims, while the community comprises about 15 per cent of India’s population. Only one made it to the top 100—Safna Nazarudeen from Kerala, with 45th rank.
The ministry of personnel official claims it is difficult to ensure equal representation of all marginalized sections. “Seats are already reserved for SCs, STs, OBCs, economically backward sections and physically handicapped. There are relaxations in terms of age and number of attempts for them. We try to make the services as inclusive as possible, but seats cannot be reserved on grounds of religion,” he adds.
Public policy expert Rajendra Pratap Gupta, who has been rooting for reforms in the bureaucracy, strikes a note of caution on the culture of entitlement in the civil services.
“Whether you come from St Stephen’s or a remote village in Munger, it doesn’t matter much after a few years,” he says. “One unwittingly becomes a part of the system when a junior, even twice the age, addresses the officer as sir or madam. The culture is deeply embedded in authority, hierarchy and entitlement. I am not very optimistic if the trend of people coming from the hinterland into the civil service will change the insensitive system called bureaucracy.” While the Modi administration is trying to bring changes through steps like “lateral entry” of domain experts, he says it cannot be limited to that. “Till we have the option of ‘lateral exit’ for non-performance, nothing changes,” he adds.
With the highest strike rate, RSS-linked Samkalp has former students everywhere in the services
SAMKALP an institute closely linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has been training and guiding IAS aspirants for nearly three decades with an enviable success rate. While other institutes take out boastful advertisements speckled with mugshots of its successful candidates, Samkalp keeps a low-profile; it has never advertised its achievements.
Running out of a nondescript centre at Udaseen Ashram in Delhi’s Paharganj area, Samkalp’s Interview Guidance Programme (IGP) has become a sought after course over the years. Not only are tuition fees more reasonable than most other coaching institutes, it is enviably successful too.
Samkalp’s head-office and three branches are in Delhi; they have chapters in other cities and smaller towns, including Chandigarh, Guwahati, Chennai, Agra, Mathura, Meerut, Bhiwani, Kanpur, Roorkie, Jaipur, Bhilai, Ludhiana and Vadodara to cater to an increasing number of aspirants. While the institute and its branches offer to coach for prelims and main examinations, it calculates its success rate based on the final interview.
On an average, 60 per cent of candidates who make it to the IAS have received coaching for the crucial final leg of the examination at the IGP. “Of the 829 total vacancies in the IAS, 480 have taken Samkalp’s interview program this year. Among the top 10 candidates at the all-India level, ranks 2,3,6,9 and 10 were coached here. And so were those ranked 11, 12 and 16,” says Kanhaiya Lal, the organizing secretary of Samkalp. Giving more details, he says 19 of the top 30 and 66 out of top 100 took coaching for the interview with them. Success rate at the IGP was 61.3 per cent last year; in 2018 it was 65.5 per cent.
In the marking scheme of the examinations, though, the final interview accounts for only 275 out of a total 2025 marks (1,750 are for all papers in the final examinations). However, it makes the vital difference to the ranking. The interview mainly evaluates a candidate’s personality and her ability to handle stress and difficult situations.
Joint general secretary of RSS Krishna Gopal has been addressing successful candidates at the felicitation function held after declarations of results every year since 2016, the batch that included Tina Dabi and Athar Amir, ranking 1st and 2nd. “Yes, he comes every year but as an educationist, not as a RSS functionary,” Lal is quick to add. He says several retired bureaucrats are associated with the institute and are part of the panel that coaches the candidates.
In addition to bureaucrats, the institute has on its list of mentors Krishna Gopal, RSS leader Madan Das Devi, industrialist J.P. Agarwal and former governors Jagmohan and Vijai Kapoor.
Set-up in 1986, Samkalp’s founding members include RSS leader Santosh Taneja and former Mizoram governor A.R. Kohli. “Samkalp was set up with the intention of transforming the bureaucracy, which was full of ‘jholawallahs’, to a more socially committed and nationally inspired one,” says a Sangh functionary, adding that they have always supported the institute.
With each state and cadre having civil servants who owe their success to Samkalp, the RSS hopes that in the next 10 years, they will have a bureaucracy that will genuinely contribute to nation-building with true Indian values.
Lal says that Samkalp has helped aspirants from the disadvantaged and economically weaker sections to join the civil services—its fee structure is the lowest. They even have a scholarship programme which offers free training. “This is the only way to ensure the participation of millions of Indians in the developmental process of the nation. It is time that the civil services were not limited to elites or those from JNU,” he adds.
H.G. Darshana Kumar
Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore
Giving Up Code
Gave up Infosys job to serve the country
FOR H.G. Darshana Kumar, the decision to quit a well-paying job at Infosys wasn’t an easy one, given the odds against clearing a civil services entrance. He’d been working for six years, including two years in Seattle. Kumar’s folks own a Fouracre farmland in Haralakatte, a village in Karnataka’s Arsikere—a mostly rain-fed region where agriculture isn’t often viable. Kumar recalls a time when his father worked as a security guard in Bangalore.
Now, Kumar, 31, has cracked the UPSC examination in his fourth attempt, ranking 594. Kumar credits his success to a small peer group that studied together—he is the lone success among a dozen-odd who took the exams in Kannada.
Choosing a vernacular language comes with its own challenges, he points out. Since Hindi has a large user base, the study material is easily available. “We do not have these resources,” he says. “So, it’s a doable task. You need to first read it in English and then translate it.” Besides, guidance is not easily available. Kumar’s study group has created Telegram and YouTube channels to help aspirants with study material.
For Kumar, the drive to be in the civil services came quite late. “It was a culmination of several inspirational stories,” he says. A few years earlier, in 2011, he had volunteered with the Infosys Foundation in its initiative to construct toilets in Gulbarga. Later, he read about an IAS officer who had built one lakh toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “Being a government servant, you can do so many things. .”
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