The somewhat empty road going into Old Rajendra Nagar fills up unexpectedly at half past seven in the evening, as the stream of students exiting the coaching institutes lining the street spill out onto the road. A hubbub of conversation replaces the quiet, but the content of their talk is something very different from what you would otherwise expect from a group of 20-somethings. The few snatches of conversation that waft to the observer contain animated discussions on Indian history, discursions on abstruse geographical phenomena, and debates about the merits of current policy.
There are few places in Delhi where you could find such heated debates on such issues. But this is not that much of a surprise as Rajendra Nagar is one of two hubs in the city mainly comprising the student population preparing for the annual Civil Services Examination here.
Instituted by the British, when they felt compelled to include more Indians into the administration due to the pressures of the Independence movement, this exam is used to select officers to be inducted into the Indian Administrative, police, Foreign, Revenue and other central services. Based on the principle of open competition, the candidates are tested on their grasp over disciplines as diverse as history, geography, politics and international relations.
The prestige attached to the exam is testified by the fanfare that surrounds the few who make it through and go on to man the bureaucratic positions in India. The allure of these positions is what attracts thousands of students to make the journey to Delhi to prepare for the exam.
But despite the all-India character of the exam, Delhi serves as a focal point for its preparation due to the presence of a large number of coaching institutes present here. These institutes are clustered mostly in either Mukherjee Nagar in north Delhi or Rajendra Nagar. The area around the coaching centres house the numerous students who have come to prepare and have enrolled in the classes. And most of these people have never lived by themselves before.
Amrit Singh Chopra, who runs Unique Shiksha, which prepares students for the exam, says that the effort which goes into preparing for this exam is usually looked at from an academic perspective, and the psychological aspect is often missed. “A lot of people misunderstand the exam process, it isn’t just about studying the topics and writing the paper, since it’s a competitive exam, you have to do better than the other who wrote it, which means that merely hard work on a set syllabus, as most do in graduation, does not assure results. Also, the syllabus isn’t clear cut, this leads to lot of uncertainties creeping in, which causes fear among the people who are preparing. So the preparation needs to be well planned,” he says.
Brijendra Singh, who teaches at Vajiram & Ravi, another prominent coaching institution, also agrees that the time spent preparing could get very taxing for students, especially those who aren’t staying at home. The lack of a social security network causes further difficulties, as the students must learn to manage all of this on their own.
Elaborating on the psychological stress faced by some of the students, Singh says, “The exam process runs to a year, and the insular nature of preparation means that there is a great chance that students can get cut off from the world at large. They can lose touch with their friends, and become overly introspective, and this leads to them feeling isolated.
“The high rents aren’t the only issue, a lot of times the landlords can also become excessively intrusive, and impose restrictions on things such as when you can enter, and if you can host friends. Sometimes these restrictions are arbitrary. Our landlord stands guard around the lift installed in the building, and rebukes anyone who tries to use it.”
“A lot of people decide to give the exam because they want the perceived benefits which ride with the positions you can get through it, but they have done no background reading and have no idea of the process before they come to Delhi, and a lot of them get overwhelmed by the scope of the reading which faces them when they get here,” he says.
Akash Goud who is in his third attempt at trying to clear the exam, first appeared for it in 2012. “The mindset changes,” he says. “In the beginning, you are a lot more enthusiastic, you feel that you will get through, despite what the statistics say, but after a couple of failures you start doubting if you can make it through. This is the phase where a lot of people succumb to the pressure and start whiling away their time, and lose focus.”
Every candidate is permitted a minimum of six attempts, with those who avail of reservation given more, provided the candidate is within the stipulated maximum age. This means that a lot of them stay in Delhi beyond their initial attempt, and this further adds to the aspect of social alienation. “When you are preparing, you need to be choosy about your points of contact within your friend circle a bit, and say no to invitations. Eventually the invitations come less frequently, and you lose touch with old friends.” adds Goud.
Divya Raturi, who has given the exam four times, says, “The process of the exam is so long, that often it is the wait between exams and results that becomes most taxing. A person has to wait about 50 days to see the prelims results and upto three months before they can know if they have made it through the main examination. This period is rife with bouts of anxiety, as in a competitive exam it becomes very hard to gauge, with certainty if you will get selected. This does chafe at ones confidence.”
“In the beginning, you are a lot more enthusiastic, you feel that you will get through, despite what the statistics say, but after a couple of failures you start doubting if you can make it through. This is the phase where a lot of people succumb to the pressure and start whiling away their time, and lose focus.”
The logistical difficulties also emanate from the high cost of housing in the area. The large demand and the transient nature of the clientele mean that a lot of the landlords are tempted to charge high rents from the students. Shubham Singh Rathore, from Jodhpur, who lives in West Patel Nagar, close to Rajendra Nagar, says, “The high rents aren’t the only issue, a lot of times the landlords can also become excessively intrusive, and impose restrictions on things such as when you can enter, and if you can host friends. Sometimes these restrictions are arbitrary.Our landlord stands guard around the lift installed in the building, and rebukes anyone who tries to use it.”
The high cost of accommodation means that a lot of students need to rent out individual rooms, and sometimes, even these rooms are shared. Aashish Datta, who lives in Rajendra Nagar, says, “Most of the apartments are rented out to multiple students, and each has a single room. A lot of times, multiple people need to share a single room.”
Another factor is the social and familial pressure which mounts on those appearing for their second or further attempts. “You become cut off from professional life, and a lot of people, who prepare full-time, lose time where they could have gained working experience. Your relatives may also start questioning you about whether your decision to appear for Civil Services was a wise one, although I haven’t faced this myself,” adds Datta.
Food becomes another issue. Aniruddha Kumar, from Madhya Pradesh, who joined the classes at Vajiram & Ravi to prepare for the exam, rues the lack of quality food. “We normally have to depend on local tiffin service for our food, or eat at local eateries. The food quality is not great and often is made with too much oil, and this affects your health, especially since most of our time is spent sitting, and a lot of people who prepare rapidly gain weight.”
The rigours of individual studying and the logistical issues which arise from inadequate access to housing and healthy food make the task which confronts this entire body of students a formidable one. But despite this, a lot of people — even those qualified enough to find attractive positions in the private sector — are willing to face these difficulties to have a shot at getting through the exam. Talking about their ambitions, Goud, who graduated from Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s college, says, “It’s that no other job would offer you such an opportunity to interact with people, and make a difference. So no matter how difficult the preparation process is, you know that it will be worth when it comes through.”
Raturi, who holds an MBA degree, concurs. “I can’t imagine a private job ever matching the professional satisfaction that I would get as an IPS officer. It would allow me to make a meaningful contribution,” he says.
This seems to be a common refrain among those who opt to take the exam, and this desire to be a part of the Indian services, whether administrative or police, is what keeps a lot of aspirants going.
The hard work which they put in, with the hours of study in often adverse living conditions, and away from their social support mechanisms, is only to get a shot at making a contribution in India’s growth story. The IAS may be the steel frame of Indian administration, but the study hubs of Rajendra Nagar and Mukherjee Nagar are plinths that support this structure.
Pattern of the Civil services Exam
- Preliminary exam, an MCQ based exam comprising two papers; usually held in August
- Main exam, discursive exam; each candidate writes nine papers; held over a week in December
- Personality test; interviews taken by members of the UPSC; held in April-May
Slim chances of cracking it
- 4,65,000 give the preliminary
- Of these, around 15,000 are selected to give the main examination
- Of those who write the main examination, around 3,000 qualify for the personality test
- Around 1,000 candidates get to the final selection
- Of these, only around 180 join the Indian Administrative Service