Aspirants' woes

Print edition : December 30, 2005

Students' choice of institute is often based on the teachers' reputation. -

Despite the uncertainty and other difficulties that are part of the preparation for the examinations, many candidates remain in the race.

IN the suburban quarter of New Delhi's Dr. Mukherjee Nagar if you were to throw the proverbial stone, you are most likely to hit an Indian Administrative Service coaching centre.

By conservative estimates, there are no fewer than 70 establishments, known variously as training centres, institutes, academies or personal guidance programmes, most of which are just two rooms in a commercial complex in the market. The curious thing is that, without any sense of associated irony, the teachers and students at these institutes refer to the burgeoning IAS coaching centres as the `market' or `bazaar'.

It is a bustling market. Mahendra Kumar Mohanty, who runs an institute called Synergy estimates that there are about 25 centres in Jia Sarai and at least 50 in Rajendra Nagar. It is equally large in financial terms. Consider this: The operating cost for an institute is between Rs.70,000 and Rs.80,000 a month.

In addition, on average each student spends at least Rs.1 lakh a year, even with a frugal lifestyle. It is always harder on those who do not belong to New Delhi since they have to pay exorbitant rent and spend a lot of money on food.

Interestingly, the centres are focussing increasingly on just one or two subjects. For instance, Synergy specialises in Public Administration. Discovery, another centre, focusses on General Studies.

Some institutes such as the Ambition Law Institute trains students not only for the civil services but also for judicial services. According to the director of the institute, Alok Kumar Rajan, the faculty members include professors, advocates and retired judges.

At Patanjali, which specialises in Philosophy, students say the main draw is "the way Sir teaches. The classroom interaction is good". But for other subjects, such as History or General Studies, they go to different institutes. One-third of the class here is comprised of those attempting the UPSC exams for the first time. Many of them are fresh graduates. Pankaj Vishwamitra is a student who believes that it is best to begin preparing while still an under-graduate. "It takes at least one and a half years to make one attempt."

Some students spend years toiling to get through the exam. Sushant Mishra from Bihar has been in New Delhi for the past six years and is making his fourth attempt. He intends to stay on as long as it is needed. When asked if he has a back-up career plan, he said that if he did not clear the UPSC, he would sit for the State civil services exam instead.

Some are determined to make it as IAS officers because they describe the job as `charming', `lucrative' and `glorious'. Vishwamitra, however, sums it up in three words: "Power, prestige, position".

But for students such as Pinky Gupta, the uncertainty is worrying. She has enrolled in a Master of Business Administration course to secure a back-up career plan, although she admits that it is not easy. "Both classes interfere with each other. But I want to take Philosophy as a subject, rather than one of the management subjects." It is considered a `scoring' subject, and an easy one to understand.

But Pratap Dhama, who studies at Discovery, works as a teacher while training to take up the UPSC exams.

The students are aware that life is difficult for an honest civil servant. But Vishwamitra says: "People complain about low salaries in the public sector but they overlook the perks. Even at the entry level, if you take into account all the facilities that are being provided to you, your package could amount from Rs.45,000 to Rs.50,000." However, what is really bothering the students is the attempt to manipulate rankings and the crazy scrambling by coaching centres to claim UPSC toppers as "our students".

Students are amused by the fact that every other institute claims to have at least hundred or more "successful candidates". Vinay said: "At this rate, with more than a hundred coaching centres in this city alone, and each one claiming more than a hundred successes, the UPSC should have been hiring thousands of people. At the most, 400 people get selected.

The problem is compounded because students seek different coaching classes for various subjects. When a candidate gets a top ranking, the institutes claim responsibility for the success, even if the marks in their subject were lower than the average for the topper. Some even manipulate the marks in the claims. For instance, if a candidate has scored higher in Philosophy than in Geography, the institute that taught him/her Geography lays claim to the Philosophy score.

Most students are left confused by these conflicting reports and many of them prefer to do an exhaustive study of the `market', by speaking to former students. Some of them even allege that, if they speak to a student within the institute premises, he/she will sing praises but if you go to meet them at home, one gets a different story.

In this situation, increasingly, students are joining an institute based on the reputation of the teacher. At Career Point, for instance, most of them are lured by the prospect of being taught by Hemant Jha.

All institutes have their own `branded' teacher. Like one manager put it: "If the brand teacher were marooned on a desert island, the students would go there." Career Point specialises in History and General Studies, and all classes are handled by Hemant Jha, who teaches from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. He has a reputation for not only being lucid, but also preparing them to crack the exam in a definite format. The students say: "It is not enough to know; you have to know how to convey all you know, within a set format and in 500-600 words."

Many students joined the Institute after attending its workshop, where they were able to judge the merits of their potential teacher. They were also impressed by the punctuality and professionalism of the teacher. The teacher does not disappear for long holidays and the classes begin and end on time.

There are several misconceptions, such as the one about UPSC preferring Science candidates to those with a Humanities background, although this might be directly related to the fact that there are many more Science and Technology students who are choosing to appear for the UPSC exams. There is also an irrational attitude that certain subjects are `scoring' while others are not. The students are heard making statements like "this subject is not fashionable in the UPSC these days".

The Hindi medium students have a lot of complaints. Some of them say that the question papers are translated from English into Hindi and the translations are not always accurate. The other grouse is that often the interview is conducted in English although they do have the option of being interviewed in the language chosen for the exams.

A few issues, however, need to be addressed by these training centres, if they want to attract potential civil servants. One issue is the students' idea of the work they will do and its importance. Many candidates, for instance, seemed to think that the Indian Police Service was not socially significant enough. A student said: "IAS is about social welfare.

Police is only about fighting terrorists and catching thieves." Yet another student claimed that if he could not get into the administrative services, he would focus on the judiciary. "That's the next best job, naturally."

Yet, paradoxically, when asked to name one person they idolise, most students named the police officer Kiran Bedi on top of the list, but almost all the candidates had stories to tell about their own district where some tough police officer, or a District Collector, stood his/her ground, refusing to bow down to political pressure, braving transfers and even resigning their posts, rather than give in to a corrupt `system'.

Curiously, although the candidates were unsure about how to react to the proposed reforms in the UPSC entrance norms, they all want the government to set up an independent committee to look into transfer orders, most of which were unjust and politically motivated. The candidates believe that the practice of arbitrary transfers is responsible for inefficiency in the administration.

Another problem is the assumption that one particular branch of service is `higher' or more valued than the other. This is a question for the government to consider, since it stems from the system of allotting services based on UPSC exam ranking. For instance, in any given class, 90 per cent of the candidates want to become IAS officers, the rest want to become IPS officers and nobody has much enthusiasm for any of the other civil services.

If the government wants all branches of the services to function with equal efficiency, the first step would be to begin identifying who is more suited for a given type of work, instead of saving the crme de la crme for the administrative or the foreign service, while relegating the rest to lower rankings.

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