Coaching centres in Delhi, which have a creditable record, attract civil services aspirants from across the country.
IN the narrow lanes of Outram Lines, Model Town, Rajinder Nagar, Mall Road - addresses that many Delhi residents are unaware of - outstation students sit down for the gruelling eight-hour study routines required to clear the most competitive test in the country - the Union Public Service Commission examination. Every year, thousands of aspirants from across the country flock to the nearly hundred tuition centres in Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi described by some as the Mecca of the civil services aspirants. Mukherjee Nagar in fact has become the nerve centre of a pan-national effort to join the civil services.
The UPSC examination consists of a three-stage process. In the first stage is a preliminary, multiple-choice examination in General Studies and an optional paper. The second stage consists of two "long-answer type" papers each in two optional subjects, two General Studies papers and two language papers. The final stage is an interview. While General Studies is a common exam, "optionals" range from stock subjects such as History, Sociology, Public Administration, Geography, Psychology, Pure Sciences such as Physics and Chemistry, Life Sciences such as Zoology and Botany, and language papers like English Literature, Hindi Literature, Sanskrit and even Pali.
However, few tuition centres offer the entire range of subjects. Most specialise in one or two subjects and usually offer General Studies. Students then pick and choose tuition centres on the basis of their optionals, with some going to as many as four different centres for coaching in General Studies, optionals and interviews. Many centres also offer a test series for students at the end of the year.
Generations of aspirants boost their winning chances by forming informal knowledge-sharing groups - swapping notes with friends from different coaching centres, offering advice to first-time aspirants, comparing the results in weekly tests, and conducting mock interviews.
Most outstation students usually arrive in Delhi in groups. It is not uncommon for a group of close friends from a particular town to arrive together, collectively rent a flat, and survey the various tuition centres before making their choices. The massive array of choices, coupled with the prohibitive cost of tuitions, makes the selection of the right tuition centre a crucial one.
Most students decide on tuition centres on the basis of past records, and consultations with their friends and seniors from school and college. "A number of my friends gave the UPSC exam around the same time as me and so I got most of my notes and books from them," says Randhir Kumar from Araria, Bihar, who was ranked No.3 in the 2006 UPSC exam. Randhir Kumar, who came to Delhi with his friends to study for the UPSC exam, after resigning his job as a mining manager with Tata Steel, did not take any coaching for the General Studies paper, choosing instead to rely on newspapers, magazines and books. However, he did take tuitions in his two optionals - Public Administration and Geography. "I chose my coaching centres after discussing with my friends and seniors," he says, "After all, only students can truly tell you how good a place is."
Pravin Bakshi, ranked 48 this year, begs to differ. Pravin feels that aspirants should meet the teachers and choose for themselves. "Most centres now have seminars at the beginning of the year," he says, "I feel a student should attend a few and select a teacher he thinks is genuine." Bakshi himself came to Delhi after working for six years as a freelance journalist in Ranchi, Jharkhand. "My interest in social, political and infrastructural issues governed my choice of Optionals. My background as a journalist only furthered that interest and so I chose Public Administration and Sociology as my two electives."
For Sujeet Kumar, it was a long journey from Sheikpura in Bihar to the National Police Academy in Hyderabad. After two unsuccessful attempts, Sujeet (ranked 92) finally cleared the UPSC exam in 2006. "I always wanted to be a civil servant," says Sujeet, "Coming from one of the more neglected provinces in Bihar, I saw the civil services as a means to fulfil my dreams." After his post-graduation in Botany, Sujeet spent the next three years preparing for the UPSC exams. "Having spent five years studying Botany, I had no second thoughts about the first Optional. As for the second optional, I shortlisted Agricultural Studies, Zoology and Forestry. Since material for Forestry and Agricultural Studies was hard to come by, I chose Zoology." Sujeet maintains that aspirants should first choose their optionals and then search for coaching centres that suit their choices. Most centres try and push their particular specialities, with the result that an undecided student might be saddled with an optional he/she has no aptitude for.
Kavita Padmanabhan chose her subjects in a well-thought-out and clinical manner. "I had a background in engineering," she says, "and even worked for two years in that line." But, when it came to optionals, Kavita chose a combination that could bring high scores, and had clearly defined syllabi. "I chose Pali Literature as I have a natural flair for languages. It took three months of hard work, but finally I guess it paid off." This was Kavita's first attempt and she ranked 20. She spent about six months in Delhi, staying as a paying guest in Rajinder Nagar, but chose to give her exams from Chennai - as it was closer to her home in Pondicherry.
"My father was in the Indian Administrative Service," she says, "and today I feel that the IAS is one of the few jobs where one can truly bring about grassroots change."
While Kavita and Sujeet have mainly academic backgrounds, Parijat Vilas Patil is a Deputy Superintendent of Police in Maharashtra. " I qualified for the DSP post through the State Services exams," he says. "But I always wanted to join the UPSC." Although Patil has a background in Mechanical Engineering, he chose Geography and Sociology as his optionals. "Geography being a semi-technical subject suited my engineering background; as for Sociology, I chose it because my tuition centre offered me an abundance of information and guidance on the subject."
Patil feels that, post-2001, tests in science subjects such as Physics and Chemistry have become tougher to crack - the syllabi have been broadened and the questions have become harder to predict - with the result that several science and medical students have actually opted for Humanities subjects like Sociology and Public Administration as they have better-defined syllabi, and better scoring chances.
However, coaching centres are only one part of the UPSC matrix. Students also have to do a lot of preparations on their own as the exam is finally an attempt to evaluate a student's interpretative and analytical skills. Chandresh Yadav, ranked 101, reads two newspapers a day - one in English and one in Hindi, all Sunday sections and reviews and keeps a clipping file with relevant articles. He feels that journals and newspapers give aspirants the broad perspectives essential for any good administrator. Apart from maintaining a clippings file, Kavita Padmanabhan also made her own notes on various topics - collating facts, and noting down her perceptions of current events.
Most students agree that good writing skills are essential to do well in the UPSC exam, skills that cannot be substituted by hard work. "Of course hard work is crucial," says Sujeet, "but it is useless if you cannot communicate your ideas and thoughts to the examiner." Parijat Patil agrees, "These days since everyone is equally well-versed with all available information, it is the analysis that makes the difference."