A 56" Steel Frame? The Lure Of The IAS

UPSC's list of successful candidates for the Indian Administrative (IAS) and other services was declared four weeks ago. It was anxiously awaited by thousands of the country's brightest youngsters, for whom getting into the civil services, and especially the IAS, is the ultimate ambition. The number which goes through the three-stage, almost year-long process of recruitment to realise their dream is truly staggering.

While only 3,233 applied for the exam in its inception year, 1951, the number of applicants in 2019 was 8 lakhs. After a process of elimination at various stages - the preliminaries, the main exam, and the interview - the number actually selected is only 829 for 24 services; even of this, only the top 180 will get into the premier service, the IAS!

The cost and effort that goes into trying for the IAS is equally stupendous. While a lucky few get into the service after one or two tries, there are several who make as many as six attempts. Some even quit well-paid jobs in the private sector, as doctors, engineers, or management graduates to concentrate on preparing for the IAS, taking a year or two for this. Often, those who have succeeded in getting into another civil service try again till they get into the IAS. Leaving an exceptional few, most take coaching in one or several institutes which have proliferated as a spin-off to this craze. Many of these institutes are now mini-corporations, some with a national outreach, sizable revenue and employees. Added to the cost of coaching is the expense on hostel or paying guest accommodation in metros since many of the aspirants are from rural areas or small towns. Briefly associated with one such institute for mock interviews, I realised the sea change that has come over the service since I was a successful candidate over half a century ago, most of it for the better.

The precursor of the IAS, the Indian Civil Service (ICS), was founded in 1858 to help the British administer this vast and complex country. Its initial work was limited to maintaining law and order and collecting revenue. The majority of the officers were British, which led one wit to quip that the ICS was neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service. After the All India Services Act of 1951 completely Indianised the service and the goal became nation-building, the number of tasks undertaken by the service has expanded exponentially. During a 30-year career, an officer is likely to take on a diverse and challenging range of jobs.

Several changes in the process of recruitment, such as six attempts instead of three; raising the upper age limit from 21 to 32 years; reservations for SC/ST/OBC, ex-service personnel and the differently abled; and allowing candidates to take the exams as well as interview in a regional language of choice, and a conscious effort to induct more women have all changed the face of the service.

The changes are very visible. While decades ago, the aspirants were mostly very young, male, from urban, elitist backgrounds and educated in a few leading colleges, the candidates today are more mature, from all strata of society, and social and educational backgrounds, and from all regions of the country.

These changes are obvious in the present list of successful candidates. The person who topped the list is from Haryana, the son of a farmer; several are from families of lower government functionaries, or have themselves worked in the police or the Income Tax service earlier. The top woman candidate is from UP and an engineer from IIT Delhi. This last fact highlights one of the most significant trends in the last decade - the increase in the number of candidates with professional education. Between 1990 and 1999, of 411 selected, about 37% were from engineering colleges, many from the leading IITs, and 6% from the medical stream. In 2016 of 176 recruited, 56 had a degree in engineering and 20 had a medical degree.

Why does the IAS hold such an attraction, even for professionally qualified candidates who could have landed well-paid and prestigious jobs elsewhere? And is this a healthy trend?

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The first question is easy to answer. The answers given by the candidates themselves at the mock interviews are almost identical in some respects. The usual response is "We want to serve the country and society; the IAS offers the most challenging and diverse job opportunities." A few honestly answered that the security, pay and pension benefits offered, especially with salaries being raised to commensurate corporate levels, are the major attraction. But perhaps what is left unstated - it offers power, authority and status, not obtainable elsewhere - is the real reason. Even for the most idealistic, accomplishing their vision is not easy without the authority and access to resources that the service offers. Though the government talks of minimum government and maximum governance, the fact is that the importance of the bureaucracy and its grip has increased. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has micromanaged economic activities as well as the private lives of people even more than before.

The answer to the second question is not as easy. Even though job opportunities outside government have diversified and increased manifold since Independence, they have not kept pace with the numbers or aspirations of seekers. Government, on the other hand, offers myriad challenging opportunities - from education to health, arts and culture, to production of nuclear power and space exploration.

On the other hand, society may be losing out by diverting the money spent on training professionals like doctors to a generalist service, where the value added by them is less than in their own fields, and more needed. Technical expertise can be availed of by hiring or through lateral entry specifically where it is required.

This is not to deny that professionals who have opted for the IAS can and do make a valuable domain contribution. For instance, a newspaper reports that administrators with a medical background have made positive contributions to COVID-19 management. But there is no evidence to show that non-medics did not perform as well. Clearly, more research is needed to answer the second question. 

(Pushpa Sundar belonged to the 1963 batch of the IAS.)

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