The results of the annual civil services examination, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), are considered big news by the media, both print and electronic. Nowhere else in the world is a government job considered so prestigious. Take the case of the topper this time.
She is Shena Aggrawal from Haryana, a state which has only 877 women for every 1,000 men. She is a doctor, who passed out from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the most prestigious medical institution in India. Of course, it’s not the first time a doctor has topped the exam.
There is something fundamentally wrong with the education system that a doctor - a brilliant one at that - finds civil service a better option than treating patients. True, the loss of the medical profession is the gain of the civil services. How did this come about?
For a population of 1.12 billion, 40,525 medical graduates a year are inadequate. They have to compete for 16,088 postgraduate and 1,555 super-speciality seats. Since Aggrawal is brilliant, she may get admission but it will take a decade before she can establish herself in the profession.
Even if she joins a government hospital, it will be decades before she will get a chance to head it. In contrast, within a few years of joining the civil service, she might even be able to become the chief executive of an institution like her alma mater.
Besides, she will enjoy security of tenure, time-bound promotions and a hefty pension. She can also aspire to hold any post from a District Collector to the Cabinet Secretary or a globe-trotting diplomat to Ambassador Plenipotentiary in a place like Washington or Vienna.
Is it any wonder that 472,291 candidates applied for the civil services, out of which 910 were selected? The civil services are a legacy of the British, who started the Indian Civil Service in the 19th century. Initially, it was the preserve of the whites but by the time India became independent, the natives constituted over 50 per cent of the cadre.
The successful candidates are deputed to the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Police Service, the Indian Revenue Service etc. on the basis of their choice and ranks. The second-rank holder this year is, again, a girl, Rukmani Riar from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, a state where female foeticide is so rampant that there are only 893 women for 1,000 men.
Riar did a course from the Tata Institute of Social Services and would ordinarily have joined the social sector, rather than the government. But she cannot be faulted for her choice because she knows that the scope for serving society is unlimited in the government.
Every year the government earmarks funds worth billions of dollars for programmes like providing jobs for the rural poor, feeding infants and expectant mothers and optimising institutional delivery but it lacks officials committed to utilise these funds. Departments after departments have been found to be unable to spend funds worth millions and millions of dollars allotted for such programmes.
The successful candidates this year represent a cross-section of the people. For the first time, a nurse, Annies K. Joy from Kerala, and the son of an auto-rickshaw driver from Gujarat, Deepak Zala, made it to the coveted IAS. Women continue to improve their performance with 195 of them making it to the final list of 910.
While a state like Bihar, which used to do well in the UPSC exam, is disappointed that its candidates did not do well this time, Muslims lament that only 30 of them were successful. Incidentally, 12 of them were specially coached for the exam by Jamia Millia Islamia, Zakat Foundation of India and the Haj Committee of Mumbai.
By any yardstick, Gujarat is one of India’s most successful states but only nine from the state could make it to the UPSC list this time. But few in the state will shed tears over it as success is defined differently in the state known for its entrepreneurship.
In fact, the craze for civil services is a reflection of the prevalence of the feudal mind-set which eulogises those who wield executive power. With the Right to Information and a host of other enabling laws in place, government officials realise increasingly that the era when they exercised discretionary powers is over.
Once the realisation that the rule of law is not the rule of officials sinks in, the craze will end and few will opt out of professions like medicine, academics, engineering and media to join the civil services.