Coaching to join IAS
In what is a move towards integrity and professionalism, the Government has done well by directing the successful candidates in the civil services examination to terminate their existing contracts with coaching centres
The range, motives, and diversity of individuals and organisations engaged in the Rs 3,000 crore IAS coaching industry can be the subject of several research studies and biopics. The list includes the not-for-profit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Samkalp, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee-sponsored Nischay, the centrally funded Jamia Millia Islamia’s coaching academy, and the West Bengal government-backed Satyendranath Tagore Civil Services Study Centre. That’s apart from legions of money-spinning coaching institutions—from Byjus (now under a financial crisis) to Next IAS, which prominently features an ex-member of the Union Public Service Commission, and many others that buttress their claims with mugshots of recent toppers, former government secretaries, director generals of police, and ambassadors. There are also individual coaches who take no more than five to six students in a year round out the ecosystem.
The coaches and mentors of these institutions position themselves as celebrities, adding ‘sir’ as a suffix to their names, even though the majority of them have barely scraped through the Prelims and Mains and made two or more failed attempts at the interview. Movies like Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail with its Restart Academy and OTT shows like Dehati Ladke and Aspirants add to the mystique and charm of spending multiple years chasing a dream which only a miniscule fraction can possibly realise.
The 13 lakh aspirants who pick up the Civil Services Exam (CSE) application form all have their sights set on the 300-odd positions in the IAS or the IPS. No offence, but no one takes the exam to join the Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Service. They all harbour the dream of being a collector or an SP — with all the attendant paraphernalia. But to what end?
Manoj Kumar (played by Vikrant Massey), the male protagonist of 12th Fail, is enamoured of the police uniform. He feels that donning it will make him Robin Hood or Dulla Bhatti, a knight in shining armour, a saviour of the poor and the meek. Likewise, the female protagonist Shraddha Joshi (Medha Shankar) wants to give up her medical career to become a Provincial Civil Service (PCS) officer so that she can empower women and enforce their rights. Their aspirations may be noble, but are they addressing the real structural issues of the political economy? Will the country be governed by idealistic young men and women, or should it be guided by well-designed rules, systems, and technologies that eliminate or at least substantially reduce individual discretion and political patronage?
To give a relevant example, the Prelims exam of the UPSC is so comprehensive, well-designed, and time-constrained that it is impossible to cheat or help anyone else do so.
Why not invest in improving the quality of education across school systems rather than deploy anti-cheating squads with magistrates and police officers in Bihar and West Bengal, where cheating was once rampant and embedded in the ‘political economy’. The onus lies with the National Education Policy, school education departments, parent-teacher associations, and elected and empowered panchayat members to end the scourge of cheating rather than burdening police officers who should be preventing and solving crimes and clamping down on harmful drugs and substances.
But the broader question of whether civil servants, including the much-vaunted lateral entrants, can or should imagine their roles as agents of structural change, especially in ideologically driven political dispensations, is a subject for another essay.
The focus today is on the notice issued by the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) to over 20 heavily advertised IAS coaching centres under Section 18 of the Consumer Protection Act of 2019. This section pertains to advertising that falls under the category of “dark patterns”.
The term ‘dark patterns’ refers to deliberately misleading advertisements that make untrue, unwarranted, or excessively exaggerated claims.
Take, for example, Vajirao & Reddy Institute’s proclamation that 617 students from their centre cleared the CSE exam in 2022. Or testimonials from toppers from years even before the IQRA IAS coaching institute was founded. These are just a few instances, but the extent of the problem is underscored by this columnist’s experiences.
I have been contacted on quite a few occasions in the last three years. One prominent newspaper chain, for instance, wanted a ‘quote’ for a mug shot and occasional all-expenses-paid lectures at important metro branches of a coaching centre in which they had a major financial stake. The ‘offer’ exceeded all my retirement benefits (gratuity, leave encashment, and General Provident Fund) but I could not get myself to entertain any such proposition. The simple reason being that those who cleared the exam, including myself (four decades ago when the competition was perhaps not as tough as it is today), did so through self-study, hard work, and, yes, a bit of luck.
Fortuitously, in the interests of maintaining integrity and professionalism within the administrative services, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has accepted the suggestion of the Consumer Affairs Ministry. It has directed successful candidates to terminate any existing contracts with any coaching centre upon receiving the offer of appointment.
This measure will help ensure anonymity, the hallmark of the civil services, and also curtail ‘toppers’ from cultivating personal followers on social media—which is a trend that goes against the very concept of Sheelam Param Bhushanam (Humility is the Best Embellishment), the emblem of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration where all the officers undergo training in the Foundation course.
However, a related issue involves several retired officers, including those who have served on the UPSC, readily lending their names, expertise, guidance, and blessings to these teaching shops, many now associated with ‘dark patterns’. I am not advocating against retired officers helping civil service aspirants prepare for the exams, but doing so for personal gain is not a particularly edifying arrangement. To top it all, some officers with not-so-formidable reputations are even preparing teaching aids, essays, and guidance for the ethics paper and interview!
While the Rs 3,000-crore IAS coaching industry is certainly more than a drop in the bucket, the real moolah lies in IIT-JEE, CLAT, and medical entrance exam coaching. This business, exceeding Rs 58,000 crore, targets students as young as 12 or 13. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education did well to issue guidelines for coaching centres, including those for IAS preparation, and this will be discussed in greater detail in a subsequent column.
(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)