Civil Services: The Untold Story, and its Surrounding Myth

Civil services examination is a household aspiration in India, more so in the typical north Indian middle-class household. As soon as a child is born, his/her dream career is decided, at least in one corner of the heart by the family. The craze for the examination is such, that every year, about a million people aspire to appear for the civil services examination in India.

Selection rate in civil services examination

In 2020, more than a million people appeared for the civil services examination. This was against 796 vacancies. If we break this down further, there are some 24 services against these 796 vacancies. Not all are equally lucrative. Most aspirants aim for IAS (Indian Administrative Service), IPS (Indian Police Service), IFS (Indian Foreign Service) or IRS (Indian Revenue Service) at max. The remaining of the 24 services are usually not that sought after. If we look at the seats for these sought after services, we are left with roughly half of these 796 vacancies (approx. 398) with very liberal estimates. Now, from these remaining 398 vacancies, about half are reserved seats. This effectively leaves some 199 seats for a general category candidate to fight for. Fighting this competition is what makes a successful candidate, one in a million, quite literally!

Below you can see the statistical data for the number of aspirants appearing and getting selected, every year, for the last 10 years. Hidden in this data, is a testimony of lakhs of broken aspiration every year, of students who fail to make it up to the final list.

Civil services

The story of broken dreams in the civil service aspiration

Civil services

As seen, every year, lakhs of students appear for the exam, and not many make it up to the final list. Young students are sold dreams, and the cost of these dreams is minted by the thronging coaching centers. When the dreams are shattered, youth is wasted, and societal expectations mound, a depressed student is left with no ray of hope in life. Students committing suicide over failed attempts in the examination is a story every year. Is the examination really worth a young life?

A huge number of unemployed disgruntled youth is another unwanted by-product of this crazy examination.

Why is there a mad craze for the civil services?

People want to be different from the crowd. They want to feel ‘important’.

I still remember the school assemblies and community functions where the IAS/IPS officers of the town were invited in as chief-guests. It was right then, that the importance of these two roles was ingrained in my young mind. My aspirations in life were set by my society, by its chief-guest culture, by the things it valued. 

There are others like me who run after the power and prestige that comes with the service hat. Then there are people who want to be ‘change-makers’ in society. There are people who to ‘do something big’. These are usually the people who get easily disenchanted by the civil services charm once they enter the services. For the idealism in them, meets reality. If you aspire to change something, bring about the change. A doctor can bring a change, an engineer can, so can a designer. But the craze for civil services refuses to die down.

Civil services

The story that civil services resignations suggest

There are a series of resignations from the service every year. Yes, even after giving blood and sweat to the grilling examination process, people are disenchanted from the charm of the services and start looking for other ‘options’ in life. We know people like Shah Faesal, Arvind Kejriwal, and Bharati Ghosh who have left the services to start their political innings. We know people like Roman Saini, Dr. Syed Sabahat Azim, Rajan Singh who became successful entrepreneurs after they got over the civil services.

And then, there are also people who leave the services for they do not enjoy the lifestyle or style of government functioning. Some even resign for lack of freedom of expression. So it is not as glittery a picture as the millions of aspirants every year think it is. The reality of civil services is somewhere hidden behind the clerical and mundane routine of civil servants. It is just another job, with a hierarchy and power structure to abide by. You can never be the most powerful.

The open secret of corruption in services

For the idealist aspirants, who wish to bring about positive changes in society, there is another sad reality. Life after joining services cannot remain that ideal. The idealism is limited to the answer sheets of “Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude” paper. The amassed wealth of some IAS officers can take even the richest of businessman by storm.

In March 2012, Nitesh Janardhan Thakur, 10 luxury vehicles of the class of BMW, Mercedes and more than Rs, 2 billion worth properties, that too within 12 years of service!

The IAS couple Arvind and Tinoo Joshi, currently cooling their heels in jail, were found with similarly astonishing disproportionate assets.

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Babulal Agrawal, the 1998 batch officer, was found to have assets worth Rs 5 billion when raided. These were hidden in some 446 benami bank accounts and some 16 shell companies.

These were the people lauding for honesty, integrity and ethics before their selection. These were the people wanting to be change-agents in society and work towards the public good. These were the so-called public ‘servants’. And the history is replete with many such stories. Bribery and corruption flow in the veins of the system. It is inseparable, the degree and extent might vary.

Changing role of civil servants

The craze for civil services began with an open contest in the British era to come at par with the English ‘babus’. The power wielded by the district collector back then effectively made him the ‘raja’ of his district, the meritorious monarch. Post-independence, the IAS acquired a nation-building role. With economic liberalization, as the role of government changed from being a driver of growth to a mere facilitator of growth, the role of bureaucrats became further limited.

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As can be seen from the chart below, all indicators of economy are telling a growth story, barring the number of bureaucrats appointed over the years. The GDP grew, exports grew, our forex reserves reached in billions. What remained constant, rather reduced was the number of bureaucrats over the years, and rightly so. Their role is losing relevance over the years. Besides, these bureaucrats were only known to create a stumbling block in the path of development with red-tapism, they have no enabling role towards the growth indicators.

Civil services

Another stark reality of the economy today is the burgeoning of the unorganized sector. The Economic Survey 2018-19 highlighted that almost 93% of the workforce lies in the informal sector in India. This 93% of the workforce lies outside the purview of government control and regulations. The growth of gig economy has practically rendered the role of government to negligible. The role, power and influence of a civil servant is practically nil here. Why the hype around these spectator bureaucrats then?

Alternative career prospects for IAS aspirants

Now that we know many hidden truths about this most sought after career in India. Let us delve into some of the most asked questions about civil services as a career. 

Should I go for civil services? 

Well, it is for you to find out. You know best what you want, you should also know what the services can and cannot offer. It is not a bed of roses even after you finally clear the exam. Below is the list of popular career choices in India. They all offer different perks in terms of personal aspirations, monetary benefits, lifestyle etc. As you can see, there is no clear victor! IAS cannot be deemed the best out of the lot at all.

 Average Salary
(Rs Mn/yr)
Job SecurityPosting and StayNon-material Attractions
Civil Servant1-2Highly secureRural/remote posting quite probablePrestige, power, desire to serve.
MNC Executive2-5Hire and fire cultureTier 1 cities mostlyLavish lifestyle, nation-building role
Doctor2-5Depends on practiseAnywhere you wish to staySocial respect, Serve humanity
Creative FieldNo lower or upper boundNo securityTier 1 cities offer more scopeFreedom of expression, innovation
EntrepreneurNo lower or upper boundHigh risk, high rewardAnywhere you wish to stayBuild what you desire, be your own boss, extend your family tradition.
Compare various career options

Is civil services a good career option? Yes, it is a good ‘option’ if you are clear about what you want in life and what the services can offer. It is definitely not ‘the best’ career. It is definitely not worth your life even after you have spent substantial golden years in the preparation game.

There are a plethora of opportunities waiting for you to embark on at every stage in life. You just need to come out of self-pity. You just need to move past the stumbling blocks and ‘look forward’. Taking cues from the IAS resignees, you can become an entrepreneur, a political analyst or even a politician. With the plethora of knowledge gained, you can become an educator, a mentor or a content creator. With the desire to become change-agent, you can serve in upcoming social enterprises, think tanks or policy-making consultants. Even if this does not interest you, pick up a new skill, may be coding or designing and build something! The possibilities are endless, if only you wish to explore beyond UPSC.

My two cents

The unhealthy obsession of Indian society over civil servants is the root of all the problems associated with it. If only the civil servants were to be ‘change-agents’, the world would need no doctors, engineers, designers or innovators. So yes, civil services is an overhyped examination if all you aspire for is to ‘do something’ big or be a ‘change-maker’ in society. There are endless opportunities and careers, waiting to gain social respect. Look beyond.

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2 thoughts on “Civil Services: The Untold Story, and its Surrounding Myth

  1. The article about civil servant aspirants gives more of a negative side. There are lot of positive part of Civil Services preparation. The preparation itself fill up the gap that the school and college education had left. More over if the student prepares with their sincere efforts, and still does not qualify in the exam, they have been found to excel any other field they chose to work. the founder of Flipkart is one such example. the preparation of UPSC opens up and widens the arena of many new avenues which otherwise is not known. Only we should keep ourselves as motivated and believe in ourselves.

    1. This is definitely true Ma’m. The aim of the article was in no way to demean the aspirants or the preparation. It is only an attempt to bring down the mad obsession of Indian society with civil services as a career.

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