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‘What Next’ for UPSC-negatives? Indians with wasted youth don’t want to return empty-handed

While the passionate preparatory struggle of India's UPSC aspirants is widely acknowledged, their years after the negative result is spent in quiet solitude, loss of esteem, even shame.

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Rajat Sambyal came to Delhi from Jammu with a dream. And that dream was made up of four alphabets – UPSC. But when the results came this year in may, it was like the end of the road after six failed attempts and years of sleepless, anxiety-filled nights. But some habits are just hard to kick. Rajat is still living in Delhi’s UPSC aspirant hub Old Rajinder Nagar and breathing the same air with singular ambition, alongside his roommates who are still preparing for civil services.

“I was numb. I did not talk to anybody. I posted that tweet and went to sleep,” Rajat recalled the days after the result of the 2021 Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam was released. The tweet in question is not what he had saved in draft. The BE (civil engineering) graduate from PEC University of Technology, Chandigarh, was sure that he was going to be selected and so he had another tweet ready to announce his success.

“Ten years of hard work is over. Six UPSC attempts over. 3 times prelims failed. 2 times mains failed. In my last attempt, I have now cleared Civil services. Finally Placed.”

Instead, this is what he tweeted that day:

Now, the big question for Rajat is: ‘What next?’

Also read: For IAS exams, it’s important to know what not to study. Working like a donkey won’t help

Raindrops in the ocean 

Rajat is not the only person facing this question. Hundreds of thousands of India’s youth chase the same UPSC chimera and fail. While their passionate, going-for-broke preparatory struggle is well-documented and widely acknowledged, their months and years after UPSC-negative is mostly spent in quiet solitude, loss of esteem and even shame. They look back at their wasted years helplessly, having lost what they call the best time of their life. Some lose their friends and love in this unforgiving journey. But it takes them a long time to find their feet again and stitch together a new dream.

Around 11 lakh aspirants apply for the UPSC exam every year. But only a few hundred — less than 0.01 percent — succeed. In 2019, more than 8 lakh students applied for the prelims — only 11,845 students appeared for the Mains, 2,034 made it to the interview round, and only 927 entered India’s prestigious world of civil services. That figure came down to 761 civil servants in 2020 and then further down to 712 in 2021. From flashy billboards of coaching institutes to news reports and media interviews to household conversations, the journey of UPSC toppers and ‘achievers’ are told in great detail. Rarely do we hear about the struggles of those who falter at the last hurdle.

Also read: IAS, IPS, IFS, IRS should have specific civil service entrance exams. At least discuss it

Battle hardened 

While Rajat is still “finding the path” for his future, some already have.

“We undertake this journey when our josh is at its prime. In the course of my UPSC journey, I lost my youth, my friends, and my love. But it’s also true that whatever I am today, it is because of this journey,” said Amit Kilhor, a teacher with Study IQ, an online platform. Amit spent eight years preparing for UPSC — he gave Mains six times and twice reached the Interview round.

“The first two weeks after the result were full of utter despair. Slowly, I regained my courage. But I have been lucky. Not many people get better opportunities,” he says.

Amit Kilhor’s room in New Delhi, where he was preparing for UPSC exam | Special arrangement

Priyamvada’s journey was different. Not only did she battle depression caused by the exam pressure, she also had to wage a parallel war with society. “On the one hand, I was not able to clear the exam, and on the other hand, there was family pressure to get married. I had to take medications,” says Priyamvada, who appeared for the UPSC exam five times. In 2020, she moved to London for further studies.

“After coming out of depression, when I opened my books for the first time I could not remember anything I had read earlier. That was very scary for me. But I came out of that hellhole. I didn’t get married. Now my life’s steering wheel is in my hands. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this,” she says. She returned to India and started working with the World Wildlife Fund, travelling to remote areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, etc. She says she had job opportunities abroad, but decided to do something for the sake of her country by staying here.

While Amit lost his fearlessness during the years of preparations, Priyamvada said she became free from fear after failing the UPSC exams.

“But life doesn’t end there. No single thing can be larger than your life. I fought hard with it and now I am living life fearlessly,” she says.

Priyamvada, who appeared for the UPSC exam five times, moved to London in 2020 for further studies | Photo: Special arrangement

Also read: Regular coaching no longer enough — UPSC aspirants opt for ‘personal mentors’ to crack exam

Empty hands

A survey conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) revealed that about 12-13 percent of students across India suffer from psychological, emotional, and behavioural issues.

Professor Om Prakash of the Institute of Human Behavior and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), New Delhi, says many who come to him for counselling are those preparing for UPSC. “Often they turn to drugs,” he says. “The most important thing for them is to accept that this is just an exam, not the end of life. If things get worse, consult a doctor. Don’t deal with it alone,” he advises.

Because accepting and overcoming the sense of failure is difficult. “For such children, the only thing that matters is that they clear the exam. There’s nothing else. They isolate themselves, live alone, remain unhappy,” says Dr Praveen Tripathi, a psychiatrist at Noida-based Renowa Care. “There are so many groups on Telegram for preparations and study material. But nothing for people who fail the exam and are trying to move on.”

Amit says he went through a lot after the results. “Every failed attempt increases the pressure to seek more money from home,” he says.

“No one thinks about the students who have gone through the rigours of this process. UPSC preparation indeed makes you a better person, but if you are not selected, then there is no market value for that entire study,” Amit says. “You study engineering for four years and you get a degree. However, if you have only prepared for UPSC for 10 years, then you won’t have a degree. When the attempts are over, you are out of the process. The government pushes these students back into society with empty hands,” he says.

Also read: Failing UPSC Mains sends you back to square one. Replace Prelims with a new exam system

Hard to let go

As a way to “reduce the tension and suffering” of candidates who fail to clear the exam, then-UPSC chairman Arvind Saxena recommended to the central government in 2019 to consider unsuccessful candidates who reach the interview stage for jobs in other institutions.

The government responded positively. Sports Authority of India (SAI) and International Financial Services Centres Authority opened their doors to such candidates by giving them direct entry in the interview round. This year, IFSCA has released eight such vacancies.

Nitish Garg, who missed the final UPSC list in 2019 by 10 marks, was able to take the interview at the SAI based on his UPSC performance. He now works as an assistant director at SAI and is preparing for state-level services.

But Amit says this new system is not enough. The real problem is still the same: A large number of India’s youth are left dejected because there is a severe scarcity of jobs in the country.

Rajat Sambyal’s study desk that used to inspire him to prepare for UPSC exam | Photo: Noonan Sharma

What also doesn’t change is Rajat’s routine. He still wakes up in his flat in Old Rajinder Nagar. He still takes money from his parents. While he has locked his books in the cupboard, he still hasn’t been able to distance himself from the UPSC world. Soon after his tweet went viral, many aspirants came to him for advice. Now he gives interviews, attends talk sessions, moderates Twitter Spaces of former and current UPSC aspirants, and amplifies stories of those who have built careers elsewhere — all with the aim to be a helping hand to those who fail the USPC dream.

It isn’t easy to turn off the UPSC-bug switch magically after the results. There are lingering, residual moods where you still inhabit that dream.

“UPSC is such a chakravyuh (maze). Once you get in, you won’t be able to get out easily. But the preparation makes you a smarter person. You may not be able to get a job after preparing for the UPSC, but you don’t come back empty-handed,” Garg says.

(Edited by Prashant)

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