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Why we will continue to value the IIT and the IAS

Last updated on: June 13, 2012 14:20 IST

Why we will continue to value the IIT and the IAS


B S Prakash

In a nation beset with class, caste, gender and other kinds of bias, prejudice and inequity, we still have managed to retain a functioning system of predominantly merit-based selection for some of the most sought after slots, says BS Prakash.

I pick up the Indian papers and see photos of happy families posing with grinning 'toppers' -- successful boys and girls, actually more girls than boys, these days.

It is not just the parents or the heads of schools/coaching institutes that look proud; my heart too swells with pride reading the profiles of these high achievers, though I have no connection with them. Proud of their success, proud of the value we still attach to academic excellence, proud also of our system with all its blemishes.

Some doubts too at the whole process, about which I will come in a moment.

But, first, what examinations am I talking about? In an aspirational sense, primarily there are two: the formidable IIT-JEE, the very thought of which terrorises hundreds of thousands of students at the school level, and a little later in life, the Civil Services examination that looms as another challenge for many.

Indeed there are other tests and examinations -- to medical colleges, management schools, banking careers -- but in the public imagination these two are mountains to conquer, to 'make' it.

The reports in the media about the successful candidates -- the crackers -- are a sociologist's delight. There are reams of analysis: performance based on gender, states from which the candidate comes, family background, SC/ST or OBC status, and what not.

For instance, this year I learn that Arpit Agarwal from Modern Vidya Niketan from Faridabad was the topper in IIT-JEE. An astounding 4,79,651 took the exam for a total of 9,647 seats, Arpit came first, and I rather think that he and his family will never be the same again.

Nineteen from Andhra Pradesh are said to be in the first fifty and on an average had studied five hours in the coaching institutes alone for 4-5 years, unlike the not to successful students from Tamil Nadu lacking in similar coaching institutes according to the venerable The Hindu.

In the civil services exam the top candidate was a doctor Ms Shena Agarwal from Yamuna Nagar in Haryana. Some years ago another doctor Shah Faisal had come first hailing from J&K and inspiring the whole state.

These are random examples, but I read the stories with interest and with mixed feelings: elation on one hand and doubts on the other, about these defining steps for so many.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/


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Why elation? Because in my view, in a nation beset with class, caste, gender and other kinds of bias, prejudice and inequity, we still have managed to retain a functioning system of predominantly merit-based selection for some of the most sought after slots.

The institutions that run the exams, be it the UPSC or the board that conducts the IIT may not be perfect, but they are credible, trustworthy and are running a fair system, once the terms of reference are accepted.

Second, over the years, the process has become more open, inclusive and non-elitist. Any middle class aspirant can have a fair go in fulfilling the essentially middle class aspirations of modern India, a change from what was once an option for the more educationally privileged.

Famous schools and colleges in major cities had once dominated such selections but we now seem to have a more equitable spread across states and towns; more modest schools and middle class households producing the winners. No mean achievement. Why?

I can speak from a perspective of long exposure and international comparisons. After all, I too had succeeded in these examinations in my time, though my sense of it at that time was that of having succeeded in the exam instead of 'cracking' it, and having got a good job instead of 'making' it.

Since then I have met hundreds of IITians and All India Service officers, and whatever one may think of them and their performance in the jobs, I do know that they have come through an essentially fair competition.

I also know other systems, many from the developing countries. Let me give some examples of the diplomats and top civil servants that I meet from other countries without naming the countries.

It is not at all surprising for me in country A to meet a young recruit to their foreign service, whose father is the ambassador to Spain, his uncle to Argentina, and four others from the family at different steps in the diplomatic ladder.

From country B, my colleague the head of the embassy has been a former General and the number two, the nephew of the cabinet secretary.

In country C, the top appointments all change with the change in the government and the new official that I am meeting was the organiser of the election committee.

In country D, you have to be the right kind of Muslim to begin with and thereafter from the right family to be the head of revenue.

Different systems, but with little access to the small town girl slogging away for six hours every day to do well in an examination that any graduate can take.

Something to celebrate? Definitely, yes.

But then as I hinted, some misgivings too. How come?

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/

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The words being used 'cracking' and 'making it' gives clues. You do not merely solve problems in the IIT-JEE or IAS preliminary. The number of applicants are so many, the competition so fierce, the need for differentiation and elimination so compelling that the answers have to be mentally wrestled with even by the best and the brightest, and with luck the riddle cracked open to give you a small percentile advantage.

You do not simply excel in the exams: you break through by cracking an impregnable system. The sheer numbers, the scale of aspiration as also frustration, and added to all this the perception of the life-altering nature of these tests, make it a cruel process for all except the triumphant minority. Hence the notion of 'making it' against all odds.

Chetan Bhagat's Revolution 2020 captures some of the ironies of the process: the race to Kota, the Mecca of all training institutes; the money spinning machines of coaching exploiting the vulnerabilities of the dreamers, the poignancy of those who fail to excel, despite heart breaking ambition and labour.

And underneath all this the harsh reality -- the fear of the future and the pressure of numbers. From the basic fact 'that there are too many of us' an entire narrative emerges: the agony to find good pre-schools, schools, choice of subjects, right colleges, careers and so on. A harsh and unrelenting race till you make it.

There are other more theoretical or esoteric doubts that are legitimately raised about our system. The rote learning that the fierce competition induces, the automaticity of choice of medicine/engineering for the majority of the middle class students, negation of creative or innovative thinking, the mind numbing rigour in preparations, the label of success or failure that hangs over the teenage years killing a sense of fun or adventure.

All these may be true, but if you are a parent or a student, it is difficult to avoid the reality of looming unemployment or the peer pressure of trying. Hence it all comes back to the pressure of numbers.

But to revert to the positive again: if this is the reality and if these are still the standard perceptions of education and employment, then despite the message of 3 Idiots or Revolution 2020, we will continue to value the IIT or the IAS.

Should we not count our blessings then, that notwithstanding the larger social and pedagogic questions, we have at least a fair system of choosing or eliminating?  What else can we do?

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/

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