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'Many people thought I'd never clear the exam'

August 09, 2023 09:58 IST
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'Though I had prepared quite well, the first half of the interview did not go as I had planned.'
'In fact, I was roasted by one of the members.'

IMAGE: Anand Justin, who is the first member from the fishing community in Kerala to become an Indian Forest Service officer. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Justin

There is nothing spectacular about a 29 year old getting selected for the Indian Forest Service.

But it becomes an incredible achievement when the person happens to be from the fishing community, and it happened to be his eight attempt at the Civil Service examination.

Meet Anand Justin, a graduate in geology who works as an instructor at a private academy that trains civil service aspirants.

Anand is the first member from the fishing community in Thiruvananthapuram to become an Indian Forest Service officer.

"Even though I don't carry with me the kind of unattainable dream Malayalam cinema talks about, I knew the civil service would give me a platform to do something. I am also aware of the limitations a civil servant faces," Anand Justin tells's Shobha Warrier.

How was it growing up with sea as your childhood companion?

It is a cultural memory for me, and also an emotional experience.

Cultural because I grew up in many rental homes, and the oldest memory is that of living in a rental house; a thatched hut with a rock wall separating my home and the beach.

Being part of the sea gives you many emotional memories. Today, it has become a traumatic memory as most of the land in my village is gone now, taken away by the sea.

All the small rental homes I used to live as a child are gone. More than half a kilometre of the coastline is lost in our area in Valiyathura.

IMAGE: Fishermen in Kochi. Photograph: ANI Photo

What was your relationship with the sea? Was the sea your friend?

My ancestral home was just half a kilometre from the sea, so we grew up with the sea as part of our lives.

My grandmother still works as a fisherwoman, so it was our duty to deliver food to her.

My grandparents are involved in fishing but not directly; they are intermediaries, collecting scuttle fish and squid from local fishermen and selling them to a local company earning a commission.

My father used to be a fisherman during his young days like his ancestors, but he chose to be a wall painter for the last 30 years.

As I was an introvert, I was never part of any team sport. I spent most of my childhood alone at the beach. I used to sit for hours all alone, looking at the sea.

Then there was this Valiyathura bridge which was also my hiding place.

As a child and also as an adolescent, I spent 'alone time' gazing at the sea.

What were you thinking about in those moments?

It was more philosophical, I would say. The vastness of the sea always amazed me. There I was sitting at the line where the land and sea met, and I didn't know what was beyond the horizon. The very thought puzzled me.

Then, it is also the line where nature and culture meet. A large population live in the coastal area and their livelihood is totally dependent on nature.

After the tsunami, there was this feeling of vulnerability and the fear of the unknown.

As I sat looking at the sea, I could connect the sea with our own life, the unpredictability of both.

IMAGE: A man removes plastic bottles from the Vembanad lake in Kochi. Photograph: ANI Photo

Were you a dreamer as a child?

I was always a dreamy child. I was a reader and a dreamer. My parents used to say that I was too dreamy, always forgetting what was happening around me.

I used to dream about what I could do to the world. The disasters happening around us hurt me.

In the last 5 years, I have seen the coast being eaten away by the sea. Coastal erosion is a reality for those who live on the coast, as they are losing their homes, savings and livelihood. But they are helpless.

Being a naturalist, I am troubled by the way we are polluting nature. It has been my hobby from childhood to collect pebbles and shells from the beach but today what I get is only plastic!

I see with my own eyes the destruction of marine life due to incessant pollution of the sea.

Because people do not have enough waste management facilities, it is a common notion in the area to dump waste into the sea saying, the ocean is vast, and it will accept everything.

Ocean symbolises many things to many people, but what I hear is the cry of despair.

IMAGE: Shankumukham beach in Thiruvananthapuram. Photograph: ANI Photo

Being so close to the sea, do you feel angry with the way man is exploiting and abusing nature?

I do feel angry at times, but most of the time, I feel frustrated that even with the kind of resources we have, we are doing very little for the sea.

While talking about preserving the environment, people talk about the forest and its ecosystem. There is very little awareness about preserving the sea, even among those living in the coastal area.

For example, in the local elections, people demand concrete roads on the beach and street lights, and politicians are happy to offer these things.

The point is, in the last few years when we are losing the beach itself, where are you going to build roads? When there is no beach, where will you have street lights?

People living in the area are not even noticing the fact that coastal erosion is happening right in front of their eyes. They are also not aware of the biodiversity under the water.

I have been feeling disillusioned over the years because I feel we could have done so many things to preserve the ocean, but we are far behind.

IMAGE: A house damaged by high tides following incessant rainfall on the Ponnani coast in Malappuram district, Kerala. Photograph: ANI Photo

You said you were frustrated with what was happening to nature. Did you decide to be a civil servant because you felt you would be able to do something for society?

From the age of 10, it was my dream to be an IAS officer. It was my maternal uncle who instilled in me the idea to be a civil servant. Later on in life, I decided that it was worth a try. But then it took me eight attempts to finally become a civil servant.

Even though I don't carry with me the kind of unattainable dream Malayalam cinema talks about, I knew the civil service would give me a platform to do something. I am also aware of the limitations a civil servant faces.

You have been selected to be an Indian Forest Service officer. Did you specifically choose to be in the forest service?

I have been preparing for the civil service from 2015 onwards.

In 2018, I was cleared to write the forest service exam. Till then I was aspiring to be in the central civil service, but I failed repeatedly in the general examination.

I felt fatigued. And yes, I was disappointed and dejected because this was what I wanted to do from the age of 10. So, when I got a chance to concentrate on the forest service, it offered a new opportunity.

As I was preparing for the examination, I was also working as a faculty at a private academy teaching environment and ecology to the civil service aspirants.

I felt I could teach and impact the students. Though it gave me some satisfaction, every day when I went to sleep, I felt this was not what I wanted to do.

Though repeated failures affected my confidence, I told myself that life would take its course, and if I didn't clear the exam, let me be in the teaching profession.

You said you failed in the interview quite a few times. How did the interview go this year?

The interview was in 2023. Though I had prepared quite well, the first half of the interview did not go as I had planned. In fact, I was roasted by one of the members.

They asked me around eight questions and my answer to seven questions were, I don't know. One of the members even asked me whether I read the newspapers!

But I was not tense as it was my fourth interview, and I had become used to setbacks.

In the second half of the interview, when they asked me about the coastal area and environment, I was in my territory, and I answered the questions confidently and clearly.

And I got good marks -- 192/300 -- in the interview.

In fact, the interview marks played a big role in me getting selected.

IMAGE: Anand Justin and his wife Ann Maria. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anand Justin

What did you feel when you saw your name in the list? Was it excitement or relief?

The moment when I saw my name in the list, I felt it was unbelievable. I was not used to the feeling of winning. So, I looked at the list again and again to check whether it was indeed my name.

It was a moment of relief and redemption. I also felt humbled.

There was no over-excitement. If I had cleared the exam 5-6 years ago, I would have been more excited.

Many people thought I would never clear the exam. Here, I must mention the immense help and support I received from my wife Ann Maria.

We got married this January. She believed in me and gave me the confidence that I could do it. She is also preparing for the civil service exam.

She was with me when I looked at the result. In fact, she was too tense to search for my name because she couldn't bear another negative result. But I was calm and ready for any eventuality.

When I told her that my name was indeed there in the list, we hugged and cried as we have been in this journey for some time.

It was a moment we will never forget.

How do you describe your journey from the sea to the forest?

This journey has been partly accidental. Till I was cleared to write the Indian Forest Service main exam in 2018, it was not part of my plan.

In 2018, when I started reading about the forest service, I felt maybe this was where I, a person who loves nature should be. In fact, I wondered why I did not prepare for this earlier!

But then I had to wait till now to be in the service.

In November, my two-year training at the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy in Dehradun will start.

During the training period, we will be touring the forests and other areas in the country for 7 months. This is going to be the most beautiful part of the training and I looking forward to it with excitement.

Shashi Tharoor tweeted about your achievement....

Yes, he is my MP. I am very happy that my MP knows about me....

Because of his tweet, lakhs of people know me now.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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