“Free IAS demo class! Free IAS demo class!” At the GTB Road metro station in north Delhi, a young boy with a placard that reads “Ardent IAS coaching” is mechanically chanting, pausing occasionally to sip on a glass of banta. As scores of 20-and-30-somethings walk past him, he manages to grab the attention of a few who enquire about the class and ask for directions to the coaching centre.
It was one such announcement at the metro station, two days ago, that brought Suryakant Bharti to Mukherjee Nagar, the capital’s UPSC coaching hub. It is swarming with over 40,000 aspirants, billboards of IAS toppers, “special classes” and advertisements for hostels and tiffin service. “Humko har taraf students dikh rahe the (I could only see students everywhere),” says Bharti. The 25-year-old from Bhitta village in Tisri block of Giridih district, Jharkhand, has made the 1,193 km journey to Delhi to realise his dream of cracking the civil service exam, the first person from his village to do so. As many as 4.5 lakh students across India appear for the exam every year.
Bharti, like the other male members of the 121 Dalit families in his village, took up farming from a young age. “My sister was married off at the age of 15. But my father sent me and my younger brother to school,” he says. Every morning, he would attend one of the two government schools in the village and then rush to the fields to help his father. “Whatever time was left, I used it to draw and paint,” he recalls. “By Class IX, I was selling my paintings and supplemented the family’s income”. His father makes Rs 8,000 per month.
When did the idea of appearing for the civil services occur to him? “The fact that my sister was never sent to school and was married off so early disturbed me a lot. The fate of all girls in my village is the same, I want to change it. Then three years ago, Virender Kumar, a boy from Giridih district cleared the UPSC exam; I saw his picture in the local newspaper. I thought if he could do it, so could I,” says Bharti, who graduated with a degree in Political Science from the Vinoba Bhave University in Hazaribagh three years ago.
Today, sitting among 20-odd students for a demo class at the Step-up IAS coaching centre in Mukherjee Nagar, Bharti is feeling “confident”. Even though his world, riddled with social complexities and financial restraints, is far removed from the Jane Austen-loving, Delhi University-educated Dabi, the first-ever Dalit girl to top the UPSC examination, the 25-year-old is counting on “every motivation” to sail through.
In a class full of students, where most are reluctant to respond to a question on their caste, Ruby, 24, in her heavily-accented Hindi, is the first one to say: “Main Scheduled Caste hoon, kya koi extra class ho raha hai (I belong to the SC category, are any extra classes taking place)?” Her blunt response leads to a few raised eyebrows, but Ruby is new to Delhi, and determined to clear the exam in her first attempt.
Ruby was the first girl from her village near Baghpat in western UP to pursue college education, a BA from LR Degree College in Sahibabad. “I stayed at my aunt’s place in Loni to pursue my college studies. There was no college near my village, so my father sent me to Ghaziabad,” she says. Ruby was encouraged by her father, a farmer, to continue her education after school. “My father wants me to clear the exam, so that we all move ahead. I want a sarkari naukri (government job),” she says. Ruby has six siblings — five brothers, and a sister.
For the past month, Ruby has been travelling from Loni to Mukherjee Nagar, negotiating her way through the labyrinth of coaching institutes. The two big hurdles in her way: language and her financial situation. Ruby speaks a dialect of Hindi but is not familiar with the Hindi spoken at the coaching centre. “I still find it hard to follow what the teachers or my batchmates say. I feel hesitant. So, I avoid asking too many questions in class and try and make sense of the topics from the study material,” she says.
“That is why it is important for me to clear the UPSC exam. Jab power aayega, toh confidence bhi aayega (When I get power, confidence will follow),” she says. “The fee for coaching is Rs 65,000, so I have found a job at the Timarpur police station. I go there on night duty, 8pm to 8am,” she says. Ruby maintains the FIR and other logs at the police station. She says she gave a “physical” and “general knowledge” exam to get the job.
Like Ruby, Bharti, who has been sleeping on bus stops and the railway station for two nights now, plans to get a job soon to pay for his coaching. “I have got a few of my paintings. I will try and sell them here. I have also done a round of the cyber cafes in the market for a job,” he says.
While the two claim that they haven’t faced any discrimination at the coaching centre, Ruby does mention a few snide comments from her batchmates about “reserved category students having an added advantage”. “No one says anything to my face, but there have been a few taunts. I don’t pay too much heed to them, these students don’t understand the struggle that my family has undergone to put me and my siblings through school,” says Ruby. Bharti agrees: “When I was coaching for the Jharkhand Public Service Commission exam in Ranchi, the digs were common. Initially, it made me very angry, but later I realised that it was coming from a place of ignorance. If more and more people like us come forward and become a part of the government administration, only that will make a difference”.
The two have big plans for their families and village, if they manage to make it to the civil service. “I will first open a UPSC coaching centre in my village, so that more Dalit girls can appear for the exam. Then I will get my sister married and bring my parents to the city. They have gone through enough hardship in the village,” says Ruby.
For Bharti, it is all about “sammaan (respect)”. “I want to open more schools in my village. Only education can get us respect. I want every child, including girls, in my village to study,” says Bharti.
As the three-hour class wraps up, Bharti moves towards the main market to resume his job and hostel search. Ruby, who has another lecture in half-an-hour, goes to a nearby chola-kulcha stall for lunch. After a few mouthfuls, she asks, “Do you know where Tina Dabi did her coaching from?”