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The tyranny of numbers and the Sarkari dream

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In the second week of June 2023, the Indian households woke up to a familiar headline, “The union public service commission has recommended a total of 14624 candidates in the civil services preliminary exam”. The much-coveted UPSC preliminary examination 2023 had selected its top candidates it pronounced worthy of qualifying for the second round. These jewels of candidates shall again participate in the grueling levels of selection until we have the finest pearls of India with us, i.e., around 1000 candidates out of over 13 lakh aspirants to make it to the ultimate, great Indian dream – the babu world.

One might think that the point of this article is to cite random statistics, but it is not such. Instead, this humble piece of writing intends to highlight that in a population of 1425775850 (to be precise), the whole individual reduces to a mere statistic. The above example is just one of the instances where an average young Indian, full of hopes and dreams, decides to tread on the Sarkari path. In most lower and middle-class families – a government job is not just a vocation but a promise of a better tomorrow.

This tomorrow-land is shiny and characteristically predictable, stable, and secure. It is a land where one enters during the young blossom of adulthood and exits only at retirement. The modern world and its chaotic turns and twists can be a scary place to survive, so we cannot blame the person or the family for making what seems like a more grounded and practical choice. The problem arises from the glorification and hype around a career choice in the government sector.

Competing against lakhs of fellow candidates for a handful of seats in a race where the success ratio is zero-point-something-decimal-points cannot and should not be a yardstick for success. These highly competitive government exams prune the crowd based on a selective basket of skills and competencies. The lengthy recruitment processes end up taking away years of productive youth. The years of energy, health, and utility translate into cramming repetitive, recycled resources.

The opportunity cost is high, and so are the expectations. Before the person even realizes it, the mind creates a whirlpool of entanglements wherein a simple decision of sitting for an exam becomes a life-or-death situation (metaphorically and sometimes literally). The dreadful equation begins as follows: “pass=success=power=status=money=respect=marriage” and so on. Success at a two to three hours paper gets equated with a report card on self-value or worth.

And thus, a totality of a human being – complete with its immense potentialities is reduced to a rat, albeit a crowned hardworking rat, struggling to meet the unrealistic standards of excellence and a good life.

The lure of our traditional aspirations of ‘roti-kapda-makan’ (add ‘izzat’ and ‘laal-batti’ to the list) perhaps emerges out of a mindset of scarcity and insecurity. While some of these fears seem justified, an educational or professional degree does not always guarantee the right job, but fear as a conditioned response, coming from years of socialization that prizes mundane predictability and stability over novelty and exploration, cannot be justified.

Fortunately, the world as it stands today has opened up a myriad of opportunities in ways that were unexpected or unheard of a few decades ago. All it demands is a spirit of curiosity and openness to learn, discover and develop oneself in a constantly changing universe (a phone or laptop with a decent internet connection would be of much help too).

It is for each one of us from modest backgrounds to critically evaluate the great Indian Sarkari dream and the indisputable accolades that people associate with it. We as a collective need to enquire our failure to provide alternate avenues and support for young individuals to fulfill their needs and expectations.

A generic umbrella of government career options that often do not require any core subject specialization are not enough to cater to increasingly complex aspirations of country’s demographic dividend.

End of the day, one must also be encouraged to reflect honestly on one’s motives for making a choice. Being a mindless rat on a treadmill, trying to achieve targets set up by someone else, may not be the best possible utilization of your potential. Therefore the real question is not whether you are worth it, but whether the toil is worth you.

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