By Alexandra Tate

When I first found out that my team, the International Innovation Corps’ Social Enterprises Team, would be working with OnlineTyari, an ed-tech startup that helps aspirants prepare for government exams in India, I was skeptical about the kind of social impact our team would be having, to say the least. My mind instantly jumped to thoughts about how we would be helping only the privileged and wealthy sections of society pass the most elite exams to get the highest paying and most prestigious jobs. After a year of working on trafficking issues in Jharkhand, helping the rich get richer and keep the best jobs was not my idea of social impact.

But there we were, cramped in my teammate’s apartment hunched over her laptop with endless tabs open of articles on government exam preparation in Mukherjee Nagar, a coaching hub for students in north Delhi. After a quick team meeting on how to structure our field visit and interviews in Mukherjee Nagar, we took off into the hot and sunny streets of a mid-September day. When I imagined a test prep hub, images of a buzzing college campus like in the U.S. came to mind, streets dotted with neatly dressed, peppy students heading to class. Of course, I knew it would be a bit different from a U.S. college campus, but what we found in Mukherjee Nagar was a far cry from my idle imaginings.

Our first and most important stop on our field visit was the Batra Cinema building. What was once an old cinema hall has now been converted into a venue for coaching center seminars as well as a meeting point for students. As we walked in through an unassuming doorway, accompanied by a stray dog, the air grew decidedly stuffier and mustier. The hall was narrow and dark leading to a retro looking elevator. Leaflet after leaflet dotted every available space on the walls of the hallway, advertisements for coaching center classes, tutors, and private libraries. Just as we were about to hop into the tiny elevator to go explore, the power clicked off. I vowed to take the stairs for fear of getting trapped in the elevator. As I walked up the stairs, students lined the steps. There were on break from their coaching center classes. Most of them were working furiously on what appeared to be late homework assignments others were trading study tips.

As we neared the first floor we finally got a glimpse into a coaching center. Class was in session. Desks were stacked side to side, in dense rows from the front of the classroom to back. It was unclear to me how anyone got in or out of a row or how students had enough room to flip a textbook page without whacking their neighbor in the nose. I unsuccessfully tried to picture myself studying in such an environment. As the bell rang, singling the end of class, we managed to blockade one of the less hurried students outside the door. Her name was Neha, and she was studying for the IAS exam. Neha told us that she had recently graduated and left her hometown of Lucknow, along with all her family, to come study at a top coaching institution. She shared a room with two other girls in a small flat nearby. Since the cramped living situation made it difficult to study at home, she also belonged to a private commercial library (basically a quite air-conditioned study room with Wi-Fi) where she would study after her coaching class. She reported spending about eight hours studying a day, including weekends, and expected to continue like this for as long as it took to pass her exam, perhaps around two years she guessed.

Her only time limit was the cap on her savings and the limit to how much her parents could support her. Rent and food was expensive here in Mukherjee Nagar, compared to Lucknow, and her parents could only afford to help her out for so long. Coaching classes in cities like Lucknow or Delhi can cost anywhere from 75,000 to one lakh rupees a year. Yet, clearing the IAS exam was her dream and she was determined to do whatever it took to enter the Civil Service.

We encountered many students like Neha in Mukherjee Nagar. Some had been living in Mukherjee Nagar for no less than six years, still tirelessly trying to clear their exam after several failed attempts. After devoting several years of their life to studying for this exam, many felt that they had nothing to go back to in their hometown. Giving up on clearing their exam would mean letting go of a dream that had become their life for the last few years. Many students worked part-time jobs to support themselves and a few were lucky enough to have help from their families. But this support comes at no small cost for many families. Some families resort to selling ancestral lands in order to support their children studying for an exam.

But what is it about a government job that makes so many willing to give up years of their life and, in some cases, even give up their birthright? Neha couldn’t really give us much of an answer, as she was late in meeting a friend at her private library, but the 50 or so other government exam aspirants our team interviewed started to give us more of a picture.

For the next couple of months, it was my team’s mission to interview government exam aspirants in cities across the Hindi Belt on their usage of Online Tyari’s mobile exam prep app. We interviewed aspirants from all over Delhi, Panipat, Jaipur, Patna, and Allahabad, most of them between the ages of 18-35 years and holding a graduate degree. Our goal was to investigate usage patterns, document user feedback, and map out OnlineTyari’s place in the exam prep cycle. However, my personal goal was to figure out the seeming obsession with obtaining a government job, at almost any cost.

One such exam aspirant was Anisa. After completing her Bachelor of Arts, Anisa participated in a teacher training course in Panchkula. While there, she would often observe the physical drills in the cantonment area. She soon fell in love with the uniform and decided she wanted to join the army or become a female police officer. Anisa believes that a government job will lead to a stable and honorable career path. Her parents support her decision and also think that a government job is the most secure path. In order to prepare for her exam, Anisa must commute 16 kilometers to Panipat, where her coaching classes are. She also participates in physical training drills at a nearby sports stadium in the afternoon. Although coaching classes are her main source of study, Anisa uses mobile apps, like OnlineTyari, during her commute to utilize otherwise downtime. OnlineTyari gives her access to free content, such as recent current affairs, she otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

It struck me how determined Anisa was to make use of every possible minute of her day, every possible free resource, how willing she was to give up everything to pass this exam. Like Neha’s parents, Anisa’s parents also bought into the dream of a better life through a government job and were determined to support her studying for as long as financially viable. They view her steep coaching center fees as a once in a lifetime investment for a shot at a much better way of life. 

Priyanka, from a small village in Haryana, is an exam aspirant also lucky enough to have her family’s support. Priyanka, who is recently married, is currently studying for the IAS exam. Priyanka left her new husband and family to move to Jaipur so that she could have access to better quality coaching centers. She currently lives alone in a girls paying guesthouse. She is the first in her family to pursue a government job. She believes entering the civil service will not just guarantee good working hours, job security and a nice financial package, but, more importantly, it will be a matter of great social prestige for her family.

The unsaid truth, however, is that incredibly few aspirants end up passing these highly competitive government exams. Some exams like the IAS are so competitive that your chance of passing is about equal to your probability of being struck by lightning. Last year, nine lakh candidates sat for the Civil Services Aptitude Test and less than 200 were selected. Of the few that do pass, the average age is now 28 years and most do not pass until their third attempt. Many of them are aspirants from the UP or Bihar, whose families struggle to support them. The growing number of candidates from Bihar and UP may point to a lack of other opportunities in these areas. Many of these aspirants believe that the power one can wield in a government position necessarily leads to wealth, but wealth does not necessary lead to power.

For those that never make the cut after numerous attempts and for those who have made passing the exam their life, it’s hard to give up. Many end up becoming coaches or private tutors for those still trying to pass. Although there are of course the random success stories of students that come from nothing and end up having an amazing career in the civil services, many that end up passing are from the most elite schools, with comparatively unlimited resources for private tutoring, and have family already in government or brothers/ sister that have already passed these exams.

The founders of OnlineTyari created their mobile study app to help level the playing field and provide middle and BoP students, unable to migrate to a larger city for coaching classes, with accessible, free or low-cost study material. The app is specifically designed to run on low-end android phones and is not currently available on iOS. Having seen the grit and dedication of these exam aspirants as well as the disparity of resources, I now understand the impact the founders of OnlineTyari wanted to make.

While I think OnlineTyari provides inspiration and exposure to study material otherwise inaccessible for those with limited resources, it’s one-step out of so many required to pass these exams. Every time we interviewed an aspirant, especially for exams like the IAS, I felt like there was an elephant in the room. Don’t you know how small your chances of passing the exam are? Do you really want to give up everything to take that small chance? It almost felt unjust that so many people and their families end up dedicating years of their life and scarce resources only never to pass. At the same time, the sheer determination and dedication of aspirants was incredibly inspiring and I was certainly in no place to judge anyone’s dreams. One thing is clear – as an outsider, it’s impossible to understand the almost mythical level of honor and prestige that many aspirants feel a government job will bring to his or her family. It is an aspiration deeply embedded in the culture and consciousness of the Hindi heartland.

*Note first names have been changed to protect interviewees’ privacy.