‘Too many kids wasting time’: Sanjeev Sanyal on competition in UPSC exams

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Sanjeev Sanyal, a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, has said a lot of young Indians waste their prime years in preparing for the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) examinations when only a few thousands make the cut. Sanyal said if the same youth spent their effort on doing something else, India would benefit much more.

In a conversation with Siddhartha Ahluwalia on his podcast The Neon Show, Sanyal spoke on the ‘poverty of aspiration’ that India had suffered for decades and which, according to him, was now gradually changing.

Sanyal cited the examples of West Bengal and Bihar to make his argument. “Just like Bengal aspired to pseudo intellectuals and union leaders, Bihar aspired to small-time local goon politicians. In an environment where those are the role models, you can either become a local goon, if you don’t want to become a local goon, you know your way out is to basically become civil servant,” Sanyal said.

He said often people get the leaders based on the aspirations they have.

“Although it’s better than being a goon, even that is a poverty of aspiration. I mean at the end of it, if you must dream, surely you should dream to be Elon Musk or Mukesh Ambani. Why do you dream to be joint secretary? You need to think about how a society thinks about risk taking and scale and so on. I think one of the problems of say a place like Bihar is not that it had bad leaders, the bad leaders are reflection of what that society aspires for. If you’re aspiring for this, you will get it.”

He said that young Indians should take UPSC exams only if they truly want to become an administrator.

“I think what is happening, thankfully our aspirations are changing. I still think way too many young kids who have so much energy are wasting their time trying to crack the UPSC. I’m not saying you don’t want people to take the exam. Yes, every country needs a bureaucracy. That’s perfectly fine. But I think lakhs of people spending their best years trying to crack an exam, where a tiny number of few thousand people actually [are] going to get in, makes no sense. If they put the same energy into doing something else, we would be winning more Olympic gold medals, we would be seeing better movies being made, we would see better doctors, we would see more entrepreneurs and scientists and so on.”

“I would say that same energy, put it into something else. I would say it’s a waste of time. And I always discourage people unless they really want to be an administrator, they shouldn’t take the UPS exam. Many of them after having gone through it, then they get frustrated through the course of their career. In the end, life in bureaucracy is not meant for everybody. And large parts of it, as with any profession, but large parts of it are largely dull and boring and about passing files up and down. Unless you really wanted to do it, you’re not going to be particularly happy with it.”

Sanyal mentioned that the attitude of middle class Indians, especially towards entrepreneurship, has changed. “In the middle class, it has significantly changed. People are taking risks, and this is going back to my original point. This is an opening of mind, which is not just happening in that little space of entrepreneurship. This is a change of attitude and this change of attitude will manifest itself in everything.”

“It will manifest itself in science, it will manifest itself in music, in literature. There’s an explosion of Indian literature as well. All kinds of innovation will happen. Because we will naturally live in this world, where doing new things and so on is thought of being as a natural thing, that people do and it is encouraged.”

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