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For these UPSC aspirants, Covid isn’t over. It killed their IAS dream, now a fight unending

Some 40,000 aspirants are asking the government for one more chance. But doors aren’t opening.

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Gaurav Thakur is 33. In the world of UPSC aspirants, he would be considered ‘too old’. He has exhausted all six attempts to crack the prelims and CSAT.

Last month, he was protesting on the streets in Delhi’s UPSC coaching hub Rajinder Nagar along with hundreds of young candidates like him from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra. They let out one cry as police pushed, dragged and caned them – ‘one more attempt’.

They have tried lobbying their cause with MPs, the government and even the Supreme Court. Now the street is where it’s at.

Dreams of thousands of young UPSC aspirants across India were shattered by the two years of the pandemic. Many of them either missed writing the exam or failed to qualify because of the virus infection or death of kith and kin, and are left with no more attempts in their arsenal of making it to India’s steel frame.

“I am stuck. I don’t know what to do with my future. All my dreams got shattered by this government. It wasn’t my fault that this pandemic came. The UPSC cycle is exhausting itself. Now I can’t think about anything else. I just need one more chance,” says Gaurav.

Gaurav Thakur, 33 has exhausted all his attempts. | Nootan Sharma | ThePrint

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A thousand pleas unanswered

The Supreme Court in March asked the government to take a lenient view of the young people’s difficult situation. But the government declined.

The protesting UPSC aspirants say they have the support of 150 Members of Parliament, and pushed them to raise the matter in the House. These students have met leaders cutting across party lines — Rahul Gandhi, Manoj Tiwari, Sharad Pawar among others.

They also met BJP Rajya Sabha MP Sushil Kumar Modi, who is heading the department-related standing committee on the issue, and seemed sympathetic to the students’ cause.

“Keeping in view the hardships faced by the student community during the first and second Covid waves, the Committee recommends the government to change its mind and sympathetically consider the demand of CSE aspirants and grant an extra attempt with corresponding age relaxation to all candidates,” read a statement from the DRSC.

Software engineer Arijit Shukla, the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court case, says the government’s stand violates his fundamental right to equal opportunity under Article 16. He quit his job at Infosys to prepare for the UPSC, but contracted Covid midway through the Mains in January 2022. He was able to write only five of the nine papers, before testing positive.

“I was punished for getting Covid,” he says.

In a written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha, the Department of Training and Personnel (DoPT) addressed his case.

Any relaxation in the age limit and number of permissible attempts due to the pandemic could open the floodgates. It will also lead to similar demands by the candidates of other examinations conducted all over the country, the DOPT said.

“This issue had also been brought before the Supreme Court of India and this matter has been considered and it has not been found feasible to change the existing provisions regarding number of attempts and age-limit in respect of the civil services examination,” said DoPT minister Jitendra Singh, in the written reply.

But Shukla points out that the cut-off age has been relaxed by many states as well as for a few central government recruitments like in CAPF. “There is clear lacunae in UPSC’s policy when it comes to Covid- infected candidates, which becomes a compelling reason for granting them relief” he adds.

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Covid killed dreams

Gaurav Thakur gave UPSC Prelims in 2020, a little over a month after his father died of Covid. His first paper, that is General Studies, went well. But while writing the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), he was overwhelmed by the loss of his father.

“There were questions which I had read a night ago. I thought my father was helping me from heaven. I had an emotional breakdown,” says Gaurav who could not clear the prelims. It was the end of his UPSC dream. At 33, there were no more chances for him.

Till recently, he was working with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) having completed his PhD in Biochemistry from Delhi University, but hasn’t given up on his dream to be a part of the Indian bureaucracy. He was at the forefront of the December protest in Old Rajinder Nagar where 40 of them were detained.

As many as 70 aspirants had attended the December protest, and all are bitter over the years and attempts lost to the pandemic, and what they claim is the government’s apathetic response.

Gyanendra Shrivastava contracted Covid barely three days before the Prelims exam. It was to be his fourth and last attempt.

“I was fully prepared for the exam, but I got Covid symptoms and tested positive. My situation was very bad. My oxygen level was 87 at that time. How could I have given the exam?” he says.

Their situation is similar to thousands of young Indian Army aspirants who were too old to make the cut when recruitment drives finally opened after a two-year gap.

Vidya, a doctor practicing at AIIMS, Delhi, is bitter. During both waves of the pandemic she was on the frontlines “serving the nation” and had little time to prepare for the prelims. 2021 was her last attempt.

“I was handling the dead bodies. I was the one who used to take care of the patient when their families weren’t there. Now when we want the nation’s help, they are not even seeing us,” she says. It left her very little time to prepare for the civil services examination.

Students say they will not give up the fight so easily, and are planning to hold a nation-wide protest.

Gaurav Thakur is heading this protest, which he claims has the support of 40,000 aspirants. Now, they’ve created a Telegram group, which already has 4,000 members who are planning to organise a nationwide protest next.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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