Sunday, May 27, 2012


LEARNINGS DURING THE 16 MONTH INDUCTION TRAINING at NADT, NAGPUR


This will be my first blog post this year. After a long time, I saw a mail in my inbox relating to my post on psychology tips which I wrote long back. Today is a Sunday and an exceptionally hot one here in Jaipur. I have this habit of saving all downloads, making new files on the desktop. I thought that today is a good time to organize my stuff. I came across a word file named as Learnings.docx and I realize this very vividly as an assignment that we had to submit on a difficult deadline. However, as I opened the file, I thought let me put this up on my blog. So, here it goes:-

The past sixteen months passed very fast. It seems to me that time just flew. But, as I sit down to pen down what I learnt, I think I got a better understanding of how the department functions, what are the problems of the department and what are the possible solutions?
In terms of knowledge, I learnt income tax law, accountancy and some economics. Income Tax is a very complicated legislation. I realized the importance of one word and how much revenue impact a phrase or a word can make. I also learnt that with amendments and with the use of appropriate words, we can minimize the misuse of provisions. In accounts, I learnt that handling accounts is more about diligently having a look at the books of accounts and trying to track the transactions. Tips like negative cash balance in cash book, comparison with previous year’s net and gross profit figures are helpful.
In terms of skills, I honed my computer and speaking skills. Although I have a background and interest in computers but the course team and all my batchmates had put on so much of confidence in me that I tried hard to learn new stuff like becoming an expert at formatting, movie making, creating powerpoint presentations, I have also learnt writing emails and letters in a professional manner. However, I still need to improve my oral communication skills.
In terms of attitude, I think I learnt the most. I learnt that everybody needs to contribute his or her own part so as to make the system run efficiently. Each one has a  role to play to improve the institution. I am summing the learnings as follows:-
1.       One should learn to say ‘’NO”.
2.       One should always strive for excellence rather than being satisfied with mediocrity.
3.       One should learn to work without any return.
4.       One should say “No” sometimes as it is not possible to be good to everybody. Helping somebody sometimes cripples him/her. We need not be unnecessary worried about the non-serious, insincere or lazy people and need not go out of the way to help him/her.
5.       One should take initiative in improving the institution. Although very few people take initiative and most of them do not, but if somebody takes an initiative, there are many who come forward and help the person who takes initiative.
6.       We need people who take initiative and who have commitment and passion to make the system work better.
7.       Technology is the way to go. There are a lot of occasions where we can use Excel and Powerpoint so as to improve the quality and do the work more efficiently like making a control sheet for TA bills, creating google spreadsheets or forms for simultaneous update of material.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Experiences at the USA

The one week training here at the USA comprised academic sessions of high quality by different experts – an Internal Revenue Service Officer; economists, accountants, professors of the Kennesaw State University, lawyers and tax practitioners from various law firms.

The first day started with a very interesting session on viewing taxation from the perspective of Game Theory. The professor drew conclusions from the perspective of a taxpayer who has the option to decide between paying and not paying the correct tax while the tax administration has to decide between auditing a case and not auditing a case. This situation was shown to be a partial equilibrium wherein no one decision is better than the others. Hence, a probabilistic solution has to be given to this problem and the solution, which is the probability with which the taxpayer will cheat and the IRS will audit, will depend of factors like the cost of audit to the taxpayer, the penalty to taxpayer for cheating and the amount of tax owned to the state. Other important sessions on the same day were an overview of the principles of international tax treaties and transfer pricing with specific reference to the USA, an overview of the state and local taxes in the USA, the IRS whistleblower program.

Another very important session was an overview of the tax administration in the USA by Ms. Karen Russel, an Internal Revenue Service officer. She spoke in detail about the correspondance examination during the tax audit (similar to assessment proceedings in India) and the different third party sources from which information is gathered for assessment. The privacy laws are strict in the US and information flows only on a “need to know” basis among the IRS officers. She also pointed out various think tanks like the Tax Foundation, the Citizens for Tax Justice, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in the area of tax policies who raise their voices by submitting reports to the Congress based on the detailed tax statistics released meticulously by the Statistics division of the IRS. We learnt that the US tax code i.e. the Code of Federal Regulations is even more detailed and complex than ours – the US income tax laws come in five voluminous books, with the total number of sections exceeding one thousand.

Almost whenever a systemic improvement is intended, we make references to the similar state of affairs in the USA. Before going to the USA, we had a theoretical understanding of the USA and its economy, people and culture but this visit to Atlanta gave us a closer peep into the actual state of affairs. Now, whenever in future, somebody makes comparisons with the US, we will have a better context and would be in a position to visualize the picture better thereby making us more capable of taking good decisions. The one-week training at Atlanta has definitely broadened my perspective.


Submitted by:-
Vikram Pagaria,
Officer Trainee, 64th Batch of IRS

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

During the one-week attachment here at the SARS (South African Revenue Service), i am extremely impressed by a visit at the Computer Forensics Laboratory. I am penning down my experiences below.

The highpoint for me during the attachment was a visit to the Computer Forensics Laboratory at the Large Business Center here at the SARS. The Computer Forensic Laboratory has five computer experts working who manage the entire operations for South Africa. Mr. Arvind Maharaj, a brilliant computer expert heads the laboratory. The high revenue tax-related cases which go to courts and possessing a detailed scrutiny of electronic evidence are referred to the Computer Forensic Laboratory.



The laboratory appeared to be small with only one big room and four small rooms but the discussion that followed consequently stumped us completely. We were shown the hugely powerful computers that the personnel here use for their operations. All the computers are custom-made, possessing 24 GB RAM, a 3.2 GHz quad core Intel processor and a hard disk of around 9 TB. We were then demonstrated a standard hardware device that is used for making an image of a seized hard disk or an external hard disk. The image that is made is a read-only image and hence nothing new can be over-written on these images as well as the viruses in the hard disk also do not infect the system on which the image data will be viewed. Arvind also told us that it is possible to retrieve the files which have been previously permanently deleted by the user. In fact, the current technology allows the retrieval of files which have been deleted upto seven levels e.g. if a hard disk has been formatted for six times, the data that existed on the hard disk initially could be retrieved. This was surely an eye-opener for us but others followed one after the other from Arvind in response to our questions to him.



A smart phone kit was then demonstrated to us which had around 100 different adaptors to charge a phone. It also contained a sleek device which is capable of taking a backup of all the data on the phone and the SIM cards (including data that has been deleted upto seven levels, as above) - contact details, call logs, SMS data, MMS data, photos, images, audio, video, e-mails.



Mr. Zeoline, a very enthusiastic member of the five-membered team then demonstrated us a software named FTKImager, which is used for analyzing the data in an image of a seized hard disk or an external memory. The files which have been deleted permanently could also be retrieved using this software. Additionally, those files whose file types have been intentionally modified to avoid being opened could also be easily opened in this software.



Mr. Arvind then showed us a skimmer, a device which can capture the details on a credit, debit or any other electronic card. He also said that this device is prone to a lot of misuse particularly by restaurant personnel who swipe the customers device on the device that they possess and also on this skimmer. The information stored in the skimmer device could later be retrieved by connecting it to a computer using a USB port and duplicate cards could be made.



All in all, it was a mind-boggling session. The immense knowledge and skills that Arvind and his team members possess was clearly evident in the way they responded to our bombardment of questions. The stipulated duration of the session was 30 minutes but the session continued for over an hour as a result. Finally, all of us were sent to the classroom as the next faculty was waiting.
A One Week Training Program at the South African Revenue Service (14-18 Nov 2011)

I am sorry that i have not penned anything for so long. Let me write about my experiences here at the SARS.

The one week attachment here in the Maxwell Megawatt Park has been an exceptionally great learning experience. Insights into almost all aspects of tax administration here at the SARS have been provided in the small span of four days and this surely reflects the amount of effort that the organizers Ms. Seboya Mogoba and Mr. Brandley Ngcobo from SARS International have put up under the coordination of Ms. Varsha Singh, Head of SARS International.



The sessions started with the history of SARS by Mr. Aiden Keanly, a very senior officer here at the SARS. This lecture set the context for the sessions that followed, covering aspects from tax legislation to tax administration. One key feature that was conspicuous was the vision and mission of SARS along with its mandate to modernize and reform itself continuously. Mr. Franz Tomasek, a senior SARS official who spoke on “Tax Law and Administration” pointed out that there are many different ideas that can be implemented to modernize SARS but what is vital is to prioritize and focus on four-five ideas rather than seeking up to implement all the ideas. Mr. Jerome Frey on the lecure on “Business Systems and Modernization” revealed SARS phased strategy to modernize itself in a span of seven years. This phased strategy has merits over sudden impulsive steps to change the procedures and processes of the tax administration given the fact that tax environment is itself very complicated and feedback of taxpayers and other stakeholders also need to be taken into account. These messages hold a lot of importance in the Indian context as well and there is surely a lot to learn from the way SARS has given a professional touch to tax administration, which is very unlikely a bureaucratic setup, even here at South Africa.



The highpoint for me during the attachment was a visit to the Computer Forensics Lab at the Large Business Center here at the SARS. We were shown demonstrations on how to make a read-only image of a seized hard disk, to retrieve and analyze the deleted data from a hard disk, to decrypt the files, to analyze the files whose file types have been modified, to make an image of all the data (call details, SMS, MMS, emails, photos, movies, contacts) from a smartphone, to retrieve the information on a credit/debit card etc. The Q&A session was very long and Mr. Arvind Maharaj and the five members working under him at the Computer Forensics were extremely patient to answer our queries.



There are definitely so many lessons to be learnt from SARS. The way in which modernization has been taken up in a phased and structured manner is worth emulating. The efforts of SARS in the field of tax education also are commendable. In this regard, we need to take cues from their practice of keeping the various brochures, pamphlets and similar educational material at all the libraries, national parks, malls and other public places so as to reach to the taxpayers. It was encouraging to listen to their future steps on spreading financial literacy by setting up stalls at the various malls and to include a cartoon-based chapter in the textbooks for school-children.


All in all, I am honored to be here at this training program and sincerely hope that all of us do justice to the huge amount of investment that has been done on us to send the entire delegation to South Africa. There are miles to go before we sleep !!!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

UPSC INTERVIEW 2011
Me: Good Morning, Madam. Good Morning Sirs.
Shashi Uban Tripathi (SUT) : Good Morning, Vikram. So, are you doing training?
Me: Yes, Madam.
SUT: Where?
Me: NADT. National Academy of Direct Taxes, Nagpur.
SUT: Oh..Nagpur (as if it was something new to her). So, Vikram, tell me, in very brief, about your academic and professional life?
Me: Madam, I completed my B.Tech in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering. Then, I worked in a start-up company working in the field of intellectual property and then I am here, in the IRS.
SUT: But, what did you do at Vellore?
Me: Madam, I had enrolled for a Ph.D program in Biomedical Devices and Technology. This program was good in the sense that I could enroll without having to do my masters. This program is an integrated Ph.D program among IIT Madras, Shri Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology, Trivandrum – essentially a blend between medical science and technology.
SUT: So, you were there for how many months?
Me: Four months.
SUT: So, why did you leave?
Me: Madam, I wanted to do research on tuberculosis but there were not many professors working in this area. In fact, none in the IIT Madras was working in this field. This program required that one has to necessarily have a guide from IIT Madras and one from either of CMC or SCTIMST. They were suggesting me to change the problem but I was not interested. Fortunately, I got into the services. But, still I would like to work on TB in future.
SUT: But, that’s not possible given that you are into service and would have to do justice to your current job. Ok, so you read non-fiction. Which books have you read?
Me: Madam, I’ve read the ‘Google Story’ by David Vice, ‘Ideas and Opinion’ by Albert Einstein, ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama, ‘India Unbound’ by Gurcharan Das, ‘Imagining India’ by Nandan Nilekani..
SUT: So, can you tell me in very brief one of these books which you liked the most and why?
Me: Madam, the book which had the maximum impact on me is “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama; the main reason being the way in which he has written as to how he got the idea of bringing change in the world. In one of his stories, he mentioned that his daughter had to be hospitalized and during this time, he saw the reality of healthcare in the US. He mentioned as to how healthcare reforms were the need of the hour. Similar is the case with his views on foreign policy.
SUT: But, if that is the case, then why is Obama’s popularity dropping by?
Me: Madam, I agree with you that his popularity is decreasing but I think the reason is the political constraints and compulsions in which he works.
SUT: But, compulsions are everywhere.
Me: Yes Madam, you are right. I know he hasn’t delivered but I sincerely hope that he does in the remaining period of his tenure.
M1: Ok Vikram. You have been running from pillar to post from Kanpur to Bangalore to Vellore. During this time, have you done anything for the society? Can you elaborate one incident which shows that you did something for the society?
Me: Sir, I worked with an NGO named Jagriti during my college days. Jagriti works in the field of education for the children of migrant workers. They have set up around 22 centers at various brick-kilns in Kanpur. We used to go there and teach. At one of the center, there was a girl named Sarita who had Rheumatic Heart Disease and needed a heart-valve replacement. The operation was to cost around Rs. 1.8 lakh. We, in our college, could manage to raise the amount and got her operated at Bangalore.
M1: But, that must have been a team effort. What was your role in this activity?
Me: Sir, I went along with Sarita and her father to Lucknow to get all the medical check-ups done. I collected all her medical reports, scanned them and mailed them to various charitable hospitals throughout the country. In the fund-raising, I had to coordinate with each hostel representative.
M1: Mr. Vikram, you appear to be so soft. Do you get angry? Have you ever beaten somebody? (laughs all around) I mean, physically or verbally.
Me : (I smiled for a second or two). There was one incident which I can recollect in which in our college, there was use of plastic glasses for drinking water, milk and tea. Inspite of repeated urges to the Mess Committee, when there was no action, I got very angry.
M1: So, it was a verbal fight.
Me: Yes Sir.
M1: So, have you ever beaten somebody.. I mean physically?
Me: No Sir, that I used to do in school..not any more.
M1: Vikram, what according to you is your best quality?
Me: Sir, my sir told me that although I am not very talented…
M1 (interrupts): I am not asking about your weaknesses but your strengths.
Me: I think that would be my being dedicated to my work.
M1: You are a student of psychology. How do you measure motivation?
Me: Sir, measuring motivation is something very difficult, the main reason being that it is something which is very subjective. The only way one can measure is through one’s actions. If somebody does something with full commitment and to the best of his/her capabilities, I think he/she is very motivated. He/she has found a purpose of life.
M1: So, can you give an example which shows your dedication?
Me: Sir, recently, I along with my friend were given the charge of making identity cards for all 152 of our batch. It was done because although it is the responsibility of the administration but since they had not done it well, our institute purchased a new identity card printer and we were supposed to design the card from scratch. We managed to do the task from designing till taking the final print outs one by one.
M1: So, did you work for long?
Me: Yes sir. Sometimes, it used to become 10 o’clock 11’o- clock and one day, I could sleep only at 4:30 in the morning.
M2: You have worked in the field of intellectual property. Can you tell me about your opinion on whether we should go ahead with GM food-crops or not?
Me: Sir, I think that we should not go ahead until we are absolutely sure about the safety of these crops. We, in India, do not have an independent regulatory body, that can testify that “Yes, everything is fine.”
M2: But, ICAR approved of the GM study?
Me: Sir, but as Jairam Ramesh, Mr. Jairam Ramesh has pointed out there are contradictory studies as well. Some studies have been done by Monsanto, which itself is a corporation and hence there is an underlying conflict of interest. Until we have a clear-cut conclusion that green signal can be given to GM crops, we should not go ahead with them.
M2: Tell me, what is ‘gene-erosion’?
Me: looking thoroughly confused…I asked him to repeat the same.
M2: Gene-Erosion i.e. the same as “terminal technology’’
Me: Sir, the terminal technology is the brain-child of Monsanto. It essentially means that a farmer can grow the crop using the GM seeds purchased from Monsanto only once. The next time, he has to sow the seeds; he would have to purchase the same from Monsanto again. This technology has been widely criticized as it is detrimental to the interests of the poor farmers of our country and the world.
M2: What are the different types of Intellectual Property in India?
Me: Patents, Trademark, Copyright, Trade-secrets, Service-Mark
M2: Anything else..
Me: thinking.
M2: GI
Me: Yes Sir, Geographical Indications. In Goa, there is …(i was forgetting “Phenny” here)
M2( started giving his inputs..i felt relieved because I was not able to recollect any other example of GI): They are very important e.g. Darjeeling Tea, ..(he gave one more example but I am not able to recollect that).
M2: Tell me about the importance of intellectual property. I mean, why do we have IPRs in the first place?
Me: Sir, the main intention behind IPRs is to foster innovation. It is basically a reward for the inventor for the efforts he/she has put in to come upto that invention. For example, a pharma company has invested so much in R&D to design a miniscule drug, we need to make sure that after the drug is invented, nobody else is allowed to freely manufacture the drug and sell in the market. A time-period of 20 years, in the case of patents is given to a company to sell that drug exclusively.
M3: What is Neemuch famous for? (Neemuch is in MP and is my place of birth)
Me: Sir, it is the eye-donation capital of india. The number of eye-donations from this district is the maximum in India.
M3: What type of donations are these?
Me: Sir, they are cadaveric eye-donations.
M3: Ok..but this could also be due to the population of Neemuch. Do you know the population of Neemuch?
Me: Sorry Sir, I am not aware of this fact.
M3: How long did you stay in Neemuch?
Me: Sir, till my 7th standard i.e. around 13 years.
M3: And you still don’t know the population of Neemuch. Ok, what else is Neemuch famous for?
Me: Sir, Neemuch is famous for opium-production.
M3: What are other places in India very opium is produced?
Me: Sir, Chittorgarh and Kota in Rajasthan..
M3: Any other place
Me: (Did not answer…I was thinking..may be, I think ‘pretending to think’ would be a better phrase here.)
M3 : In MP
Me: (did not answer..genuinely thought this time but it didn’t help)
M3: Are you aware of any war that was fought on the issue of opium?
Me: No Sir, I am not aware.
M3: Something in which East India Company was involved. It relates to an important event in history.
Me: Sorry Sir, I am not aware of the opium-war.
M3: What is “law of attraction”?
Me: Sorry Sir, I do not know.
M3: Do you not go to the bookshops? You have interests in reading non-fiction books.
Me: Sir, I do visit bookshops. I go to Crosswords..
M3 (interrupts) : This is a very famous book. The exact title is “The Law of Attraction – The Secret”? It was a best-seller for a long time on the stands.
Me: Yes Sir, Secret – I have heard that book. Is it that book which is a kind of self-help book?
M3: Yes, it is a sort of self-help book.
Me: Sir, my friend had recommended this book to me
M3: But you haven’t read it, did you?
Me: No Sir, I haven’t read it.
M3: Ok, in the book “Imagining India” by Nandan Nilekani, what has he mentioned specifically about the English language?
Me: Sir, Nandan Sir says that English is responsible for the IT revolution in India. Since we knew English and we could couple it along with our computing skills, we were able to successfully market ourselves to the developed countries and the entire outsourcing boom came. Also, English is a major unification force in the country. Since the South-Indians could not speak Hindi and the Hindi-speaking people in the North India have trouble learning the languages of South-India, both can interact in English. Hence, English brings us together.
M3: Inspite of the fact that English is a colonial language and not our own.
Me: Sir, Nandan Sir has said that the IT revolution occurred in India and not in China because Indians could communicate readily in English with the companies of the West. Hence, English was crucial in bringing the IT revolution.
M4: Vikram, have you heard of “black swans” in the context of public administration (I don’t know why he asked me this question..public administration was never my optional)
Me: No Sir….Does it mean ‘’something bad’’.
M4: No, it means that something unexpected. Do you think that unexpected events are a hindrance in public administration?
Me: Yes Sir. For example, the Japan earthquake. Nobody knew that it is going to come but it…
M4 (interrupts): Can you take an example from India?
Me: Sir, 2-3 days back, a police officer was burnt alive by a group of miscreants in Sawai-Madhopur district. There was fire in IOC godown in Jaipur. Suddenly, we had the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. So, something that comes without anticipation creates new hurdles in the already challenging life of the administrators.
M4: So, is there a strategy where in one can anticipate these events?
Me: Sir, it is possible. Through disaster management, we can create systems so that we can anticipate if an earthquake/flood/drought comes and what should be our strategy to tackle them. If we see the case of the Japan earthquake, authorities in Japan could disseminate the information to every Japanese citizen that a Tsunami is going to come within an hour.
SUT: Who are opium-eaters?
Me: Sorry Madam, I do not know.
SUT: Ok, your interview is over.
Me: Thank you madam.
As I stood up, Madam told me that opium-eaters are the Chinese and one board-member who was mentioning about opium-wars was actually fought between the Chinese and the East-India company. I thanked them once again and moved out.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Be the change that you want to see in the world

Most of us feel extremely bad when we hear time and again of stories depicting how bruthlessly our politicians have let our country go to dogs. Ask even an illiterate person about the problems of our country and he/she'll immediately bounce back saying, "Our politicians are corrupt. They make a lot of promises before the election and once they are elected, they are busy making money." But, is putting the entire blame on the government for all the problems of the country justified? Is government responsible for the casualties caused due to unavailability of blood in the hospital? Is government responsible for the hardships faced by a large number of patients who are waiting for a donated kidney/lung/eye? There are a number of issues where it is not the government but individual action matters. Infact, merely blaming everything on the government is brushing away our responsibility towards our country and the world. Sure, an individual can't go and announce a scheme like MNREGA for the emancipation of the rural poor from the vicious circle of poverty. It is because legislation is the exclusive domain of the politicians. However, there are many things which an individual can do and should do to make this world a better place to live in.

So, what change I alone can bring about? Will my donating blood ensure that others also come and donate so that the blood bank will always an adequate stock of blood? Will my throwing the garbage in the dustbin ensure that the roads are clean, because anyways, whether I do it or not, others would still throw the garbage on the road? Will my using public transport ensure that others will not use their private vehicles indiscriminately? Will I be able to change the system? These are extremely valid questions and more often than not, are responsible for people turning a blind eye towards the problems of the country. A feeling of helplessness creeps in, leading to total loss of faith in the current system. This is one of the reasons for extremely low voter turnout in elections since people think they don't have a choice – whoever is elected, he/she'll be corrupt. In addition, the question of "How does this matter to me" also is a powerful deterrent from taking an initiative to bring about a positive change in the society.

Let me first try and list those tasks that can be done readily, without facing much inconvenience or investing too much time and energy.
Donate blood
Pledge your bodyparts to be donated after your death
Plant atleast 5 trees
Dispose your garbage judiciously
Follow traffic rules
Waste food minimally
Conserve electricity and water
Shun plastic bags and try to be eco-friendly
Sign online petitions if they reach your inbox
Never give bribes
Keep public places (e.g. Public toilets) clean
Use public transport. Give seats to the aged, women and children.
Don't smoke and don't allow others to smoke in public
Be a genuinely good person

There are many who might not be satisfied by the above list arguing that most of these are merely good manners and are things that need to be done on a personal level. For those enterprising people, I wish to present a list of tasks which would require more time, energy and resources but would be able to bring about a change on a bigger level.
Associate with a local NGO
Contribute by using your skills – if you are a website designer, you can design websites for some NGOs in your locality. You can teach children/adults what you are good at. Help them in learning computers/English/vocational skills so that they become employable and can earn a living. The best example that comes to my mind is Google. Although Google doesn't do charity, Google has made an enormous impact in our lives by asking its employees to go into villages and make maps; which led to the launch of Google Maps. Google Books, Google Earth, Google Docs and Google Translator are other extremely powerful and noble initiatives of Google.
Use RTI – RTI is immensely powerful. If you think that there is anything wrong going around in your society or you need to get information about the roads/pipelines constructed in your area, you can file an RTI. Don't be a silent observer, try to bring about a change.
Take up the cause of marginalized or less empowered people around you. Be accessible to everybody around your locality and at your work. Listen to their grievances and if you feel they are genuine and you can do something about it, do it.
Online Activism – There are lot of things that the Internet has made very easy. If there is anything that you feel is unreasonable, try to spread the message around. Use twitter, facebook, your gtalk status messages, write blogs, network with other like-minded motivated individuals, create online petitions, write letters.
Online volunteering – Go to www.onlinevolunteering.org and find out about this extremely powerful idea of making a meaningful contribution sitting in your home.
Take initiatives to conduct health camps, blood donation drives, tree plantation drives,
Have the guts to challenge archiac social norms (e.g. Dowry, same caste marriages). You don't always have to follow the crowd. One needs to win over the myth that an ordinary person can't bring about a change and you got to be Bill Gates/Narayana Murthy/an IAS officer/politician to bring about a change. Baba Amte, Mother Teresa, Anna Hazare were all very ordinary people to start with. If everybody thought that I can't change the system, will there ever had been wikipedia, a completely philanthropic effort. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Don't try to become a part of the problem, try to think of meaningful ways to solve them. Actively spread the message around and try to do something about it, however small it is.

We must realise that we are living in a democracy and democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The onus of 'by the people' part is on us and we got to play this part in order for smooth functioning of the world's largest democracy. It is not that all of us need to become revolutionaries or become social activists; if all of us can manage to contribute a drop in the ocean, it is commendable. We sometimes feel extremely charged and motivated when we see movies like "Rang De Basanti" or when something bad happens to our near and dear ones. But, these thoughts must be supplemented with action. We need to keep ourselves motivated, be patient and continuously try to bring about a change. It will take time but it surely will come. We don't need to lose our heart. Sometimes, we take a bold initiative and we feel that it was not worth it and it didn't bring about the required change. I think we must reward ourselves in those situations by realising that atleast we did something about it. If we didn't have done something about it, the problem would have stayed as is but atleast a honest try to do something about it was made. Atleast, we tried to come out of the comfort zone. Atleast, you acted and as Gandhiji said, "Almost anything that you do is insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."
My first day at RCVPNAA, Bhopal


Today is the 29th of August, the day which I was looking forward to since the last 3 months.

We arrived in Bhopal at around 10 am. The autorickshaw, although cunning enough to charge us 130 Rupees (and we gullible enough to be trapped into his trap) was effortlessly telling us about the situation of Bhopal - the nice places here, the weather here, that the rains were not good this time, that the CM is discriminating between Old Bhopal and New Bhopal, as a result of which old Bhopal's development has been compromised.

We reached the academy and the two ladies at the reception were kind enough to check the file and told me that my room number will be 217. The keys were handed over to me and there was an attendant who helped us (Papa and me) to get the luggage upstairs.

The room was out of bounds of my expectations. It looked like a 3-star hotel room - with 2 ACs (it is a double-occupancy room and my roomie is yet to arrive), neatly arranged beds, a small sofa, a study table, two wardrobes, a tea-table and a clean bathroom. There was a strange feeling of pride saying, "Hey, you deserve it." But, I know that I am not here for luxury. Papa was taking bath and I was putting my clothes into the wardrobe when some of the other trainees came into the room. They were around 5-6 of them and I already knew one of them (I met him at CMC Vellore before). We introduced ourselves (most of them spoke about the states where they were from and the service they were allotted). I deliberately asked them when they had come and the room number they are staying so as to prorogue the formal talk and to talk something which is not a matter of personal pride (like what rank did you get, whether it was your first attempt and other things which might be linked to one's ego).

We then headed for lunch. We met some more trainees there. A guy from Indian Corporate Law Service, who hailed from Bangalore, was giving some fundaes in a typical accent. He seemed to be boastful and to know a lot of things. I was a bit critical because I made these conclusions merely due to his extrovert nature. But, sometimes among strangers, one person should be an extrovert, I thought because it becomes easy for the group to come together and talk. There was another person (he was incidentally from Jammu and was a Sardar) - I am not able to recollect his name. He said that he was 29 years old and was very happy that he had got into IRTS. He said that he had talked to rank-21 person (who is currently an IAS at Uttarakhand) who was very unhappy with his life as an IAS officer. He seemed to be a knowledgeable person and what I liked in him was his sympathetic attitude. This was reinforced when we later had a session on abusing the UPSC and its various ways of not changing with time, delaying the results, asking the preferences before the mains exam, lack of information about the various services. It was a good discussion and I think that there are a lot of people who think and want to change/improve the system - something that I was desperately hoping for, since the last couple of months.

We then headed for a walk towards the Shahpura lake (thanks to the initiative taken by that Bangalorean ICLS guy). We were around 14-15. Naturally, there were around 5-6 groups of 2-3 people each. I was in a 3-member group along with that Bangalorean and my CMC Vellore friend, Dhruva. They were doing most of the talking and I was just listening. Then, the Jammu Sardar also joined our group and a discussion on the Kashmir problem started. I was doing most of the listening since I really wanted to hear something from a localite. But, he couldn't tell something new, most of it was the stuff which I had already listened on the news channels. I caught up with Papa, who was walking alone towards the lake. We walked around 200 m, saw the lake, it was fenced all around and also, it was dirty. We headed back towards the academy.

Now, that we are back to the room and he is sleeping, I am on the sofa with an edition of "The Week" on the tea-table along with a book on Physical Geography. When I was reading about the earthquakes, there were a lot of thoughts going on in my mind and hence I thought that let me pen them down. So, I have started writing this column.

This day, is many days, similar to the first day at college. There is a strange feeling of inferiority complex, the fact that I am not very vocal and do not have much to say. The photo of Mother Teresa on "The Week" reminds me again that anybody can bring about a change, if one desires to. She was not even a university graduate and she started at the age of 40, yet she brought about a change. Here, I am sitting and wondering whether it is worthwhile to join IRS (IT) and bring about improvements in the system or I should study for the next exam and become an IAS officer. This constant dilemma is not leaving me. Let me read for the next 2 months and then see if I can get selected. Otherwise, I have IRS in my hand, I will try my heart out. Salute to you, Mother Teresa...hats off to you.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


My marksheet

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A big myth - Writing skills a mandatory requirement for clearing UPSC exams
There has been a belief that one has to have very good writing skills so as to clear UPSC exams. Many coaching institutes are leveraging on this rumor since it is easy money for them. They conduct test series and try to lend help by giving 'feedback' on the answers that one writes. However, I believe strongly that rather than writing skills, knowledge is imperative for success in the UPSC exams i.e. One should know first what to write rather than knowing how to write. No flowery language is desired by the UPSC, except otherwise your optional is English literature. One just needs to express whatever one knows in a manner that if one reads your answer, he is able to assimilate what you wish to say.
So, the question comes, “What should be a good style to write the answers?”, “Should I underline the important points?”, “Should I write in paragraphs or in bullets or number the points?”, “Is handwriting important?”. I think all these questions and many more are logical questions in any person looking for clearing this exam. But, the point that I wish to make here is that “It doesn't matter as long as you've written what you wished and explained it well”. There is no need of a specialized training on how to write answers. Everybody has its own style and you should follow that.
The only guideline that I wish to give you is that before answering any question, think for a couple of minutes and jot down on the last page (you can use it as a rough page) the key points that you wish to cover in the answer i.e. Try and give a structure to your answer. I can illustrate this by an example. Suppose the question is ''Elaborate the issue of Jammu and Kashmir in light of India-Pakistan relations?”. When you read this question, you've some idea of what is expected. Now, you try to think of whatever you know about the J&K problem. Just jot the points on the rough page (you may recollect something about the history of the problem, Raja Hari Singh's gesture to India for protecting J&K, some dates you might recollect e.g. The 1948 war, 1965 war, 1999 Kargil war, peace agreements like Tashkent Agreement, Shimla Agreement, Gen Mussharaff's visit to India, UN view on J&K, what India wants, what Pakistan wants, what US wants, what the international community wants, what the people of J&K wants, current problems in J&K, the social angle, possible solutions, conclusion). Now that you've written whatever you know about the J&K issue, try and put these points in order keeping in mind chronology as well as continuity e.g. Before discussing the history of the problem, there is no point in discussing what India wants and what Pakistan wants. Also, one needs to enumerate what India wants and what Pakistan wants before writing about what the US/UN/the international community wants. If I had to write the answer, I would have written as:-
a) A short history of the J&K problem – post-independence scenario, Raja Hari Singh, India and Pak involvement, special status given to J&K under the Indian constitution, a brief war, UN intervention in 1948, UN resolution, 1965 war, Tashkent agreeement, Shimla agreement, 1999 war, efforts at reconciliation.
b) current situation of J&K – the problems there, local lives affected, seperatists' movement, Indian army, infiltration, terrorism
c)What India wants – considering LOC as the international border, no chance of mediation, worried about close relations between India and China,
d) What Pak wants – considers it as a freedom struggle, wants the entire J&K, supporting infiltrators, wants a referendum in J&K.
e) What the people of J&K wants – lot of local parties like the Hurriyat, National Conference, PDP, worried about Indian army's wrong doings with general public.
f) What the UN wants – wants the situation to be solved bilaterally, still the UN resolution of 1948 needs to be implemented, doesn't have teeth to implement
g) What the US wants – not very worried, giving aid to Pak to solve its own problem of Afghanistan, good relations with India as well on the economic front.
h) Problems – local life affected adversely, tourism disrupted, huge drain of money on the part of India and Pak who are struggling to wipe out poverty
i) Possible solutions – LOC as an international border, status quo, India gives up, Pak gives up, 'Aman ki asha' – friendly relations between India and Pak, bilateral diplomacy
j) Conclusion – All in all, a very complex issue but it is high time that leaders who have the political will step in to solve this crisis otherwise the people are affected.
Preparing for Geography as an optional for UPSC exam
Geography is a popular optional for UPSC exams particularly because of its objective nature – if you know it, you get the marks unlike other subjects like sociology/political science which seem to be extremely subjective. Geography also has some subjectivity particularly the 'human geography' part but still I feel is a good choice for science & technology graduates. If you liked geography during your school days, I think you should have a look at the syllabus and previous question papers (available on www.civilserviceindia.com) and then decide. Since the syllabus is vast, you need to allocate a considerable amount of time for this subject.
I want to put a disclaimer here that although I took Geography as one of my mains optional, I couldn't do full justice to this subject due to lack of time. I could only read the NCERTs and was not able to read any other standard books like Majid Hussain, Rupa's 'Geography Made Simple' and other suggested references. So, I am a sort of novice to this vast subject and so would advice to take everything I write down with a pinch of salt. Inspite of this, I am writing this article because I managed to pass through the exam studying very little since I focused on the basics. I've not been successful to receive my marksheet for this year's exam although they've been up on the website but it seems that it doesn't consider my e-mail id (vikrampg@gmail.com) a valid e-mail id. So, as and when I get my marksheet, I'll post it on the blog. My roll number is 383943 and my birth date is Dec 15,1986. If you know somebody who has the marksheet or can find out my marks, please let me know.
1. Start with NCERTs: Start with NCERTs (recent – freely available for download from ncert's website or you can do a google search for the same) from Class 6. Underline/highlight and/or keep noting the important points. Pay specific attention to the three NCERTs of Class 11 and 12. These three textbooks are extremely informative and cover almost 50% of the course. I would suggest you to go through these three textbooks twice or thrice and learn the facts therein by heart. When you read other reference books/notes, you should try and assimilate the extra information. For example, the NCERT book will contain the locations of iron and steel industry in the country. Learn these locations and the basic information given in the NCERT (e.g. Durgapur steel plant set up with British support, Bhilai steel plant set up with Russian support). Now, when you read a specific reference or some notes from a coaching institute, try and build on the existing knowledge that you had from the ncert (e.g. What are the turnovers of this industry, which is the biggest steel plant, what grade of steel does India manufacture, what are the problems, how does India compare to the international scene etc.). Thus, other things that you read will help you build up on what you already know from the NCERTs. Essentially, what I am suggesting is that build up your basics and get a broad overview from the NCERTs and then try to deepen your knowledge from reading other things. I am stressing the point over and over again primarily because I think the syllabus is huge and one has to manage it somehow. Thus, cover the breadth first and then the depth.
2. Use internet if you can: Don't leave any portion of the syllabus. Atleast, know the basics. Take the syllabus in your hand and do a google search for any entry that you wish to know about e.g. I did this for the different theories (rank-rule hierarchy, central place theory) and atleast got an idea of what the theory is. Internet will help you also for phsyical geography e.g. The mechanism of monsoons, the different winds, El Nino and La Nina effect. Numerous animations are available. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource. Search about different places in the news or places that you've heard of but you are not sure as to where exactly they are (e.g. Casablanca, Timbaktu, Tashkent, Kyoto, Montreal, Miami).
3. Also, learn to make a rough map of India (world is optional) so that you can quickly make it while answering questions for paper 2. e.g. On the question of location of the iron and steel industry, you can quickly make a rough map and mark the different locations. This will fetch you a lot of marks. A picture is worth a thousand words, really...
4. Map entries: Locating given places on the map or identifying marked places on the map has been the standard question (worth 60 marks) in both Paper 1 and Paper 2. Thus, maps comprise 120 marks out of 600 marks i.e. 20% which is huge by any standards. So, how should we maximize our chances of marking the correct entries on the map. The first obvious thing is references – atlases in this case. The Oxford Atlas is very good particularly in regard to Indian entries while the Orient Longman Atlas is a good choice for the international entries. I studied mostly from the Orient Longman but later also got the Oxford Atlas xeroxed. I'll also suggest you to get some unlabeled maps of India and the world (preferably without any state or country boundaries) so that you can practice on it or put important places on it for later revision or as a reference
1. Make/get a list of important rivers/seas/deserts/mountains of India as well as the world – The idea here is to do it one by one. Get a list of important rivers of the world (from wikipedia or any other resource) and label it on one of your unlabeled map. If the list is very big e.g rivers, you can do it continent by continent otherwise e.g. If you are marking seas, then you can do it once and for all. You'll find that doing this will give you a confidence that “atleast, now I know all the seas of the world.” Moving piece by piece will further boost your confidence. You can follow the same strategy for India.
2. Mark all the countries and their capitals & important cities on the map : This will also help you a lot, you'll know a lot of places. Some of these places are directly asked in the exam.
3. One entry is usually of 6 marks – 3 marks for the entry and 3 marks for its description or 2 marks for the entry and 2 marks for its description (if one entry is worth 4 marks). The point here is that how should we prepare for the description part. I think the answer is not simple. One has to know a lot e.g. About the place where a river rises and where it drains finally or why is a city famous or what are the countries in which a given mountain range is located or some nearby areas; I'll suggest you to prepare yourself atleast for writing one sentence on the location of the entry (e.g. This river flows in the continent X and is situated to the north of mountain/river/sea Y and it flows through these countries). Other things that are expected from us are daunting e.g. Where does the river rise, does the river flow eastwards/westwards/southwards/northwards, where does the river drain itself. I myself couldn't do this but I would like to mention that this is the level of details that the examiner expects. If you write all this correctly e.g.one can write this for the river Ganga, then you get full marks. However, step marking is there and let's try to maximize our marks rather than brood over the difficulty of the task.
4. Anticipate: Most of the times, the entries that are asked in the question paper are not random; these places are important if an international summit has happened there (e.g. Kyoto, Copenhagen, Rio De Jenerio, Montreal, Bali, Doha etc.), an earthquake/tsunami/volcano has struck there (e.g. La Aquilla, Haiti, Chile) or some oil/gas/mineral has been found there (e.g. Sakhalin, KG basin, Mangala). So, any place which is in the news, try and ask in which country the place it is, what is it famous for.
Preparing for Psychology as an optional for UPSC mains
I think psychology, in addition to being an obvious choice for psychology graduates, is also a very good option for medicos as well as people from science and engineering; particularly because of the scientific nature of the subject. The knowledge of neurosciences will be an edge for aspirants with medical and/or biology background (minimum criteria here is studying biology till class 12). Another good thing about psychology is that the syllabus also is not as vast as geography or public administration. In addition, good reference material is available thereby enabling you to complete the subject reasonably in around one and a half months (in emergency) to three months (almost comfortably).
I had taken psychology as an optional for my mains exam so I've focused on strategies that can help for mains and not prelims. I am not sure about the guidelines for the prelims exam as I myself have not taken it. Thus, this article is meant as a guide only for psychology as a subject for mains exam.
Psychology is on the realm of the boundary between science and social science i.e. It is an 'arts' subject yet it shares many things with science – it is logical, it employs the scientific method of experimentation and rational approach to derive theories of immensely abstract things e.g. Motivation, emotions, values. The abstruce and abstract subject material brings in the features of social science into psychology.
So, if you feel you wish to go ahead with psycho, read the following section on 'how to go about it'.
a. Start with the NCERTs: Class 11 and 12 psychology textbooks (take the recent version) are awesome. They cover almost 60% of the mains syllabus. Start with the NCERTs slowly, underline important things and note down key definitions along with important case-studies/experiments on any topic e.g. Note down the 1$ -20$ experiment as a proof for cognitive dissonance.
b. Mukul Pathak Sir's notes: Mukul Pathak Sir is a teacher in 'Vajiram and Ravi' coaching institute. His notes are phenomenal. They are very well structured and contain a lot of vital information. Another good point is that he has followed verbatim the syllabus as has been given by the UPSC for psychology. His handwritten notes are easily available at almost any stationery shop in Mukherji Nagar/Rajendra Nagar in New Delhi.There are six registers that cover the entire syllabus for paper 1 and 2.
c. A standard reference : There are some concepts which need to be read elaboratively for deep understanding. Additionally, since the NCERTs as well as Mukul Sir's notes are mostly pedagogical, there is a need for a text book which explains psychology in a layman language as well as explains it with pictures, examples and interesting experiments. Two books could be suggested here - “Introduction to Psychology' by Baron or 'Introduction to Pscyhology' by Morgan and King (this book has a yellow cover). If you haven't read Morgan before, then I suggest you to read Baron since it has a summary section at the end of every chapter. The summary is superb and will help you during your revision. You might as well start reading the summary first followed by NCERT and Mukul Sir's notes.
These six registers, along with the NCERTs and one reference (either Baron or Morgan) makes your arsenal complete. Now, you've to read meticulously and complete the things. Note down the definitions in a seperate copy as it will help immensely to reproduce the same definition in the exam. Only one definition is enough (no need to learn multiple definitions as has been given in Mukul Sir's notes; take one definition either from Baron/NCERT/Mukul Sir's notes). Also, keep writing the various experiments/case studies which form the basis of a psychological phenomenon. e.g. Decrease in motivation for solving puzzles when a child is offered chocolates rather than when he used to solve it for personal satisfaction is an example for 'overjustification effect'.
I'll like to give you an additional advice which I benefited a lot from. This advice was written by Shubra Saxena (UPSC 2009 topper) on her blog. She adviced students to summarise every chapter in 2-3 pages so that these pages could be handy while you revise 1-2 days before the exam. These notes could also be helpful during the one or two hours that you've before the exam. Try and summarise each chapter in 2-3 pages, it definitely helped me and I'm sure this piece of advice is very practical.
Writing skills don't matter a lot in psychology. Try and recollect the important points; the task then is to present the recollected points in an organized way. Before writing any answer, think about the structure of the answer that you'll write. For example, if the question is “Should mentally challenged children be taught in special schools or the same schools as normal kids study?” and if it is a 60 mark question; then you need to think before you write. You can give the structure as follows:-
a. Explain who are mentally challenged?
b. Explain their constraints/problems/limitations?
c.Give points on as to why they should be taught in the same school (so that normal kids understand them and appreciate their problems, they don't suffer from inferiority complex, they'll add to the diversity of the class, more humane way of teaching).
d.Give points on as to why they should be taught in a different school (they have special needs which need to be dealt seperately, they'll feel inferiority complex when they go to normal schools, two mentally challenged kids will have higher probability of becoming friends rather than a mentally challenged kid and a normal kid)
e. Some solutions which if taken could help solve the problem (e.g. Ensuring a counseler in the school whose duty is also to look into the special needs of the child will help in diagnosing if anything is going wrong with the kid)
f. Final Conclusion (what do you think -after giving both the pros and cons, what do you feel? Should they be taught in the same school or in different schools?)
Thus, it can be seen that writing is not particularly difficult if you have knowledge (here, the definition of mentally challenged, types of mentally challenged, their psychological as well as medical limitations/barriers) as well as some analysis (which i think is very easy and nobody should be afraid of).
So, just get going with the NCERTs and Mukul Sir's notes along with occasional help from one reference (Barons or Morgan)