My Tryst with the Civil Services Exam IV- The Interview


The Mains Results were declared when I was driving down from Jaipur to Delhi. I received a message from a very dear friend asking me to check the results. An agonising ten minutes followed before Airtel’s internet could be coaxed to download the file. I wouldn’t say I was over the moon on seeing my name there. After all, I had appeared for the Interview last year too without making it to the Final List. So my preparation this year was (ironically enough) in a lot more relaxed frame of mind.

I did not do any intensive preparation for the Interview. I read the newspaper daily and looked up websites like barandbench and legallyindia for recent updates regarding the legal scene (my graduation subject being Law). This was apart from preparing for the standard questions like how to reform the Indian legal scene, make it more accessible etc. I also looked up Wikipedia to refresh my GK about my home state and district. More importantly, I signed up for Hamdard Study Circle’s mock interviews. I gave a total of four mock interviews there and the encouragement I received from the panel comprising some of India’s finest ex bureaucrats like Mr Wajahat Habibullah, Mr Nasim Ahmed, Mr Salman Haider and Mr Naved Masood was a big boost to my confidence.

I dressed up conservatively for the big day-a dark grey suit with a white shirt and a deep purple tie. You can, of course, choose to skip the suit but it does convey an impression that you are taking this event seriously. My interview was in the morning session and I was informed that I was the first one up at Ms Alka Sirohi’s Board. In hindsight, being first up probably helped my nerves a bit as I never really had time to get the jitters about the whole process. After some small talk with my fellow interviewees, an assistant escorted me to a chair in the corridor and asked me to wait till called for. Scary comes close to describing my feelings at this stage. After about five minutes, the massive door was held open for me. I politely asked for permission to enter before walking up to my seat and wishing the Chairman followed by a general Good Morning to the other four members.

Chairman: Please take your seat, Mr Akhtar

Me: Thank you Ma’am

CM: So you are a lawyer. What is happening in the legal field these days?

Me: I am sorry Ma’am. Is there anything specific you have in mind?

CM: There has been a lot of activity in the commercial law scene these days. Salaries are going through the roof, recruitments have taken off in a big way. What are the reasons for this?

Me: Ma’am perhaps it has got something to do with the proposed entry of foreign law firms. Indian law firms are therefore trying to shore up their manpower with attractive offers in order to be competitive.

CM: That may happen. Something that has already happened?

Me: India’s largest law firm, Amarchand and Mangaldas just split up. The two new entities are aggressively recruiting to enter each others markets.So a lot of lateral movement has resulted as a consequence.

CM: Yes. That is correct. Why did this split up happen?

Me: (General gyaan about the mother’s will being contested and the elder son getting her entire share)

CM: So you think this is a one off? Or will the salaries trend continue?

Me: As we compete with global law firms, I see the salaries only increasing as these firms compete among themselves to retain the best talent.

CM: So don’t you wish to be a part of this windfall? Earn 15 LPA salaries now, move up to 50 LPA in a half a dozen years?

Me: (with a smile) In my own way, I have seen a fair bit of the commercial law life Ma’am. While the money is no doubt excellent, I don’t find the job interesting or challenging enough. As I see it, the Civil Services offer a much more diverse and influential job profile for somebody of my interests.

CM: Oh there are challenges alright. Especially if a deal is to be closed…

Me: (interrupting) Obviously I refer to my own work environment in a corporate..

CM: Alright. We will come back to this topic (motions to the first member)

————————————————

M1: Since you were always interested in the Civils, you should have done your graduation in some other subject, saved a couple of years and become an IAS at 21! Why do Law for five years?

Me: You are quite right Sir. But in my opinion, Law provides me a distinct advantage in the Civil Services

M1: That being?

Me: It has familiarised me with the Constitution-the Bible of administration in India. It has taught me the notion of natural justice and reasoned decisions. It has also taught me to weigh my options and cautioned me against taking absolutist stands on issues. As far as degrees go, I cannot think of a better one!

M1 asked another question that I cannot quite recollect. The Chairman stopped me midway through my answer and asked M2 to take over.

_______________________________

M2: We read about some refugees in the Bay of Bengal area these days. Any idea who they are?

Me: Yes Sir. These are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who are fleeing the country to avoid persecution

M2: Right. Why are they being persecuted?

Me: Sir, for many Bamars, Rohingyas are Bengalis due to the language they speak and the religion they follow. As Myanmar moves towards democracy, there is a lot of social upheaval. It is probably feared that the Rohingyas will get a deciding say in the politics of the Arakan. That, and economic competition is another factor.

M2: Are you aware of a principle in International Law that says refugees may not be turned back?

Me: I do not know the exact phrase Sir but it basically states that while there is no right to asylum, refugees facing imminent threat to their life may be provided temporary shelter before the UNHCR arranges for…

M2: (Interrupting-with a smile) Non refoulement is what it is called..just trying to help you a bit.

Me: Yes sir. I am sorry. I think that is the principle.

M2: So why aren’t SE Asian countries accepting them? Are they afraid they will have blood on their hands if they repatriate them?

Me: Not really sir. In my opinion they are afraid of the fiscal burden they perceive these refugees to be. Also the whole angle of social tension in their countries which anyway face ethnic issues.

M2: Correct. Moving on. Trainspotting seems to be one of your interests! How did this come about?

Me: (Tell him about IRFCA, growing up in a railway colony)

M2: (Smiles and nods) So when did the first train run in India? And your favourite route?

Me: 16th April 1853 Sir. From Bombay to Thane. And Konkan Railway.

_________________________________

M3: What is Climate Change?

Me: (General gyaan about global warming, climate change)

M3: Is Ozone a greenhouse gas or a CFC?

Me: It certainly is a greenhouse gas but I think its not a CFC

M3: Effects of climate change?

Me: Most importantly for us, a rise in sea levels compounded by unseasonal rain and flooding. This will put coastal communities at risk around the world and lead to large scale migration that will have cascading social consequences.

M3: Tell us something about your former employer’s environment protection measures?

Me: (Tell them about ITC’s carbon positive buildings, ground water recharging)

M3: Something more? ITC has been doing a lot of work in this field.

Me: Sorry sir. Cannot recollect anything else right now.

M3: Why are we having difficulties with bringing back Black Money from abroad?

Me: Sir it is primarily due to privacy laws which stipulate that those who haven’t broken any laws in these countries will not have their financial information disclosed to their home countries.

M3: Suggest some ways in which we can remedy this.

Me: The best measure we can take is to tighten the screws before the money leaves Indian shores sir, especially by cracking down on benami transactions and unreported income, because once it is out of here, it is very difficult to get it back..

M3: But America has managed to…

Me: With all due respect Sir, America’s bargaining power is also much more stronger than India’s. It can leverage its diplomatic and financial muscle to get the Swiss to talk..

___________________________________

M4: There is a lot of talk about encouraging industry. What should be done here?

Me: Sir, for one, we can start with abolishing many unnecessary remnants of the licence permit raj that make setting up a business difficult. A single window system of clearance would be a great help..

M4: And in the labour law field?

Me: Some reform is needed in the Apprentices Act to make it easier to hire and fire contractual labour but the broader principles of safeguarding labourer interest through the Factories Act and the ID Act must be continued.

M4: Talking of hire and fire, what is a Golden Handshake?

Me: Sir a generous severance package given generally to high ranking managers when they quit-usually before their time is up.

M4: What role should the judiciary play in the development process?

Me: It should try and deliver speedy justice in all cases Sir. While at the same time realising that it must always keep the interest of the weakest in mind who usually have no bargaining power of their own and do not possess the voice to speak up.

M4: Any specific suggestions about making setting up of industries easier?

Me: As I said earlier Sir, abolishing the concept of multiple permits..

Chairman (interrupts): But that has already been done. You just need a couple of them..

Me: Not in the sector I was working in Ma’am. The Pollution Control Board, for eg, needs about half a dozen

Chairman: Its a sector specific thing then.

Me: Yes Ma’am. It very possibly may be.

CM: What is the JUSBRL?

Me: (Takes me some time to figure it out)

CM: The Jammu, Udhampur…

Me: Yes Ma’am. The Kashmir Railway Project.

CM: What are the challenges being faced there?

Me: (Gyaan about terrorism, seismic region, snowfall, broad gauge line at high altitude, rivers, terrain etc)

CM: How many bridges are there in total? Any other feature?

Me: I think more than a hundred major ones Ma’am. And Asia’s longest rail tunnel too.

CM: You cooked up that bridges figure just now didn’t you? (smiles-for the first time)

Me: An educated guess Ma’am. (They all laugh)

CM: What is happening in Nagaland?

Me: Apologies Ma’am. A lot is. Anything specific that you wish to ask me about?

CM: Is all fair under God’s kingdom there?

Me: Well, there are talks going on with the insurgents, NSCN (IM)..

CM: Name them.

Me: Isaac Muviah

CM: The other faction?

Me: Khaplang

CM: Why aren’t we talking to Khaplang?

Me: Our sovereignty is non negotiable. Any autonomy must be within the Indian Constitution. Khaplang refuses to compromise on this.

CM: Should we be talking to some other country?

Me: Myanmar Ma’am. It acts as a conduit for weapons, drugs money to them..

CM: Any other reason?

Me: (Cant think of any)

CM: What is Nagalim?

Me: Greater Nagaland Ma’am. Includes parts of other Indian states and Myanmar. One of the goals of the NSCN is to establish a sovereign Nagalim.

CM: Thank you Mr Akhtar. You may leave now.

I muttered a thank you to all before making my exit. I was informed by my fellow interviewees that this had lasted for close to 45 minutes which wasn’t surprising since I was the first one in. Considering that I hadn’t been able to answer all my questions satisfactorily, the general reputation that this Board enjoys and my couple of unnecessary interruptions during questioning, I was very happy with my final marks of 193.

For a process as personalised as the Interview, there are few tips to be given out. You cannot fashion a new personality for yourself or become somebody that you are not. However there are a few general suggestions that will work for anybody:

  • Retain your cool. The Interview Board treats you as an equal and expects you to show your maturity in a stressful situation.
  • They are not out to unnecessarily needle you. Both my interview boards have tried to help me whenever I fumbled.
  • Do NOT EVER lie. A funny answer when you don’t know an exact fact is fine but please don’t lie. It destroys any impression that you may have created till then and you are sure to get caught out. A polite “I apologise Ma’am/Sir. I am unaware of this” is all you need to say.
  • Do dress up smartly. Make an effort to find a good tie, proper shoes or a well pressed sari. A shabby appearance makes you appear disinterested
  • The lesser the hobbies in your DAF, the better your chances of not being led down a dangerous alley of specific questions.
  • Do not badmouth your former employers, if any, or your college. Nobody likes a mean backbiter.
  •  Do try and make eye contact with all members. But this may not be possible in some rooms with a circular table. In that case only occasionally nodding to other members is also fine.
  • Smile. It may be a big day for you, but just another interview for them. Do not let them remember you as a moody grinch.
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