The dream of civil services of N Selvakumar, a mechanical engineering student from Tirunelveli, was put on standby in March 2020. He had just joined IAS coaching in August 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause on his preparations. Unable to pay for food and accommodation owing to the financial crisis post pandemic, he returned home.
Nivedha, 23, from central Tamil Nadu, had to skip the IAS exam this year as her preparation was not up to the mark after physical coaching classes were suspended.
Anna Nagar, the civil service coaching hub in Chennai, which attracted students from as far as Rajasthan, Kashmir, Kerala and other states wears a deserted look now even after coaching institutes reopened for physical coaching around two months ago. The neighbourhood was home to more than 20 coaching institutes enrolling 6,000 to 7,000 students every year before the pandemic hit, now several smaller institutes have wrapped up operations as they could not afford to pay rent or employ trainers during the pandemic.
The entire industry that came up along with the coaching classes — from exclusive hostels for civil service aspirants, rental houses and catering services — are all affected. Except for a few, the majority of the hostels have less than 30% occupancy. Though some coaching centres and hostels have slashed their fees, still many are struggling to pay for the facilities after the pandemic led to economic distress in many families.
Of the 28,422 candidates who registered for the recently-held Union Public Service Commission’s civil services preliminary exam from Chennai, 53% were absent.
R K Sabarinathan, founder of Santhosh and Sabari IAS Academy in Shenoy Nagar, said enrolment in civil services coaching has come down by nearly 50% after the pandemic. “Many students default their fees due to financial stress. We cannot rent bigger halls to follow social distancing norms as the rent is high so we are conducting online classes now and hope to return to physical classes only next year,” he said.
But online classes leave gaps in learning, feels Selvakumar. “I could not clear my doubts like in physical classes with the trainers. The competitive environment for aspirants and guidance of seniors were missing in home preparation,” he said.
Nivedha, says women face a host of other issues. “Many women got married due to family pressure over the past year. The marriage age has come down to 22 again,” she said. And this socio-economic stress is being felt in the institutes that stand for an aspirational generation.
Though bigger coaching institutes like Shankar IAS Academy started physical classes, the number of enrolment is down by 40% compared to before the pandemic. “Those who adapted to the online mode of coaching before the pandemic have survived,” said S Chandru, academic head, Shankar IAS Academy in Anna Nagar. “It could take at least two years to return to normalcy,” Chandru said.