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Consistency is my mantra for success, reveals this IRS officer and Apeejay Pitampura alumni

Varun Singhal may have cleared the Civil Services in his fifth attempt, but his heart was set on ushering in change in society at the highest level as a policy maker



Varun Singhal
Assistant Commissioner,
Indian Revenue Service

Varun Singhal is an assistant commissioner with the Indian Revenue Service posted in New Delhi at present. After completing his schooling from Apeejay School, Pitampura, Varun graduated in Commerce from Delhi University and subsequently did a Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University before embarking upon his quest to join the Civil Services in order to “bring change at the highest level through policy making,” he tells us in an interview. He reveals how he gravitated towards a career in bureaucracy and also shares his memories of the time he spent at Apeejay Pitampura along with a few valuable tips for IAS aspirants. Edited excerpts:

Please take us through your professional journey so far
After completing my schooling from Apeejay School, Pitampura, I pursued B.Com (Honours) from the Sri Guru Gobind Singh College Of Commerce, Delhi University. I was the president of the entrepreneurship cell in my college. I enjoyed warm relations with my college principal and organised festivals. I even invited Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to one of the events for a public interaction. I think it is at this point that I began the process of questioning the kind of education that I was receiving. I was getting good marks because I knew how and what I had to study. At the same time I was completely engaged in work that impacted society. I was part of a social entrepreneurship platform called SIFE and launched a start-up called Sochbook. I was completely immersed into the world of business and start-ups till I stumbled upon the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University.  I read about it in the education supplement of a newspaper and it seemed like an experiment in education I would want to experience.  Beyond just education, the fellowship helped you develop your overall life purpose. Without telling my friends or parents, I wrote a statement of purpose and submitted it. Finally, when I got an interview call, I went for the interview without telling anybody. Since I was dressed formally in a suit, my parents assumed I was going to attend an event in my college and I cleared the interview successfully.

Why do you call the Young India Fellowship a departure from convention?

The Young India fellowship (YIF) was one year of an entirely new revolutionary approach towards education and mindful exposure that you experienced with your peers. I was part of a group of 100 people from entirely different backgrounds. These included, among others, a painter, a car racer, a scholar, an entrepreneur and a filmmaker. We were staying under one roof and getting lessons in 24 subjects from the best professors one can hope to find in the world. Apart from that, we had guest lectures from amazing teachers such as economist Mihir Shah, sociologist Andre Beteille, Rudrangshu Mukherjee and historian Ramachandra Guha. These professors opened our minds like anything. We used to challenge the status quo and have day-long discussions. YIF helped open my mind and led me to questions such as what my purpose was and what I wanted to become.

 How did you gravitate towards the Civil Services, coming from a business family?

Once you do the Young India Fellowship you can head in any direction. In a year we studied 24 diverse subjects which ranged from Statistics, Mathematics, history, painting, psychology, philosophy, you name it and we had it. Even Vinod Rai was one of the guest lecturers. These people open up your mind and encourage you to think out of the box and do something that might take you towards your life purpose.  Basically, during the fellowship, I questioned my idea of life. I also went to my father’s business for some time and just for the sake of getting out of business and even tried my hand at chartered and financial analyst (CFA) level one. But I couldn’t imagine being a chartered and financial analyst for the next 30-40 years of my life. I met a guy at the library who told me about the Civil Services. Apart from that, celebrated economist Mihir Shah who taught us during the fellowship, used to tell us about how to bring change in society. At the policy level the highest means of change can be achieved, he said.  If one makes it to the Civil Services or joins politics, you can bring policy level change that is the highest form of change. That helped me gravitate towards a career in bureaucracy.

What are your memories of the time you spent in school at Apeejay, Pitampura?

I studied for my entire school life at Apeejay Pitampura. I clearly remember my interaction with DK Bedi Sir, who was the principal at that time. He always used to ask us what our ‘purpose’ was. I remember a conversation I had with him in class 12. He would come and ask us: Why do you want to do what you want to do? For instance, if someone wanted to do chartered accountancy or an MBA, he would ask them for their purpose. One of my peers said he wanted to do a CA as well as an MBA. So, Dr Bedi said one shouldn’t just pursue a subject just because it was the fad at that time and that no person in his right mind would do a CA as well as an MBA because they were two completely distinct profiles. CA is an accounting job and an MBA is a management profile. Think about what you would accomplish by doing both. These may appear as trivial , but we found answers to such small questions thanks to the personal touch with teachers and the attention they paid to every student. It helped students understand the purpose of their lives. Similarly I remember my interaction with Taruna Kalra and Sangeeta Ma’am, our class-teacher. Going beyond teaching their subjects, these teachers would treat us like their own sons and daughters.  I remember Smita Ma’am teaching us history. She told us history is not just rote learning and you must understand the subject. Indu Malik Ma’am was my class teacher in class 11. I recollect a funny incident that featured her. I had opted for Commerce in class 11 and she was asking everyone why each of us had opted for their stream. I stood up and said my father is doing business and I have to go into business and that is why I took Commerce.  My classmates laughed at my answer, but after everyone was done laughing, she said: What’s wrong if he wants to go into business? He is being honest in saying that he chose Commerce for a reason. At least he has a reason to support his answer. I was encouraged by this. I remember these words even a decade later. Such words encourage you and help you move forward. One must be true to oneself even if others laugh at you.

I recently returned to my alma mater and met the current principal Dr Veena Goyal and other teachers and perceived the same feelings of warmth towards their alumni. It was a wonderful feeling to meet some of the teachers who taught me and are still around and revisiting memories of my school days.

Please elaborate upon your approach your preparation for the Civil Services.

I started preparing for the Civil Services in 2016. I started my preparation with a coaching centre and received some good knowledge and guidance there but left it soon to focus on self-study. I used to study with my friends in a group. Self-study and group study and trying to learn from each other is something that led me to my success I think. It was a long journey indeed and it was a slow journey full of disappointments as well, but later I got a taste of success.

Although law is not my background, fortunately I secured the highest all-India score in law and even taught law to UPSC and judiciary aspirants for some time. I cleared the exam and I got into the Indian Revenue Service, customs and indirect taxes and I had a year of theoretical training at the National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes and Narcotics (NACIN) in Faridabad and am now posted in Delhi as an assistant commissioner.

Did you clear the Civils in the first attempt itself?
No, in the first attempt I could not clear the prelims. In the second attempt I could not clear the mains and in the third attempt I could not clear the interview. In the fourth attempt, I could not clear the prelims again and I finally got through in the fifth attempt. Still, I was determined it was my calling and I wanted to bring in change at the highest form of policy making. Apart from this determination, when you take an exam and miss it by a mark or two, it gives you confidence that you would clear it the next time and makes you go on.

You come from a business family, did CFA and chose to be in the Civil Services and made it on the fifth attempt, how did you stay motivated?
If you have a clear purpose, it will definitely help you to stick to your plans. Even in the case of failures, your purpose will drive you over it. In my case I identified my purpose as bringing in change at the highest level through bureaucracy or politics, as advised by my Professor Mihir Shah. I found it to be a really meaningful purpose.

Now that you are in the IRS, what do your job responsibilities entail?

I am still new to the service. After completing my training, I am meeting my senior officers and getting introduced to various verticals in the Service. At different departments you have different responsibilities and my department primarily has three departments: GST, Narcotics and Customs. Apart from these, we have the directorate of revenue intelligence, the Directorate General of GST Intelligence and the Enforcement directorate. You work on various solutions and work closely with the customs, GST officials and Narcotics officers. You have responsibilities depending upon the department you are working in. Right now I am into GST. My work is to analyse GST returns, to apprehend the violators and trying to facilitate GST transactions and augmenting the government’s revenue. Put simply: We are not revenue officers, we are law enforcement officers. Because at the end of the day, we also enforce the law as and when required. Normally all the bureaucrats work in tandem whether it is the Civil Services or the IRS or the IPS. 

Please share some tips for those who want to follow your career trajectory?

I generally tell others that slow and steady wins the race. I say this because a lot of people clear Civil Services in the first attempt and a lot of others do not. And the majority of the aspirants do not. If you are true to your goal, slowly and steadily keep at it. You need not study 14 hours a day. You need to study six hours a day but do it every day without any breaks even on weekends or holidays. Once in a while you can skip it as well. Look at it as a marathon and not as a 100-metre sprint. Consistency and regularity always pay rewards and this is true for any profession. 

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @Aasheesh74

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