Varun Singhal is an Assistant Commissioner with the Indian Revenue Service, currently posted in New Delhi. 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.
WHRD: Please take us through your professional journey till date.
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.
WHRD: What are your memories of the time you spent in school?
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.
WHRD: 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.
WHRD: Please elaborate on your approach towards 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.
WHRD: 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.
WHRD: 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.
WHRD: 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 augment 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.
WHRD: 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.