Top of their class

Anand J.        Print Edition: Jan 8, 2012

All three tried and failed to enter the coveted Indian Administrative Service. But coming together, they have found a flourishing alternative career: training aspirants for the same services. Their Alternate Learning Systems, or ALS, is the second-biggest - by number of students - among the 100-odd coaching institutes at Mukherjee Nagar in north Delhi, where most coaching classes for the Union Public Service Commission, or UPSC, examinations are located.  (Video: How they started Alternate Learning Systems)

The prime mover among them is the diminutive Shashank Atom - yes, Atom, it is the nickname his father gave him and which he chose to append to his first name - now 46, hailing from Motihari, Bihar. Atom quit his job with the National Dairy Development Board in 1989 to devote himself full time to studying for the UPSC examination. But when he took it, his modest rank qualified him, not for the IAS, but for the relatively less prestigious Delhi and Andaman Nicobar Services, or DANICS. Atom had begun teaching earlier to support himself, setting up an institute called Interactions. He joined DANICS, but unhappy with the job, quit in 1995 to return to teaching. Though he could have, he never gave the UPSC another shot.

Atom started a coaching institute with Rs 50,000 borrowed from friends

The institute draws 2,500 IAS aspirants annually, turnover Rs 12 crore

Manoj Kumar Singh,46, from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, and Jojo Mathews, 40, from Ernakulam, Kerala, similarly failed to make the IAS grade in their youth. While Singh was Atom's friend, Mathews was one of his students. Atom had begun Interactions in 1991 with Rs 50,000 borrowed from friends, and just 25 students. Today, the institute, having metamorphosed into ALS in 2003, teaches around 2,500 students a year, with revenue of around Rs 12 crore a year. At least 200 of its students, on average, make it to the Central civil services every year, while many more enter the numerous other government services and various state civil services. ALS fees vary widely, between Rs 5,000 and Rs 1.4 lakh, depending on the duration of the coaching and number of subjects the student seeks coaching for.

How has ALS been able to stand out? "We constantly update syllabi, keep close tabs on the examination pattern every year and note every change, we upgrade ourselves quickly, we innovate," says Singh. But most importantly, they recruit firstrate teachers. "This is a very specialised coaching," says Atom. "It is difficult to get good teachers. But we have set a high benchmark. We will not dilute our brand." The three themselves take classes as well.

But competition remains intense, keeping the trio on its toes. To keep up their profile, they also publish a monthly magazine focused on the UPSC examinations, Competition Wizard. "Our study material is often pirated, but we consider that free publicity," says Mathews. Atom concurs. "It often brings new students to our classes," he says.

But the fact that they did not make the IAS still causes twinges of regret. "It pinches me even today," says Mathews. "But perhaps teaching is my destiny."

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