Born to dairy farmers (who later moved to a small textile business) in the Karur district of Tamil Nadu, Poovitha Subramanian grew up harbouring one dream – becoming an IAS officer. While she would dress up as an IAS officer during fancy dress competitions at school, her parents felt it was an erratic childhood phase that would fade away.
Only, it didn’t.
In 2015, Poovitha cracked the competitive Union Public Service Examination and secured an All India Rank of 175, turning this childhood dream into reality.
Poovitha, who belongs to an OBC community, had grown up observing the social evils of caste discrimination, dowry and gender inequality at close quarters. Whether it was in the chastising remarks her mother was subjected to by her grandmother for not bringing any dowry or the rampant caste-discrimination that allowed upper caste children to call elderly members of castes lower to them by their first name with absolute disrespect.
In an exclusive interview with The Better India, Poovitha sheds light on the dismal caste discrimination around her saying,
“Around my hometown, the caste system was very stringent. While a certain community was made to toil in farmlands of the upper caste and tend their crops, the same community was treated with absolute contempt and called ‘untouchables.’ Their homes continue to be on the fringes, away from the others. Locals were worried when kids from lower castes advanced in their lives by utilising reservations in education and employment.”
And while her parents were never against Poovitha’s education, in her village, earning a degree was considered of vital importance on the wedding invitation card than pursuing a career. Poovitha is the first graduate in her family.
She was deeply inspired by the writings of IAS Iraianbu, a senior IAS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre, who spoke about the power of civil servants to effect change in their communities.
And so, after completing Class 12, she spoke to her parents about taking up a Bachelor’s Degree in History and then attempting the Union Public Service Commission exam. But considering the uncertainty of results, her parents encouraged her to take up BTech in Textile Technology from Kumaraguru College in Coimbatore.
While she thought she could finally be able to prepare for the civil service examination, fate threw another impediment her way. Her family was facing a deep financial crisis, and so Poovitha had to let go of her dream to work for Infosys.
“Even while I was working at Infosys, my passion for the administrative services continued. It took me three years, but I told my parents that I wanted to quit my job and attempt the UPSC exam. There was resistance from my close relatives who pressured my parents into getting me married. They would often tell my parents, ‘Why are you investing so much in the education of a girl child? She might go to a different city and make up her mind to marry someone outside the caste!’”
Not for once, did this resistance deter Poovitha.
“I had to fight against my relatives and society to break the notion that women are born to get married and raise a family. I was fighting for the basic right of every girl in my community to pursue a career and chase her dreams. I remember how my mother was treated with absolute contempt because she did not belong to a wealthy family when my father wanted to marry her. The most unfortunate thing was also that my mother held herself responsible for how she was treated. She was unaware of her rights. I imagined if this was the case of affairs in one OBC household, how many more women would be silently suffering across different communities? I was determined to change this.”
But it wasn’t a cakewalk. She moved to Delhi to get coaching but did not clear the prelims in her first attempt. And the year after that, she was unable to give the exams because the pressure to get married kept bogging her down.
“I did not want to attempt the exam without being fully prepared. So I waited for a year.”
After a year-long battle with everyone, Poovitha’s parents were convinced that the young girl wouldn’t give up. Refusing to give in to societal pressure to get their daughter married, they decided to support her 100%. This time, there was no going back.
“In my second attempt, I got selected for the Indian Railway Personnel Service. But my eyes were set on the Indian Administrative Services. I still remember going for the interview with my parents. I was convinced that the interview didn’t go as expected and I wouldn’t make it. My mother held my hand and assured me that even the Indian Revenue Services was a good place to start.”
Poovitha was in Vadodara when the results came out. She had made it through the Indian Administrative Services!
“When I told them, they burst into tears. It took them a lot of time to process it. I remember them cooing over the phone about how proud they were. The local media had started visiting our home, and the happiness on everyone’s faces was unmatched.”
Speaking about the challenges of studying for the UPSC, she says, “I did not study for 14 hours a day. I only studied 10 hours but I was consistent. I also had a study circle which helped me open up to newer perspectives, rather than having a fixed idea about concepts and issues. I think studying in circles is a great way to facilitate an exchange of ideas and make learning fun.”
After completing her academy training, Poovitha was sent to her cadre training in Udupi district of Karnataka, where she worked under Deputy Commissioner, Priyanka Mary Francis.
“Working under DC Priyanka, I realised I would never regret my decision. It was such a wonderful learning experience. She treats every person who walks into her office with respect, regardless of whether they were staff or not. And more importantly, she is open to ideas from all and doesn’t follow a hierarchy. At any time of the day, her office has public access to address grievances, which earns her the love and respect of those around her,” says Poovitha.
In her message to IAS aspirants, Poovitha says, “Believe in yourself. The external factors will distract you from your goal or weigh you down. But don’t give up. If you don’t clear the exam in your first attempt, try harder in the second. Be consistent and as clichéd as it sounds, don’t lose hope. It will help you sail through.”
It is indeed heartwarming to see how Poovitha’s journey to success has inspired several girls and their families from her hometown to follow their dreams. Now posted as the Assistant Secretary to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, she will be posted as a Sub-Divisional District Magistrate in the Karnataka cadre.
In conclusion she says, “I wanted to become an IAS officer and if not, a primary school teacher. Because I strongly believe that you could change the ideals of a society, if you properly implanted them in young minds.”
We wish her the very best for her journey ahead!
If her story inspired you, get in touch with IAS Poovitha Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)