NEW DELHI: A two-lane road leads up to the Batra Complex in Mukherjee Nagar, and it is not the one less travelled.
Thousands flock here from every nook and corner of India to prepare for various competitive exams, particularly the civil services, at many big and small coaching centres, making for a multi-crore-rupee industry.
Their years of prep and money spent will be put to test on Sunday with over 11.36 lakh aspirants expected to take the civil services exam preliminary, the first step towards joining India’s elite bureaucracy.
Coaching hubs like Mukherjee Nagar, near Delhi University, along with Old Rajendra Nagar in west Delhi and Laxmi Nagar in the east, are already rolling out the red carpet for a new batch of candidates for one of the toughest exams in the country.
As one lot heads to the exam centre, thousands more are already being directed by street agents to the coaching centre "that is best for you".
The walls in Mukherjee Nagar are pasted with pink and white flyers, and piles of study material have encroached upon the sidewalks. Overhead, hoardings with life-size pictures of "success gurus" have been put up, portraying them as "Messiahs" who conjure up toppers every year.
"Study where toppers did - English special R Ranjan Sir", reads one hoarding. There are many others -- Sujit Sir, Pandey Sir and Vaid Sir.
"Sabko lagta hai coaching institutes ke pass vitamin hai (Everybody thinks the coaching centres have a tonic)," says Shashi Bhushan Chaubey, owner of Atul Photostat, a one-stop shop for all kinds of study material.
According to Chaubey, there was only one coaching institute in the area about 10 years ago and now there are over 500. The fees can shoot up to Rs 2 lakh for the course, averaging about seven to nine months, in the best rated institutes.
Chaubey, 44, came to the capital in 2001 from Aurangabad in Bihar. Before opening his shop in 2009, he made four attempts to clear the Indian Administrative Service examination but failed.
"I worked really hard and even made it till the interview round in 2005 but could not make the final cut," he says pensively.
He is on the fringes of a tough business, as competitive perhaps as the exam itself. Earlier this month, for instance, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) announced the results for 2016-17 after conducting the gruelling three-stage test.
Within hours, question-answer site Quora was flooded with questions about topper Nandini K R. Where did she go for UPSC coaching? Did she take coaching at all? What is her secret?
Her name soon popped up on the website of a leading coaching institute, but Nandini denies taking classes there.
"I only gave a mock interview. That's it. In 2012, one of my friends got my name registered, but I never attended any class. I do not even have full details," Nandini told PTI.
The names of other toppers, Anmol Sher Singh Bedi (Rank 2), Anand Vardhan (7), and Shweta Chauhan (8) are displayed on multiple coaching sites, with a few pictures of registration forms and hand-written "thank you" notes thrown in for good measure.
The coaching doesn’t always work, and the centres don’t always live up to the promise they make, as 26-year-old Govind Singh from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh will testify.
"People who crack prelims and mains do not want to fail in the last leg of the exam, which is the interview round.
"They join multiple coaching institutes for mock interview tests to better their chances. If one tops, all the coaching institutes claim credit for her/his success," Singh, who took full-time IAS coaching last year, explains.
He has decided to skip the exam this year.
"I could not prepare well because I relied completely on my coaching institute that did nothing beyond dictating old and overused notes."
He is not the only one.
Every year, 40-50 per cent of aspirants skip the exam, some even after downloading their admit cards. For Rajiv Kumar, 29, who has been studying 12-14 hours a day for a fourth attempt, the civil services are the only way to overcome social and economic barriers.
"I took coaching only for my optional paper, that too from a small institute. I do not have lakhs to spend," Kumar, who belongs to Nalanda in Bihar, says.
The civil services are indeed tough to crack with the success rate a meagre 0.3 per cent, and the chance of becoming an IAS officer as low as 0.04 per cent.
In contrast, the number of successful candidates this year claimed by the top three coaching institutes in Delhi adds up to 80 per cent of the 1,209 applicants who cleared the UPSC.
Advertising watchdog Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) has pulled up many institutes several times for their "unsubstantiated" claims and for violating the guidelines for advertising.
"The problem is that there is no authentic account of the scale and functioning of this market," says Anand Vardhan, who runs a coaching centre.
Notwithstanding the widespread scepticism about coaching institutes, aspirants continue to queue up outside their doors, willingly and knowingly coughing up lakhs of rupees.
"A white Ambassador car and a lal-batti are something to kill for," says Priya Bhardwaj.
The 27-year-old Delhi girl quit her PR job to prepare for the exam and last year joined a leading coaching institute.
"It was of no use. The class was too huge. I stopped going there after a month."
Her faith in the coaching system may have been shattered, but she continues to hope for the lal batti and the Ambassador.