By Sabareesh Gopala Pillai

Vice-President Hamid Ansari with the Indian Administrative Service probationers for 2010. Image above is from the website of the Press Information Bureau.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari with the Indian Administrative Service probationers for 2010.
Image above is from the website of the Press Information Bureau.

There was opposition from various quarters to some of the major changes to the Civil Services Examination (“CSE”) announced in a recent Union Public Service Commission (“UPSC”) notification. Protests in Parliament were vocal and the Centre acted quickly to place the notification in abeyance.

The CSE comprises the preliminary — objective-type — examination for the selection of candidates for the main examination, and the main — written and interview — examination for the selection of candidates for the various services and posts under the UPSC. The first, known as the Civil Services Aptitude Test (“CSAT”), consists of two papers of multiple choice questions for a maximum of four hundred marks. This examination is meant to serve as a screening test since the marks obtained in the CSAT by candidates who qualify for the main examination, are not counted for determining their final order of merit.

The main examination consists of a written examination and an interview test. Until the notification came about, the written examination consisted of nine papers of conventional essay-type questions that could be attempted in any language listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India. These included two General Studies papers common to all candidates, two papers based on two subjects each that had to be chosen from a list of subjects provided by the UPSC, a general essay paper, and two qualifying papers of English and a language to be chosen from the list that consists of thirty Indian and other languages. Apart from the compulsory language papers that would not matter to the final rank of the candidates as they merely served the purpose of qualification, the seven other papers were worth three hundred marks each.

Candidates, who obtain a certain minimum mark in the written examination, are called by the UPSC for an interview, which also carries three hundred marks. Marks obtained by the candidates in the main examination (written and interview parts) would determine their final ranking. Candidates will then be allotted to the various services keeping in view their ranks in the examination and the preferences expressed by them.

One of the most significant changes in the recent notification was the introduction of English as a compulsory paper worth one hundred marks. Previously, English had merely been a qualifying paper without any weightage in terms of marks. The move has been seen as an acceptance of the fact that basic proficiency in English was an essential skill to govern in a modern day bureaucracy. In Parliament however, emotionally charged slogans such as “Angrezi me kaam na hoga, Phir se desh ghulaam na hoga” (“There will be no work in English; the country will not be a slave again”) were raised.

Secondly, the notification introduced a new condition for candidates who wanted to choose a regional language other than Hindi as their language of taking the examination and for candidates who wanted to choose a regional literature subject among their optional papers. The condition was that the candidate must have graduated in the study of that language. As part of these proposals, the number of optional papers was also reduced to one. They also introduced a new condition that for a candidate to be able to choose a subject of regional literature as an optional subject, at least twenty-five people should have made the same choice. This provision appears bizarre since it decides a candidate’s fate on the basis of how other people choose their language of examination.

The UPSC seems to have been motivated by the desire to create a level playing field and to respond to a tendency among candidates to flock together on regional literature papers because of the perception that the evaluation of those papers would be more liberal since the evaluator would be a person from the same state as the candidate. An overwhelmingly large percentage of students choosing regional literature as their optional paper come out successful every year. Further evidence that the UPSC was motivated by similar reasons can also be observed in the removal of Pali from the list of optional subjects in light of the proliferation of coaching institutes that have “manufactured” successful candidates after offering month-long courses in the optional language subject of Pali. Further, subject experts such as a professor of psychology may not be comfortable evaluating papers in some regional languages and this would set different standards even among candidates who have chosen the same optional subjects.

The academic fraternity and rights organisations have argued that the new pattern “systematically discriminates against candidates who use Indian languages either as medium of examination or as a subject” and that “this decision is not just unjust and unfair, it goes against the spirit of democracy and swaraj that inform our republic.” On the other hand, some senior civil servants wholeheartedly welcomed the UPSC’s reforms, stating that it was necessary to recruit people who can structurally fit into a bureaucracy that has constant interaction with not only different parts of India but also the rest of the world. English is a great unifying force among people from different parts of the country and even overseas. The Common Aptitude Test conducted for admissions to the IIMs, where English is given about one-third weightage, was a commonly cited example. The Bank Probationary Officers Examination, which recruits people to public sector banks, also gives English prominence. English would be a very vital skill for future bureaucrats in many Central services.

It needs to be noted however, that the CSE not only includes the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, and the Indian Foreign Service, but about twenty other Central services from Revenue to Railways. Some of them, like the Indian Foreign Service, would definitely require people who are good at English, but in others like the Indian Police Service, that would not be a necessary criterion. Separate examinations would probably be an innovative solution in the current context.

As the premier recruiting agency of the Government, the UPSC faces the fundamental dilemma of choosing between two direct beneficiaries of its policy decisions. On the one hand, the Commission should consider the changing needs of an old bureaucratic apparatus that is under pressure to change and perform differently in a globalising world. On the other hand, it is much more than a corporate manpower consultant. It is a constitutional body working under a democratic government. The genuine aspirations of the young adult population, speaking different languages and belonging to a wide and varied spectrum of society should also be considered. In the long run, even though one compulsion here would ultimately feed the other, justice would not be done to a large section. There is also the risk of alignment of the social profile of future bureaucrats in favour of the current elite. Perhaps we can hope that when our democracy becomes more advanced and the majority of our young adult population and not just the urban middle class, become equally proficient in the qualities acceptable to ideas of modern day global governance, the demand that such changes are essential for the Indian civil services, would have a wider appeal.