Sixty-four years after the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) conducted the first competitive examination for recruiting civil servants, we now witness the shameful spectacle of potential public servants making a bonfire of question papers on the street, breaking prohibitory orders before Parliament House and indulging in rioting to the point of getting arrested and jailed. There have been two main refrains.
First, the Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT), introduced in 2011, is unfair to rural and Hindi-medium aspirants, besides being skewed in favour of those having an English-speaking background.
Second, the CSAT fails to evaluate the functional competence of future civil servants and should therefore be scrapped. That a relatively small section of the examinees has been dictating what should be done to restructure the examination and their ultimatums have been receiving serious attention, is perhaps unheard of in the annals of the UPSC — a highly respected constitutionally established institution.
Watch: Decision on CSAT will be balanced says Jitendra Singh
Each year some 300,000 candidates appear for the combined competitive examination. The final success rate is 0.3% of the total applicants and is related to the number of vacancies that the government asks the commission to fill.
About 15,000 candidates are screened through a two-part qualifying examination. Thereafter, on the basis of a rigorous written examination, around 3,000 candidates are called for the interview. The merit list is declared after the marks obtained in the interview and the written examination are totalled.
Interestingly the cause of friction emanates not from the structure or content of the main examination but is purely the CSAT. The test examines the candidates’ interpersonal skills, communication, analytical and problem-solving abilities, basic numeracy, data interpretation and comprehension of the English language (at Class 10 level).
Hindi translation is provided for 90% of the questions, and the statement that the CSAT is anti-Hindi is clearly far-fetched. While the quality of translation needs improvement, junking the entire paper because of a few badly translated questions is preposterous.
What is inexplicable is why the CSAT did not create even the slightest ripple in the three previous years it has been a part of the examination. Was the reckless February 2014 decision to give two more chances to civil services aspirants (in a bid to placate yet another vote-bank) responsible for opening this Pandora’s box?
Interestingly, there is no conflict with the other ‘General Studies’ preliminary paper that tests the candidates’ knowledge of current events, Indian history, the Indian national movement, the Indian polity and governance, economic and social developments including environment and general science. The reason could be that all this can be absorbed from books and coaching classes whereas the CSAT is unpredictable.
I spoke to some among those that had successfully cleared the 2011, 2012 and 2013 examinations, which included the CSAT. They were unanimous in their appreciation of the aptitude test because “it provided a level playing field at the preliminary stage”. More importantly, it introduced elements that could not be crammed from books or scooped up from coaching centres.
That brings one to the related question of rural-urban bias and English proficiency. Here the facts given on the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration’s website are illuminating. Each year on average 15-20% of the successful candidates are women and they come predominantly (up to 90%) from urban areas.
However, among male probationers, the proportion of urban to rural probationers ranges from 65% urban to 35% rural; this picture had not altered after the CSAT was introduced. If one looks at the last three years, the lowest intake of rural entrants was 31%.
The rural-background entrants follow generally a trajectory that is quite impressive. After attending a district or even block-level school successful students move to the state capital for high school and college education, boarding with relatives or in hostels.
Probationers from the Hindi medium had this to say: Despite having attended Hindi or vernacular-medium schools and being permitted to write in Hindi or a regional language, they realised the need to attain English proficiency at the earliest. This is because the civil service examination demands an understanding of national and international developments, which are not analysed in depth by Hindi and regional newspapers.
The main examination papers in subjects like geography or economics also require conversance with latest expert report findings, which too are accessible only on the Internet — again in English. Finally to hold one’s own during discussion having a nuanced understanding of English helps enormously.
The notion that all rural candidates opted for Hindi medium was erroneous; the data shows that around 85% candidates, including those from rural backgrounds, have consistently opted to write in English.
This analysis shows that while one may criticise the need for dependency on English, the fact remains that until an alternative is available more than a working knowledge of English would continue to be needed — not because of a colonial hangover or an elitist bias but simply because at the present stage of development Hindi and regional analysis simply cannot provide the broad-based understanding an aspirant to the civil services must perforce attain.
Raising the hopes of disgruntled coaching-class inspired aspirants has dangerous implications for the quality of future civil servants. One hopes appeasement does not again take place, diluting the rigour of one of the world’s most admired examination systems.
Shailaja Chandra is a former secretary to the Government of India and former chief secretary, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal