UPSC CSAT: A civil war to get into the services

  • Gauri Kohli, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 07, 2016 19:30 IST
Lakhs of aspirants appeared for the civil services preliminary examination in 2015, which made news because of their demand for age relaxation. The next edition of CSAT will be held on August 7, 2016. (HT File)

A country’s progress is determined by good governance and the civil services exam is the first step to get in able candidates to the Indian Administrative Services. While there have been some major reforms in the last few years, a section of aspirants are re-emphasising the need for more attempts and age relaxation for the exam.

Last month, aspirants who started the #fightupsc campaign submitted a joint memorandum to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). More than 100 members of Parliament have supported their demand for three fresh attempts for all civil services exam aspirants who have appeared from 2011 to 2015.

At present, general category students get six attempts and the age limit is 32 years. Candidates from Other Backward Classes get seven attempts, while there is no limit for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes candidates.

Last year’s decision by the Central government to make the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) a qualifying paper in the UPSC exam came as a huge relief to lakhs of aspirants. The General Studies Paper-II in the Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination (CSAT) is now a qualifying paper with minimum qualifying marks fixed at 33%. This means that every student is required just pass this paper with the minimum 33% marks. These won’t be added to the final results of the preliminary exam.

Candidates have been campaigning for CSAT to be either scrapped or made a qualifying test so that students from rural/Indian languages and non-technical backgrounds are given an equal platform. The next edition of CSAT will be held on August 7, 2016.

Need for reforms?

But is there really a need for these changes? Should the government and the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) that conducts the exam give in again to the demands of the students?

Civil services aspirants say they have lost five years and five attempts (2011 to 2015) because of a “discriminatory CSAT paper”. The government has now virtually eliminated the CSAT paper by making it qualifying in nature, say aspirants.

According to Naresh Chandra, former cabinet secretary and Indian ambassador to the US, “CSAT should have been continued; maybe in a refined form, to recognise any genuine handicap of any section to a level that doesn’t dilute quality of screening and selection. There should be no age relaxation too. As it is, the age of entry for some categories of probationers/trainees is too high, thus reducing their trainability potential.”

Elaborating on the reforms needed in the civil services screening process, Chandra says, “The public interest requirement of getting the best talent into the civil services must remain the prime objective. Most successful candidates from a rural background have necessarily graduated from a university situated in an urban area. With technological advancements, the gap in having access to information/library books etc has narrowed considerably. Testing the intellectual capacity, and power to analyse issues and the ability to express views cogently are important criteria in addition to assessing the extent of knowledge of subjects pursued in university courses.”

A UPSC-appointed committee is mulling a proposal to reduce the upper age limit for appearing in the exam. BS Baswan, former education secretary, who is heading the current committee formed last August as part of an initiative by the Narendra Modi government to overhaul the civil services examination, says, “The committee is currently debating all these issues, collecting data and holding discussions with experts and some stakeholders. We can only respond with the details after our report comes in the public domain in August 2016, and it’ll then be examined by the UPSC and the ministry.”

Over the years, the upper age limit for candidates from general categories has gone up from 24 years in the 1960s to 32 years for the 2014 exam. “As it is, the field of candidates is unduly large. The age-span of trainees should not be too wide. We need not copy any other country on this,” says Chandra.

Humanities vs science students

Are humanities students and those from the rural background at a disadvantage when it comes to the civil services exam?

Chandra believes they are not. “A perfect solution is just not possible. Sometimes, it is said, things go the other way in marks awarded by different Indian language examiners. Those having better command of English do have an advantage, but then one has to make the extra effort to compete successfully. In a competitive examination, a candidate is competing with his peers. It’s not a case of a candidate versus UPSC,” he adds.

Shailaja Chandra, former chief secretary, Delhi government, says, “People from science background are bound to score much higher, have an edge.” Science subjects can help a candidate score high. “Humanities students are at a disadvantage because their scoring pattern doesn’t allow them to get very high scores. All students should be able to express themselves orally and in writing in a way which is direct and forthright.

Placing great reliance on a vernacular language is not a comedown in any way. However, you will not be able to manage in the long run if you don’t know any English. Official communications in writing have to be done in the official language of the country which happens to be English in case of the Central government. It may vary at the state level.”

Reacting to students’ claims of a “discriminatory CSAT paper,” Shailaja Chandra says, “The CSAT was introduced after considerable thought. It is essential to give equal opportunity to every individual who is eligible to sit for the exam. But equal opportunity does not mean you water down the common denominator to such a level that you get a large number of candidates qualifying the preliminary exam who are later found completely unsuitable when they appear for the main papers. It just adds to administrative costs and raises hopes and aspirations, which is avoidable. Knowing fully well that about 0.3% of the people who sit for the exam actually qualify, if the screening process is made simpler, there would be a tendency for far too many people to qualify.When they later fail to pass the mains it leads to frustration.”

However, says Shailaja Chandra, the CSAT has as an essential feature that requires a candidate to have good analytical skills. “It is true that people who are Hindi speaking or vernacular speaking may not be able to relate to analytical questions as in case of English speaking students because you do not come across these analytical questions so frequently in Hindi. Having an analytical test for students from such backgrounds can be a challenge,” she says.

The idea of the civil services exam is to very consciously find young people who can be moulded to take initiative, risks and show resourcefulness. “It is rare to find the same willingness, openness and confidence to take risks and ability to face challenges in older candidates,” she adds.

The government has already raised the age limit from 24 to 32 years. “If the government wants the best people serving the country then there’s no one better than young people because they know that they have long years ahead, they are able to give their best, they know that if they become secretaries to government and chief secretaries. They can also look forward to two tenures at the senior most level because age is on their side. Their level of involvement is much higher,” says Shailaja Chandra.

‘Need fewer attempts’

Brushing aside the demand for more attempts, Shailaja Chandra says, “If you really have the qualities to make the cut you will do so in the first couple of chances. Giving more than three attempts defeats the purpose because it is about finding the fittest in the fight for survival and such candidates can only be found when they are young with few educational qualifications, perseverance, general knowledge, ability to think analytically and do not just rote learning. These are some aspects which many attempts will not improve in a candidate. We must, in fact, lower the number of attempts.”

Sunil Kumar Singh, who has attempted the CSAT from 2011 to 2015 and has been in the forefront of the #fightupsc campaign, says, “Why do candidates need to be moulded? If you select the right people who have the right skill sets and mindset and are honest, do you need to mould them or transform them? That means there is no co-relation between who gets selected and what is expected from selected candidates.”

Read more: Civil service exams: one chance two many?

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