The government has shown signs that it could consider rolling back some changes made to the civil services examination three years ago, by promising Parliament that it would not allow any bias against a language in the exam.
"The government is fully aware of the issue and is taking a sympathetic view of the same... there will be no bias allowed on the basis of language," minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office Jitendra Singh told the Lok Sabha.
The minister's statement has led to concerns that the civil services preliminary examinations scheduled for August 24 may have to be deferred. There may be need of a fresh notification if changes have to be made in the pattern of the examination.
A UPSC official has indicated that any change in the schedule of the exam will have a domino effect; delay in recruitment of the officers. This will create complications for the training academies as well.
"It (delay) will depend on the changes that the government decides to make to the pattern," he said, calling the fresh round of controversy "unfortunate". The immediate trigger for the government's rethink on the issue was a string of protests by aspirants from the Hindi belt in the last few weeks.
At the heart of the controversy is a set of reforms in the preliminary screening tests for civil services examination in 2011. In the original pattern, candidates had to appear in a general studies paper and could choose one of the 23 subjects for the objective type screening exam.
Since 2011, candidates are required to take general studies paper as in the past, but in place of the second subject paper, they had to take an aptitude test paper. The new paper included comprehension, logical reasoning and analytical ability, problem solving, data interpretation and English language comprehension skills. Many people argued that the new format was strikingly similar to management entrance exams that are tilted in favour of English-speaking urban candidates. It was a fair point.
The UPSC's internal research team too had come up with a similar feedback when it spoke aspirants who had cleared the 2011 exam.
It later told an expert panel that the changes had raised doubts about the competence of non-math background and non-English background candidates in taking this exam successfully. "The CSAT (civil services aptitude test) pattern is a bit advantageous to urban candidates," the research wing said.
However, officials point out how the UPSC had been receiving feedback over the years about problems faced due to officers who weren't well-versed in English. The new government was clearly sympathetic to the plight of candidates who come from modest background, an official said, convinced that this would be the right approach.
"I could hardly speak in English when I joined the IAS but have picked up over the years," he said, suggesting that English language courses for successful candidates – and not penalising those who do not have access to public schools – should have been the answer.