Hints of change

Print edition : March 26, 2010
In New Delhi

The Civil Services Preliminary examination in progress in Chennai; a May 2008 photograph.-R. RAGU

AFTER years of dithering, the Government of India has finally agreed to change the format of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) civil services examination. The present format had come under severe criticism from both members of the public as well as from parliamentary committees, and there had been tremendous pressure on the government to review it. Its shortcomings, which have come to light following queries made under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, warranted urgent action.

To begin with, the Preliminary examination, which consists of general studies and optional papers, may be replaced with an aptitude test, to be called the Civil Services Aptitude Test. The test will comprise two objective-type papers, which will be common for all candidates appearing for the examination. A proposal to this effect has received the Union governments approval.

Confirming this, Shantanu Consul, Secretary, Department of Personnel, Government of India, told this correspondent that the proposed changes would come into effect next year as the notification for this years examination had already come out. Refusing to disclose any other details about the new format, he said it was the prerogative of the UPSC, which conducted the examination, to notify the changes.

A senior UPSC official said that some letter from the government regarding proposed changes in the system of civil services examination had indeed been received, but the exact nature of the changes approved cannot be disclosed yet. But going by the speech of the UPSC Chairman, Prof. D.P. Agrawal, on the occasion of UPSC Foundation Day celebrations last year, there will be a change in the Preliminary examination format, a review of the contents of the Main examination by an expert committee, a lowering of the age limit for entry into the services, and a reduction in the number of attempts.

In his speech, Agrawal said that the UPSC had been endeavouring to develop a recruitment system that tested the aptitude and competency of candidates for an increasingly specialised public administration while ensuring social justice and adequate representation for all sections so that the government became more inclusive and participatory.

D.P. Agrawal, Chairman of the UPSC.-M. MOORTHY

In this connection, he said: One of the recommendations made by the Commission to the government is that a Civil Services Aptitude Test replace the existing Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination. The proposal is to have two objective-type papers that are common to all candidates.

Explaining why this was needed, he said: The emphasis is on testing the aptitude of the candidate for the demanding life in the civil services as well as on ethical and moral dimensions of decision-making. The proposed scheme will also provide a level playing field and equity since all candidates will have to attempt common papers. He said the Commission wanted the Main examination to remain the same until an expert committee appointed by the Commission went into various aspects of it.

Regarding the lowering of the age limit for entry into the civil services, he said it was desirable but cautioned that such a decision could affect the interests of rural candidates, who often complete their graduation later than their urban counterparts.

Besides, he said, the number of attempts four at present should be reduced. A reduction in the number of attempts allowed at the examination is, however, called for so as to remove the premium on cramming and memorisation that a large number of attempts provides.

He said a natural corollary of these proposed modifications was the need to ensure that the performance of the officers selected through the examination was tracked, particularly during the initial years.

Other than direct recruitment, another mode of entry into the civil services is by promotion from State services. At present, this is done on the basis of annual confidential reports prepared through selection committee meetings. The Commission proposes to make changes in the promotion quota by introducing a three-tier recruitment process that involves a limited competitive examination, interview and assessment of service record. This would have the salutary effect of encouraging competition and privileging merit. The States will also benefit from the scheme. Such a system could, in time, be extended to promotions within the Central services as well, the Chairman said.

If all of these proposals are put into effect, this will have a major impact on the system of recruitment for the civil services. Over a million applications come to the UPSC for its 14 regular examinations and also other recruitments it conducts every year. On the basis of the tests, the Commission recommends the appointment of about 5,000 officers to various services. In addition, it deals with the promotion of 600 Central service officers and the induction of about 300 officers from the State services to the all India services. In such a mammoth exercise, it is only natural that grievances arise. Until recently, complaints against the UPSC failed to get highlighted. But now, with the RTI Act in place, more and more complaints, especially about irregularities, are coming to light, and the government will have to deal with them sooner or later.

The UPSC headquarters in New Delhi.-R.V. MOORTHY

One frequently voiced complaint is regarding the system of evaluation of answer papers and the scaling\moderation formula applied by the UPSC to remove inter-subject and inter-examiner variability. There is no transparency about how this is achieved. The refusal of the UPSC to disclose model answers and cut-off marks for various subjects or how it brings parity among subjects as varied as Pali literature and mechanical engineering or medical science and Dogri literature has made the selection process suspect. The UPSC itself has admitted that there is no standard system to evaluate subjects as diverse as Marathi literature and animal husbandry.

Repeated petitions of applicants in various courts and with the Central Information Commission (CIC) have yielded no results. According to experts, the opaqueness has given rise to serious doubts about the credibility of the entire selection process. The parliamentary standing committee headed by Rajya Sabha member E.M.S. Natchiappan in 2008 had questioned the refusal to disclose cut-off marks as well as the scaling/moderation formula used to bring parity. The committee, while studying the demands for grant by the UPSC, had looked into the functioning of the Commission and come across a horde of complaints by members of the public. Though the committee failed to elicit an explanation from the UPSC, it did manage to push the UPSC into reviewing the examination format to some extent.

I fail to understand what is so sacrosanct about the scaling/moderation formula that the UPSC refuses to disclose it. This disclosure will make their system all the more credible as students will know exactly where they stand and why, said Natchiappan.

Strengthening the doubts about its evaluation process is the UPSCs own stand on the issue. In reply to a petition in the CIC by an applicant seeking disclosure of the cut-off marks, the scaling formula and model answers, vide appeal no. CIC/WB/A/2007/00694 of 2008, the UPSC said that the Commission did not maintain any model answers for descriptive papers, that the evaluation methodology adopted by the examiners were purely informal and were not maintained in the UPSCs records, that no instruction sheets as an alternative to model answers were maintained, and only general instructions common to all subjects for marking scripts and which referred to general issues/standards/precautions to be followed during the evaluation process were sent to the examiners. According to the UPSC, these general instructions are secret and their disclosure will lead to a deleterious effect on the system/procedure being followed that has proved to be time-tested.

What, however, raises a question mark over the UPSCs time-tested claim is the fact that even randomisation of roll numbers by the UPSC, which is a basic computer-based function with no scope for any mistake as the applications are computer-readable, has been found to be faulty.

In another RTI query, it has been brought to light that almost every year since 2003 the total number of candidates as per the roll numbers allotted is more than the total number of those who applied. According to a reply filed by the UPSC (No.9\7\2007-EIII), the total number of applicants in the 2003 Civil Services Preliminary examination was 3,16,495; the first roll number allotted was obviously 000001 but the last roll number was 316587, meaning thereby that 92 was the difference in those who applied and those who got their roll numbers. Similarly, 3,49,025 candidates applied for the Preliminary examination in 2004, but the last roll number allotted was 349464, which is 439 more. In 2005, the difference was 172, and in 2006, it was as huge as 7,867. In a letter written on May 31, 2008, again in reply to an RTI query, the UPSC explained the difference in the roll numbers and the total number of those who applied thus: It is informed that roll numbers are allotted randomly and due to transfer of mix-up of applications of other examinations, the number of total candidates applied may not match with that of the last roll number.

When such incongruous mistakes come up in even its basic functioning, it is natural that doubts will be raised about more complicated procedures such as the scaling/moderation of marks or the methodology of evaluation. But so far these subjects have been treated like a holy cow both by the UPSC and by the Government of India, and this has resulted in a plethora of writ petitions in various courts. At least six such petitions are pending in the Delhi High Court.

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