Call for change

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

The parliamentary committee that looked into the functioning of the Union Public Service Commission suggests drastic changes.

in New Delhi

VERY soon, the gruelling, year-long exercise to get into the Civil Services, the most prestigious administrative jobs in India, could change for the better: the entire process could become shorter and more transparent. The Central government is likely to take up the task of reformatting the civil service examination on the basis of recommendations made in a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice. The 31-member committee headed by Dr. E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, which is looking into the functioning of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), has come across a number of petitions regarding the conduct of the civil service examination.

Some of the suggestions made by the committee are truly revolutionary in nature. For instance, the committee has suggested that the preliminary examination be patterned on the GMAT examination system, in the sense that the test could be held online and that candidates would get to know their marks immediately after writing the examination. The moment the cut-off marks are announced, candidates would know whether they have qualified or not. This would save them time and enable them to prepare for other things in case they have not qualified. This way, the gap between the preliminary and main examinations, which is six months at present, could be reduced to a few weeks, Natchiappan told Frontline.

He also said that the preliminary examination, which currently comprises two papers (General Studies and one optional subject), should have only one paper. This should be along the lines of the present General Studies paper but its scope could be widened to include topics about Indian culture, traditions, Indian history, and so on. The idea is to filter out the non-serious candidates and this can be done with one screening paper also, said Natchiappan.

The committee is also of the view that there needs to be more transparency in the functioning of the UPSC. There is no reason why they [the UPSC] should not tell [candidates] the individual marks as well as the cut-off marks, says Natchiappan. According to him, even the scaling formula, which the UPSC applies to bring parity among different subjects, should be made public as there is nothing sacrosanct about it.

The committee is also of the view that the model answer sheet should be made public by the UPSC so that candidates know where they stand. For the main examination also, the committee is of the opinion that all candidates should be told their individual scores and not just those who do not qualify, which is the case at present.

Though the UPSC appears so far to be against any change in the format of the civil service examination, the government seems to be more serious about making the changes this time than in the past because the parliamentary committee has been very insistent that they be made. Being representatives of the people, we cannot allow any institution to ignore the peoples interest, and we will ensure that the recommendations are implemented, if possible from this year itself, especially the transparency part, Natchiappan said.

S.N. Mishra, Secretary, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), said that the government would certainly consider the recommendations at the right time. As for the format of the examination, he said changing it would not be possible this year because the examination had already been notified, but certainly, if it is in the interest of people, we will take it up urgently and bring about the necessary statutory changes.

This, however, is easier said than done. Umpteen efforts by Frontline to elicit a response from the UPSC remained futile, all the more so because the top-most executive post of the institution, that of Secretary, has been lying vacant for a long time and there was nobody in the UPSC who would speak to the press.

But if past experience is any indication, it is going to be a tough job for the government to bring the UPSC round to implementing any changes in the system or making it transparent.

The reluctance of the UPSC to part with information is now being fought in court. The controversy started in August 2006 when a group of civil services aspirants, who formed a group called Transparency Seekers, approached the UPSC for their individual marks and for the cut-off marks in the preliminary examination. When the UPSC refused their request, the candidates appealed to the Central Information Commission (CIC) for the necessary information under the then newly enacted Right to Information Act (RTI).

On November 13, 2006, Wajahat Habibullah, the CIC, in his order, directed the UPSC to disclose within three weeks the marks obtained by the aggrieved candidates and also the cut-off marks for the successful candidates in each subject. If there were no cut-off marks, then the model answer sheets for each subject were to be made available to the candidates.

The UPSC, however, went to the Delhi High Court against the CIC order, saying that if the marks secured by the candidates were disclosed it could be misused by coaching institutes, and this would harm the interest of meritorious candidates.

The UPSC also pleaded that its scaling system was too sensitive to be disclosed in open court. This argument was, however, rejected by Justice B.D. Ahmad, who directed the UPSC on April 17, 2007, to disclose the marks obtained by the candidates and also put the model answer sheet on the Internet.

Justice Ahmad, in his order, said that the disclosures could not harm the interest of the UPSC or any third party and that the CIC order in this regard was in the correct perspective.

The UPSC appealed against this order on May 3, 2007, saying its examination pattern and the evaluation process would be irreparably damaged if it was forced to reveal the various components of the process such as individual scores, cut-off marks in each subject, and the grading and scaling system. In its petition, the UPSC also contended that if the marks were disclosed it would lead to a mushrooming of coaching institutes of interested groups of aspirants.

Disclosure of the information sought for has the real potential to cause serious damage to the examination system, said the petition. On May 22, 2007, a Division Bench comprising Chief Justice M.K. Sharma and Justice Sanjiv Khanna suspended Justice Ahmads order until July 30 and directed the Commission to place all the original records in a sealed cover before it. Since then, there has been a stay on the CIC order.

Interestingly, it is not only candidates that the UPSC has been ignoring; it has ignored its nodal Ministry too on various issues. The DoPT last year sought details about marks scored by general and reserved category candidates for the past four or five years, at least in the main examination and in the interview. The department had to furnish the details to the Prime Ministers Office, which had received a complaint from a reserved category candidate alleging bias in the interview board. Despite repeated reminders from the DoPT, the UPSC has not parted with the information yet.

The UPSC has also been ignoring previous parliamentary committees. Last year, when the Parliamentary Standing Committee tabled its report in Parliament on the sanction of grants, it took exception to the UPSCs failure to be represented before it.

The committee, in its report, said then that the UPSC, under the pretext of constitutional status, is trying to hide its inefficient working due to which many governmental organisations are headless for years together because the UPSC has not bothered to recommend the right candidates. Many institutes of the Department of Culture are examples of apathy of the UPSC. There are even instances when the UPSC recommended some names for appointment but when the process of appointment started, it withdrew its recommendations. The National Archives of India and even the premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, are suffering shortage of staff due to the apathy of the UPSC.

The report further said that the UPSC, being a constitutional body, should uphold high standards of transparency and accountability but strangely it was projecting itself as being above the law of the land and it did not want to disclose information under the RTI Act. It did not want to reveal how it was spending the public money given to it and was accountable to none. The committee noted that this attitude of the UPSC is reprehensible and falls within the purview of the breach of privilege of Parliament. It recommended that the government deliberate upon the situation at the highest level and take the necessary action to ensure that such a subversion against the democratic norms set forth by the Constitution did not recur. The committee is thus pitted against various odds. But Natchiappan remains confident of pushing the reforms through.

Terming the objections by the UPSC illogical, he says, Bureaucrats are typically programmed to resist any change, but we as peoples representatives have to ensure that what is good for the people is implemented.

This time I will ensure that as far as the transparency part is concerned, the UPSC does what is required this year itself, and then we will gradually take up other issues too.

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