Civil Services

Frustrating change

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Civil services candidates protesting in New Delhi on August 17. Photo: sushil kumar verma

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with civil services candidates who were demonstrating outside the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on December 12. Photo: PTI

Changes introduced by the UPSC in the civil services main examination at short notice frustrate the hopes of lakhs of candidates and put them on the warpath.

THE Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has a knack of rubbing the aspirants for its elite services such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS) the wrong way. Its decision to introduce major changes in the format of the civil services main examination in 2013, without giving the candidates adequate time to either understand the changes or prepare for them, has left lakhs of them frustrated. Since October 2013, civil services aspirants across the country have taken to the streets protesting against the “arbitrary manner” in which the changes were introduced. They are demanding that all categories of students caught in the transition be allowed three fresh attempts along with three years age relaxation. On December 9, they staged a protest in front of the Parliament building and even managed to enter the complex as the winter session was on.

The aspirants have been active on the Internet and social media sites too. The homepage of calls upon volunteers to “fight injustice against UPSC Civil Service aspirants”. Fightupsc is on Facebook and Twitter as well, taking the issue to the public sphere.

The UPSC has not responded to the students’ pleas, while the government has pleaded helplessness in the matter despite being aware of the enormity of the situation. “Yes, we are aware of the students’ agitation. Many representations have come to us and we have forwarded them to the commission. But the UPSC is an autonomous institution and we cannot direct them. The UPSC has introduced the changes based on the recommendations of an experts committee and it is for the UPSC Chairman to take a decision. We cannot take this decision. The government will follow the decision which the UPSC takes,” said V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State for Personnel and Training. The UPSC, however, does not even consider the changes major despite the fact that 57 per cent of the course content for the examination has changed.

The changes announced by the UPSC are extensive. To be fair to the students, the commission should have introduced them one year after making the announcement. It should have simultaneously announced age/attempt relaxation for those who were caught in the transition, especially those students for whom it was the last attempt.

The aspirants said the changes introduced in the preliminary examination since 2011 had marginalised the rural, non-English-speaking lot from the competition and that the latest changes in the format of the main examination would push them out of the competitive examination further. Citing data obtained from the website of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the aspirants claimed that the introduction of the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) format for the preliminary examination had resulted in skewed representation of candidates with non-technical and non-English-speaking backgrounds. The data show that fewer students with humanities degrees are now clearing the examination compared with those with an engineering background. Also, candidates who write the examination in Indian languages, including Hindi, get eliminated from the competition.

For example, while until 2010, the percentage of students with arts background passing the civil services examination used to be more or less equal to those with an engineering background (in the vicinity of 28 to 30 per cent), the situation changed in 2011 when the CSAT was introduced. In 2011, the percentage of students with arts background who qualified for the examination declined to 15.38 per cent, while those with an engineering background went up to 49.7 per cent.

The figures also showed that the new format was oriented towards the English-speaking, urban candidates. While in 2010, 4,156 candidates with Hindi as their medium of examination qualified for the main examination, in 2011, only 1,682 candidates who took the examination in Hindi qualified. Similarly, the percentage of candidates with Telugu as their medium declined from 69 in 2010 to 29 in 2011; those of Tamil medium candidates from 38 to 14; and those writing the examination in Kannada from 38 to five. The rural-urban divide sharpened. Post-CSAT, a study by the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration showed that the number of candidates with an urban background had gone up substantially while those from rural areas had become fewer.

Given this statistics, the candidates appear justified in their agitation. “We are being denied the right to equality. The changes brought about by the UPSC are resulting in making the civil services even more elite than they were during British times,” said Sunil Singh, an aspirant who has been in the forefront of the agitation.

Language controversy

It may be recalled that the UPSC was at the centre of a controversy in March 2013 after it made significant changes in the format of the main examination. On March 5, 2013, the commission issued a notification about the introduction of major changes in the examination. The most important change was making the English language paper competitive while it was meant only for qualification until then. This provoked an uproar both inside and outside Parliament, and the government was forced to backtrack and the UPSC issued fresh notification that the marks scored in English would not be taken into account for preparing the merit list. The government was also forced to drop the proposal which sought to bar candidates from writing the examination in an Indian language if the number of students taking the examination in that language was fewer than 25. In such an event, the students were supposed to write the examination in either English or Hindi. This, too, was opposed vehemently by many leaders, especially those from non-Hindi-speaking States, and the government dropped this plan as well. Yet another change, which sought to bar candidates from taking an Indian language paper as one of their optional papers if they had not studied in that language up to graduation level, was also dropped.

The UPSC, however, retained the other changes, which included giving increased weightage to the general studies paper and having only one optional subject of two papers, instead of two optional subjects unlike earlier. Significantly, general studies was the most important subject in the civil services main examination as opposed to the optional subjects. This was one of the main recommendations of the Y.K. Alagh Committee (2001), which had examined the issue in detail. The aim of this was also to reduce the undue advantage that a candidate would have from the “so-called” highly scoring subjects taken as optional papers.

Scoring well in the general studies papers is now imperative to qualify and get a high rank in the civil services examination. The syllabus of the four general studies papers shows that the commission expects a civil services aspirant to be widely read. Studying by rote and memorising facts, as was the case earlier with optional subjects to some extent, would not be sufficient, experts said.

According to them, for scoring well in the general studies papers, one has to be conversant with the history and culture of the country, geography, international economics and political relations, and developments in the field of technology and the implications thereof in diverse fields ranging from agriculture and animal husbandry to industry. Environmental issues, environmental impact assessment, concepts and means of attaining sustainable development, and natural hazards, also figure prominently in the syllabus. The candidates are expected to have an understanding of ethics, which implicitly requires an understanding of social and legal issues. The new system requires the students to have analytical skills and the ability to take a position on controversial issues instead of merely possessing information.

Interestingly, Arun S. Nigavekar, former Chairman of the University Grants Commission, who headed the panel set up to recommend the changes, said that the proposed format sought to judge a candidate’s ability to communicate. “The committee suggested an examination pattern that shall judge a candidate’s ability to communicate effectively, be it in any language,” he told a news agency, adding that the issue of language was not in the committee’s “terms of reference”.

He said the committee underlined the qualities a 21st century civil servant should possess to deal with the multidimensional challenges of the present-day world. “In our recommendations, we gave a broader and generic outline of the same,” he said.

The civil services examination has been evaluated continuously since the 1976 Kothari Committee recommendations, when a three-stage process—an objective-type preliminary examination consisting of an optional subject and a general studies paper, a main examination consisting of a series of written papers, and a personality test—was introduced.

A decade later, in 1989, the Satish Chandra Committee suggested the reintroduction of an essay paper and enhanced marks for the interview. This pattern continued until November-December 2013. The present changes are in keeping with the recommendations of the Alagh Committee which, recognising the need for changes in the pattern of examination, recommended reducing the importance of optional subjects.

The committee said: “The present testing of optional subjects is based on college/university curriculum. Re-examining the candidates in their own subjects appears to be of doubtful utility. The universities have already done the work…. What is important is the relevance of a subject to the job requirements of a civil servant, especially in the changing scenario.”

The committee had recommended that the optional subjects be dropped as they had no correlation with the present changes in the socio-economic and political structure of India.

Subsequently, the first set of changes in the preliminary examinations was introduced in 2011, which brought in the testing of aptitude and reasoning and comprehension skills, replacing the optional paper. The second Administrative Reforms Commission recommended that the aspirants have an attitude to serve the vast multitudes of the poor and the needy with great empathy. More so, they should consider it a service to the citizens rather than a favour.

While there is no disputing the fact that changes in the course and content of any competitive examination in keeping with the changing times are in the interest of all, the way the UPSC went about introducing them without keeping in mind the future of lakhs of aspirants is questionable. “Without going into the merits of the changes proposed, I certainly feel that the students’ demand for age/attempt relaxation is fully justified. I know some of them prepare for three or four years. For them it is a matter of their entire career, so they should have been given enough time. Either the changes should have come into effect a year later or now they could be given relief,” T.S.R. Subramaniam, former Cabinet Secretary, said.

Dr E.M.S. Natchiappan, Rajya Sabha member, on whose recommendations (as head of a parliamentary panel) the government introduced the CSAT format, is also of the opinion that the way the UPSC went about introducing the changes is objectionable. “Such major changes in the format of such an important examination should have been properly discussed with the stakeholders in a democratic manner. They should have been allowed sufficient time and sufficient notice to understand the implications. You cannot do this in an arbitrary manner,” he said.

The agitating civil services aspirants are determined to make the UPSC relent. “We will intensify the agitation and take it across India. We will organise rail-roko if need be,” Sunil Singh said. If this threat is carried out, there is big trouble in store for the United Progressive Alliance government because student unions of major universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, and many from south India have joined the protest.

Besides, many political parties are sympathetic towards the students’ demands and could extend their support to the agitation. “We will continue our agitation until the government listens to us. In March last year after the controversy about the English language paper broke out, the government intervened despite maintaining initially that the UPSC is an autonomous institution. It cannot ignore pressure from the public,” an agitating aspirant said.