Civil Services

Language of reason

Print edition : April 19, 2013

A protest in front of the Union Public Service Commission office in New Delhi on March 11 against the changes proposed in the scheme of the civil services examination. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

A civil services (preliminary) examination in progress at a centre in Bangalore, a file photograph. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The government abandons the controversial changes proposed in the scheme of the civil services examination.

AFTER about a fortnight of sparring both inside and outside Parliament, the government decided on March 21 to drop some of the proposed changes in the scheme of the civil services main examination for recruitment to elite services such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS), among other Central government services.

The most significant of these changes relates to the English language paper, which was earlier of a qualifying nature but was proposed to be made competitive by considering the marks obtained in it to prepare the merit list.

The proposed changes also sought to bar candidates from writing the examination in an Indian language if there were fewer than 25 of them taking the exam in that language. In such a case, they had to write the examination in either English or Hindi. Many leaders, especially those from non-Hindi-speaking States, opposed this vehemently. Candidates were also proposed to be barred from taking an Indian language paper as one of the optional papers if they had not studied in that language up to the graduation level. All these proposals, which had been announced in a notification on March 5, have now been dropped. Candidates can now write the exam in any language medium listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and can also opt for the literature of any language in that Schedule as an optional paper.

According to the fresh notification, the marks scored in English will not be counted for preparing the merit list. The proposal attracted much controversy as several Chief Ministers and Members of Parliament said it discriminated against candidates from rural areas and non-Hindi or non-English educational backgrounds. Especially, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M. Karunanidhi took strong objection to it. Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Narendra Modi, Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat respectively, also objected to these changes and wrote to the Prime Minister for their removal.

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), which conducts the civil services examination, however, has retained the other changes proposed, which include giving increased weightage to the general studies paper and having only one optional subject of two papers (instead of two optional subjects earlier). The total marks in the main exam will now be 1,750: four papers of general studies (1,000), two papers of an optional subject (500), and an essay paper (250).

Y.K. Alagh Committee

According to the amendment, the English component (100 marks) from the essay paper will be dropped, and the two qualifying papers of 300 marks each in any modern Indian language and in English, as in previous years, will be restored. The essay paper, of 250 marks, can be written in a medium/language of the candidate’s choice. Significantly, the general studies paper now gets great importance in the civil services main examination instead of the optional subjects unlike earlier. This had been one of the main features of the recommendations of the Y.K. Alagh Committee, which had examined the issue in detail.

The aim of this is also to reduce the undue advantage that a candidate would have from the “highly scoring” subjects taken as optional papers. Scoring well in the general studies papers is now imperative to qualify finally and get a high rank in the civil services examination. The syllabus of the four general studies papers indicates that the commission expects a civil services aspirant to be widely read. In short, learning by rote, as was the case earlier with optional subjects, will just not be sufficient.

In order to score well in general studies papers, experts say, one will have to be conversant with the history and culture of the country, geography, international economics and political relations, 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 candidate is also expected to have an understanding of ethics, which implicitly requires one to keep abreast of contemporary social and legal issues. The new system gives importance to analytical skills and the ability to take a position on controversial issues rather than to mere information possessed by an individual.

Communication ability

Interestingly, Arun S. Nigavekar, former Chairman of the University Grants Commission who headed the panel set up to recommend the changes, said it had not emphasised any particular language but only 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 UPSC civil services examination has been under continuous evaluation since the Kothari Committee recommendations devised 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. A decade later, in 1989, the Satish Chandra Committee suggested the reintroduction of an essay paper and enhanced marks for the interview. This is the pattern that has continued until now.

The Alagh Committee was set up in 2001 recognising the need for the much-needed changes in the pattern of the examination. One of its recommendations was to reduce the importance of optional subjects. “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,” it said.

Subsequently, the first stage of changes in the preliminary examinations was introduced in 2011, which brought in tests of aptitude, reasoning and comprehension skills in lieu of the optional paper. The second Administrative Reforms Commission, which also examined the issue, recommended that the aspirants should have an attitude to serve the vast multitudes of the poor and the needy with great empathy. More so, they should consider discharging their functions as a service rather than as a favour, it said. In order to have a level playing field, the Alagh Committee, therefore, recommended that the optional subjects be removed as they had no correlation with the present changes in the social, economic and political structures of India.

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