Concerns over age limits and number of chances for civil services are overblown
Transformative change is so difficult to achieve in practice that we often settle for piecemeal improvements. However, incremental reform, even if well-intentioned, is always dissatisfying and often counterproductive. The changes made to the scheme and structure of the civil services examination (CSE) between 2011 and 2013 squarely illustrate how even overdue improvements can have unintended consequences that act as a drag on the larger reform project. While the first change, in 2011, did not attract too much dissent since it modified only the qualifying preliminary examination scheme, last year’s changes led to more concerted protests as they affected the main examination stage, which actually counts when the final merit list for some of the most prized jobs in government is drawn up.
No one can deny that these jobs hold prestige and attraction for a large swathe of the aspirational Indian middle class. There is also anecdotal evidence that candidates spend many years preparing for the exam, and the inevitable rush to implement reform by modifying the examination pattern perhaps did not adequately account for the vehement social and political opposition that this could potentially draw from candidates and their well-wishers.
The clamour for “postponing” the effects of the reform received wide publicity, and last week, the Central government approved two additional attempts for all categories of candidates, with effect from 2014, and with consequential relaxation of the maximum age limit, if required. Now, a general category candidate can make six attempts at the examination between the ages of 21 and 32 (as counted on August 1 of the exam year).
Candidates belonging to other categories are allowed different and somewhat more relaxed upper age limits. It is now possible for a general candidate to enter service at the age of 33, while relaxed provisions in particular cases can theoretically allow a candidate pushing 40 to join as a civil service probationer (in CSE 2011, about 13 per cent of the successful candidates across all categories were above 30).
Individual — and perhaps even deserving — cases apart, the concern with age limits and number of chances is motivated first by fears about the “trainability” of older qualifying candidates. For example, a report of the second administrative reforms commission (ARC) held that around the age of 23-24, an individual makes the transition from an open and receptive phase in life to a phase where she gets “set” in her views, which “makes it difficult for a civil servant entering at a later age to adapt to and internalise the core and intrinsic values demanded of a civil service”.
More pragmatically, it has been argued that late entry impedes a civil servant from reaching the top of the pyramid (the grail of secretary to the government of India) since she has fewer years of experience to show in a merit-cum-seniority scheme, when it comes to the crunch (this is demonstrably more so for SC/ ST officers, some of whom may have entered at an even later age). It has been argued that this, in turn, discourages altruism and could even encourage the pursuit of self-aggrandisement and private profit.
On the other hand, the poor access of candidates from rural and backward areas and communities to educational facilities and infrastructure, in comparison with their urban counterparts, makes it necessary to offer countervailing relaxations in the interests of equity, diversity and representativeness. It is also certainly true that “late blossomers” (Kothari Committee, 1976) and others who wish to improve their credentials would be denied an opportunity to enter the civil service if the upper age limit were kept too low, as it was pre-1970s (24, for general category).
Without adequate data, the debate between these two positions is potentially endless. The ARC’s pragmatic recommendation was to adopt 25 as the upper age limit for general candidates, allowing a relaxation of three and four years for OBC and SC/ ST/ differently-abled candidates respectively. This was based on the need to avoid three undesirable outcomes of late entry: one, it works against the interests of the weaker sections in the long run; second, it does not enable recruitment of the best candidates at a “malleable age”; finally, it puts a premium on rote learning and coaching institutes.
What has been lost through the relaxation of the upper age limit and the increase in the number of chances is the opportunity to minimise these undesirable outcomes. In privileging the reform of examination content over process, and indeed, in even segregating the two and pushing one without due consideration for the impact this will have on the other, another opportunity to institute meaningful reform appears to have been wasted. CSE reform ought to have been an easy enough place to begin the arduous task of administrative reform. It turns out, on the contrary, that it is one of the hardest.
The writer is a civil servant and former joint secretary, UPSC. Views are personal.