English issue is a red herring

Behind the CSAT furore lie vested interests of the teaching shop industry.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Published:August 7, 2014 3:01 am
The CSAT was to be structured to test capabilities, and to argue that the test is against the poor is humbug. The CSAT was to be structured to test capabilities, and to argue that the test is against the poor is humbug.

Those who should know better are currently creating a lot of confusion over the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT). The findings of the committee on training and recruitment of the higher civil services, which I chaired and which produced the reforms in the early part of the last decade, were kept secret for many years. But then somebody put it up on the web and the government declassified it. So now we can speak the truth.

First, let’s have some facts. The present controversy is driven by the vested interests of the large teaching shop industry, which exploits the poor Indian families that fund the civil service aspirants. The committee I chaired had conducted a survey and found that, even in those days, that is, almost 15 years ago, an average of about Rs 1 lakh a year was spent on preparations for the exams. This cost was multiplied for repeaters. Poor children from rural backgrounds just fell by the wayside. The more affluent persisted as repeaters. It is being said that the CSAT leads to poor children from backward areas being discriminated against. In fact, the statistics show it was the earlier system that really damaged opportunities for poor children.

The furore over English is a complete red herring. The earlier system, which required candidates to write a long essay in English, was straight out of Macaulay’s dream of relegating Indians to minor babudom. The teaching shops had a great time selling model essays for cramming. But English is not our mother tongue; it is a global language for commerce and so on. So the committee’s recommendation that it should be treated as a foreign tongue and only tested as a working language upset both the Angrezi crowd and the teaching shops. Nobody has the courage to explain that fact as the netas hold forth. The Union Public Service Commission and the government must ensure that the English test remains as designed.

The committee’s findings had shown that a general knowledge test can and should test innate intelligence. Its conversations with eminent Indians, over the course of almost six months, and its detailed preparations are ignored. Tens of thousands of candidates apply for the civil services examination. Only a few hundred qualify and finally, even fewer are selected for the services. By the end of the process, the candidates chosen are among the best in the country in terms of intelligence. This intelligence or ability is not concentrated in urban areas or with candidates who follow one particular discipline. In fact, in those days, JNU students did better than IIT and IIM kids. 

The CSAT was to be structured to test capabilities, and to argue that the test is against the poor is humbug. If there is a question on how a mustard field can be distinguished from a paddy field, a rich, urban candidate will have no special advantage over a poor, rural candidate. The noise being generated currently is, once again, by the teaching shops, which will become redundant for such tests and by rich candidates who want to have an advantage over that poor candidate who is actually brilliant. Do not tell me that such brilliance does not exist. When I was vice chancellor of JNU, scholarship money was being cut by the government, in the name of the reform now called privatisation. We would all contribute towards the fees of that landless labourer’s daughter who had made the final thousand from the lakhs who had applied but couldn’t pay her hostel fees. \

Now, when I visit a particular district, the collector will often come to meet me. We discuss agriculture, the rains, the perniciousness of the sachivalaya. But if the collector is a JNU girl or boy, you can tell from a mile away. So it does matter where they come from.

I have the greatest respect for Parliament, for our governance systems and our democracy. But the authorities are being wrongly briefed on a matter of great importance to the Indian future. The world has great expectations from India, not only for the economic opportunities we offer but for the ideals of the freedom movement that we uphold. Let us not let them and ourselves down.

The writer is chancellor, Central University of Gujarat