The protests against the introduction of an aptitude test in the civil services preliminary examination, fanned by political parties and, some claim, by coaching centres, continue, in spite of the Central government announcement that marks awarded for questions testing English comprehension will not be added to the final tally. The latest demand of various regional parties is to conduct the “prelims” in all the regional languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. But the agitating students want the CSAT to be scrapped altogether as they feel that it is weighed in favour of both urban and science/ technology students.
Spokespersons for various opposition parties have demand that the civil services examination be entirely language neutral, implying that it should be conducted in all scheduled languages.
It is not clear what the UPSC plans to do now. One would appreciate it if it would come out and explain the implications of the acceptance and implementation of the many demands, specially from the point of view of its ability to conduct a fair, equitable and confidential examination. Apparently, the objective of introducing the CSAT was to test the aptitude, power of reasoning and quantitative and linguistic skills of the candidates with a view to shortlisting the best among them for the main examination. It cannot be anybody’s case that the aptitude and sensitivity of the candidates and their abilities of comprehension, analysis, decision-making and computation should not be tested. These very candidates, once selected, would, after some training, hold independent and often statutory posts, which would require them to lead large teams of civil servants and make quick decisions.
The prelims consist of two papers: general studies and the CSAT. The latter was introduced after much deliberation, in place of an optional paper, as it was felt that the analytical ability of candidates should be tested at the initial stage itself.
The level of testing in the CSAT is of Class 10. Surely, the people of India deserve to employ civil servants with the cognitive and analytical skills of school graduates? Just as the defence forces require recruits to have a certain level of physical fitness, the civil services require a minimum level of intellectual ability. The objection against the CSAT is patently unreasonable, motivated by vested interests and not in the public interest. The argument that it is disproportionately tilted in favour of urban and science/ engineering students is also spurious because everyone learns the same subjects up to Class 10 in our schools. Even if teaching standards in rural areas are not as good as in urban areas, it cannot be anybody’s case that we should, therefore, test candidates at sub-Class 10 skill levels, unless we are arguing for some kind of reservation for rural candidates. The agitators and their promoters should not forget that ever since this paper was first introduced in 2011, a large number of SC, ST and OBC candidates, mostly from disadvantaged rural backgrounds, have taken the examination and been recruited for 50 per cent of the posts. There is simply no case for scrapping the CSAT.
Some knowledge of English is necessary for almost all kinds of jobs these days. Thousands of young men and women learn English to work in call centres. Nobody can argue that they are all from well to do backgrounds. Which income tax, customs, IAS or IFS officer can hope to discharge her duties without knowing some amount of English? It is disingenuous to argue that they can learn English after they are recruited.
As far as the demand that the prelims be held in all scheduled languages is concerned, it is not impossible to set questions in all the 22 languages, if that would help. Since the questions are objective, evaluation should not be a challenge as this is done digitally. Setting the questions and translating passages into different languages without losing the nuances of the original will pose problems, though this is not insurmountable.
I was born and brought up in a remote village in Odisha in the 1950s and 1960s, as were several of those who wrote the examination and eventually joined the civil services. I came from a very ordinary middle class family without any political connections. If the UPSC had not provided the level playing field that it always has, many like me would have ended up as schoolteachers, college lecturers or clerks in some government office. We should preserve this image of the UPSC and not tarnish it just because some candidates imagine the playing field is uneven.
The writer is former secretary, DoPT, and a former CIC