Shabbir A. Bashir, an expert on Geography optional, has been teaching, mentoring, and guiding UPSC aspirants for more than twenty years. He talks about Geography optional — changing trends, benefits and challenges, books, answer writing skills and more which aspirants will find highly valuable.
Manas: There have been many changes in terms of trends and patterns in UPSC CSE syllabus and questions. Can you throw some light on how the Geography optional dynamics have changed in the recent past?
Shabbir Ahmed: UPSC CSE has become very dynamic in nature. I believe that the change in the Geography optional has been along the lines of the change in UPSC exam and nature itself.
Firstly, the UPSC Mains exam has transformed its nature from asking just straightforward questions to more analytical and applied questions. The syllabus earlier required limited readings but now an aspirant requires a wide reading range, understanding and introspection. Having said that, I must point out that this stands true for all GS papers and optional, not just Geography optional alone.
Secondly, Geography questions are more and more applied. Let us understand through an example. Earlier the questions were simply, “What are the major environmental disasters in the Himalayas?” or ” Write a note on volcanoes and plate tectonics.”
Now, the level of questions has advanced. A standard Geography optional question will be:
” Why do we have many landslides in the Himalayas and what can be done for landslide management in India?” or “In light of the recent volcanic eruptions, how do you explain volcanism and its frequent occurrence.”
These kinds of questions have current affairs news at their core. Maximum change is seen in Paper II of optional where questions are being framed on applied agriculture, applied land management, water crisis problems, biomedical hazards in India etc.
Thirdly, the syllabus comprises both static/ structural topics and deep/ analytical topics. However, since this optional is an old and popular subject, the questions around static/ structural topics are exhausted. Now the examiner is entering into tricky areas. Our observation of the changing trend has made us realise one other important aspect. The UPSC wants to test if you have read a subject with the standard and authentic sources or just kept yourself confined to coaching institutes notes, which are mostly cut copy paste. Analysing recent questions tells us that questions are being framed from between the lines of the standard books. Thus, my sincere advice to students will be to open the standard/ authentic books and make them their base of studies.
Manas: While selecting an optional an aspirant tries to look into the pros of the subject in the UPSC preparation. According to you, what are the advantages of Geography optional?
Shabbir Ahmed: Geography optional has many advantages. Firstly, Geography has a huge coverage on GS Mains paper. GS I has Geography as its component. In GS III, Geography finds relevance in Environment, Disaster Management also in Economic Geography ( Geonomics, industry location etc.). In GS II, certain governance issues can be appreciated with the knowledge of Geography like urban planning, sustainable development, tribal issues, forest management etc. Some of them find relevance in Ethics case studies too.
Secondly, Geography topics are heavily current affairs based. Whether one has Geography optional or not, he or she will have to study Geography with reference to current affairs. For example, agricultural reform, geopolitics, disaster management, biomes etc. require good knowledge of Geography. Sometimes aspirants worry about the “vastness” of the Geography optional. It is due to its current affairs basis. This current affairs base will help aspirants in GS.
Thirdly, Geography optional helps in developing the spatial dimension of learning and memorization. It helps in the pictorial form of imagination in terms of places and their locations. It reduces rote learning.
Lastly, no other optional covers Environment and Ecology as much as Geography. In all modesty, at least 30-40 percent. One should know, many teachers/instructors who take up Environment courses are Geography teachers.
In nutshell, Geography optional is more conceptual, applied and has huge overlaps with GS syllabus.
Manas: Since you have just spoken about the pros of the Geography optional subject, can you also talk about its challenges that aspirants must be aware of?
Shabbir Ahmed: Every optional subjects has its own set of challenges. Some are common while others are specific to a subject. It is through your sincerity, hard work and smart work that you can convert the challenges into opportunities to score high in Mains examination. For Geography optional few challenges are-
The ability of interlinking should be good- Since the questions are being framed in an interdisciplinary manner, aspirants must develop the interlinking ability.
Example: Discuss agricultural reforms concerning climate change impact, trade and geopolitical developments. This question looks like an agriculture question but it has to be linked to other issues too.
Relevant examples- Since Geography is a very location-based subject the answers have to be qualified by relevant examples. Example: In a flood question, an aspirant must recall current affairs examples like floods in Assam, Bangalore etc.
Answer writing skills– Knowledge is important but how one represents that knowledge on the answer script is more essential. The ability to write and draw within the required time can be a challenge. Here I will take the opportunity to mention four components of answer writing in Geography that an aspirant, must develop:
1. Concepts 2. Current Affairs linkage 3. Pictorial/diagrammatic representation 4. Case studies as examples.
Lastly, some questions may look very generic but in reality they are not. In handling such questions, an aspirant must treat them with great depth. Relevant examples and diagrams will help one to fetch better marks.
Manas: Let us talk about books. As you have mentioned in your reply to the first question, standard books are a must in UPSC preparation. Which are the relevant books that the aspirant must refer to?
Shabbir Ahmed: The following list of books can be recommended for Geography optional.
Geomorphology: Savindra Singh
Climatology: Savindra Singh
Oceanography: Savindra Singh
Environment Geography: Savindra Singh
Human Geography: Majid Hussain
Model and Theories: Majid Hussain
Geographical Thought: R D Dikshit
India- Comprehensive Geography by Khullar
Orient Blackswan Atlas
Manas: Aspirants often ask how much time an optional like Geography requires to be covered entirely. What is your answer?
Shabbir Ahmed: I prefer answering in the form of stages.
1st stage: Initiation based on NCERT books which should not take more than 15-20 days.
2nd stage: Foundation stage covering the syllabus which takes five to six months.
3rd stage: Advance stage ( more application based) which requires three to four months.
4th stage: Practice stage or test series stage of examination pattern type of questions.
I must mention that it will be a mistake by aspirants if they take up the test series before the advanced stage of preparation.
Manas: While selecting an optional, an aspirant thinks whether he/she has the right attitude towards the optional or not. For Geography particularly, is there any specific attitude required before selecting it as an optional subject?
Shabbir Ahmed: To do good in any subject there are two requirements — Curiosity and Sincerity. One major question asked by the candidates is if they need to be “artistic” as aspirants need to draw maps in answers. My simple answer to them is that they need not be artistic but logical. They should know how to draw straight lines, do neat work, use simple colours and semantics ( use of flow chart, diagrams etc.) One should know how India and its states and other important places in the world look like for map work.
No extra attitude is required. Importantly, one needs to keep their previous educational background or career aside. Aspirants from any educational background will find Geography optional useful.
Shabbir Ahmed’s message for UPSC aspirants:
Firstly, be honest and sincere about your ambition. Secondly, know your competencies and skills to be developed for this exam. Thirdly, a maniacal focus is needed. UPSC-CSE is not a regular career to flirt with.
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