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Reforms in Civil Services Examination

Running to stand still

The changes proposed to the Civil Services Examination were in the right spirit and sorely needed. Rolling back these reforms would be a bad idea, says Srivatsa Krishna.

The national Civil Services Examination (CSE) is perhaps the most competitive examination on the planet. Between 300, 000 to 500, 000 candidates apply to write it each year. The exam selects about 100 officers for the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS), India's senior management civil service cadre, and about 700 officers in other government services.

To bring to bear some limited personal perspective on the exam (as someone who has succeeded in several other highly competitive and well-regarded entrance examinations) I can say this with all the emphasis at my command: the CSE beats them all in terms of the sheer breadth of the subject matter expertise it demands, and the ratio of those selected to those who apply for it.

The recent notification by UPSC (the body that administers the exam) is a good step in the right direction, even if it caused controversy. Yet, sadly, the reforms notified don't go as far as they perhaps should. The recommendation that has attracted the most criticism is about English as a medium for taking the exam. Nowhere has UPSC said that the exam cannot be taken in any other language. All that it has said is that there must be a minimum of 25 candidates in a particular language for ensuring that it is permitted as a language for writing any specific paper in, which is quite different from barring any language. I think it's a fair point and political parties are raising a hue and cry for nothing. It is not uncommon in the past to see several bright IIT kids, for instance, master a supposedly 'easy' language like Maithili only to score heavily in it and thereby put others at a disadvantage. UPSC has merely corrected that anomaly based on past experience.

In all the acrimony, the supposed apologists for regional languages conveniently forget that other UPSC examinations like the Combined Defence Services examinations can only be taken in English and no one seems to have any objection to that. Let's not forget that this is not about the test of English as a foreign language (like with, say, TOEFL) or one's language skills but about recruiting the best and the brightest for nation building. This is hardly about honouring or rejecting any specific Indian language. Mischiefmakers are framing the debate in those terms purely to whip up sentiment.

Indeed, every officer learns the language of the state that he is allotted to and that is important to be able to interact with local citizens. And in an increasingly globalising world, one needs command over both written and spoken English to conduct business with the rest of the world. If an officer originally from say Bihar, who is allotted to the Maharashtra cadre, can learn Marathi and even pass a 10th Board equivalent language examination, why does one assume that officer doesn't have to - or can't - learn English? While China is sending its officials to Singapore to learn English, it appears that we want to fritter away an advantage deeply ingrained in our education system.

The second big change is dropping the 'second optional subject' altogether. This again goes a long way in creating a level-playing field and especially helps those not from an advantageous background. Such candidates may not be able to master a new second subject and compete with those who may have an advanced degree or two in one.

The third change is to introduce a 100-mark paper on ethics. While well-intentioned this is a bit of a halfway house. The ethics and value system of an individual can hardly be judged by writing about it, and as such this is destined to become just another additional essay paper without really serving its intended purpose. Some form of psychometric testing to help judge the attitude and mindset of candidates could have been considered.

The personality test, commonly called the 'interview', is not meant to test one's knowledge but one's attitude, ability to think quickly on one's feet, overall judgment and character, and 'officer-like ' qualities. UPSC could have adapted the format followed by multilateral institutions like the World Bank Group for its Young Professional programmes, where an interview board spends an entire day (or even half a day) with candidates in a group setting. The board is thus able to observe candidates closely, interact better with them and also watch them do that with each other. This format could have been instituted in addition to the individual 'interview' that's the current norm. Even considering how many candidates appear for the exam, this is a workable proposition.

Clearly, the changes to the national Civil Service Examination introduced by UPSC are by and large a step in the right direction and its critics must understand the eventual objective of the recruitment system. India needs an honest, modern, competitive, domain-knowledge driven civil service committed to the public weal. Leadership is about many things and no one has yet decoded its mantra completely. India needs to find young men and women who fulfill these criteria so that they can deliver minimum government and maximum governance. This is why the UPSC's decision last week to rollback its English recommendation is a retrograde one and must be regarded as a wasted opportunity to bring about much-needed change.

The writer is an IAS officer.

Views expressed are personal

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