UPSC turns elitist

Even the Nigvekar committee formed by the UPSC in 2011 to review this pattern of examination clearly states in its report that CSAT gives undue advantage to a certain group of students and should therefore be scrapped immediately. But, sadly, it seems the UPSC has yet to read its own committee’s report

Inclusion and equal opportunity are two fundamental features of a democracy. But what if it has autocratic institutions that take arbitrary decisions in the name of “merit” and “quality”, neglecting the rights of a certain class for the benefit of a chosen few? The question is relevant because this is what is happening in the case of the prestigious civil services examinations, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), a body established under Article 315, Part XIV of the Indian Constitution.

The ongoing protests in various parts of the country against the second paper of the preliminary examination, also known as Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), has been wrongly perceived by the media and a particular class of people as an anti-English-language movement or a movement of incompetent students from  states such as UP and Bihar. It is very unfortunate to see journalists and commentators writing articles without understanding the root concerns and without the sensitivity that is required to deal with this issue.

What is the CSAT?

To understand this whole movement and the logic behind the demands of protesters, one needs to know what this controversial CSAT paper is about. It was introduced in 2011 following the recommendation of the S.K. Khanna committee set up by the UPSC. According to the syllabus notified by the UPSC, the level of quantitative aptitude or reasoning and English comprehension would be of matriculation level. The paper includes questions in comprehension and decision-making to test the aptitude and integrity of a candidate.

At first sight, it all looks like a perfect, well-structured pattern that gives every candidate an equal chance to compete irrespective of their social and educational background. But unfortunately the reality is something else, as results from the last three years show. After this paper was included in the exam, the ratio of success for students from humanities or Indian-language background has fallen drastically. The fact is that CSAT was first advocated by the Y. K. Alagh committee in 2001 to test the aspirants through a “common paper” rather than an optional subject paper, but the UPSC has now put in its place a paper demanding intensely specialized knowledge and accuracy.

It’s not about Maths, English

It is interesting to note that questions to test quantitative aptitude were asked in the General Studies paper until 2011. To test the basic knowledge of English of an aspirant there has been a separate, compulsory paper in the main examination. Hence, both the arguments being circulated in the media – that people involved in this movement are afraid of basic mathematics or English – don’t hold water.

The fundamental problem with CSAT is not mathematics or English but a separate paper designed to overemphasize certain sections of the syllabi, and that is the bone of contention. The skewed design of this paper is creating a competition between specialized and general, as half of the questions of are comprehension-based and the rest test quantitative aptitude, with very few simple decision-making questions. It is easy to figure out which section of students will benefit the most from this paper and who is going to suffer.

If the intention of the UPSC was to break the backbone of the coaching institutes, then it has failed completely as there are even more coaching classes mushrooming today. The CSAT pattern demands the greater speed and accuracy of entrance tests for technical or management institutions. As a result these coaching institutes are exploiting the aspirants from humanities, rural and non-English medium background in the name of high cut-offs and specialized “training” for CSAT.

UPSC has always maintained that its preliminary examination (CSP) is meant for selecting ‘serious’ candidates for the main examination (CSM). A glance at the marks secured by a candidate who  cleared the examination last year (34% in GS1, 25% in GS2, 35% in GS3, 41% in GS4 – papers which require in-depth knowledge about Indian and world history, geography, polity, socio-economic issues, ecology and environment, science, security, ethics, etc) makes one wonder about what the USPC means by a ‘serious’ candidate. This example is also indicative of the oddities involved in the selection process. The question that arises is how without any significant grasp of General Studies (GS), once considered to be the kernel of the traits any civil servant should have, the UPSC let such an arbitrary process run its course.

It’s about equality

It is evident that this whole movement is not only about Hindi or bad translation but about equality in opportunity in competition, which is one of the Constitutional rights of every citizen of this country. There is no doubt about the autonomy or dignity of the UPSC, but the administrators should keep in mind that they are a Constitutional body and make sure their policies do not discriminate on the basis of class, caste, language, race or religion. The format of CSAT unfortunately doesn’t meet these criteria.

It is a fact that there are very few students from Dalit and minority communities and other backward classes enrolled in science and management courses. The quality of education varies across the country – even matriculation level mathematics and English mean different things to different teachers and students. Then how is it fair to assume that a student coming from a prestigious convent school and a Dalit from a remote, barely accessible village are on an equal footing while sitting for a paper that demands a specialized kind of knowledge and accuracy?

Even the Nigvekar committee formed by the UPSC in 2011 to review this pattern of examination clearly states in its report that CSAT gives undue advantage to a certain group of students and should therefore be scrapped immediately. But, sadly, it seems the UPSC has yet to read its own committee’s report.

The promise of good governance may be a catchy electoral slogan but to fulfil its promise, the new government at the Centre should ensure that its bureaucracy is representative of the diverse population that calls India home. A good start would be to get the civil services examinations back on track.


Published in the September 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine

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