Precious time of the nation and its leadership is being wasted on a non-issue, namely Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)’s new Civil Service Aptitude Test (CSAT). We must be the only country on the planet where candidates protest and want to decide how their aptitude for civil services should be tested!
Will the same bunch have the courage to tell IIT/IIM or GMAT examination authorities to drop some sections, which are perceived to be biased or tough or both? If the aspirants were really the ones indulging in violence in Delhi recently, government of India should seek the relevant footage, identify the specific culprits and ban them for life — for such violence certainly does not demonstrate aptitude to become professional leaders in India’s civil services.
A personal preface is in order. I have cleared with reasonable distinction entrance examinations such as GMAT, GRE, IIT and PhD entrance exams, but unarguably the UPSC CSE (civil services examination) is by far the toughest and most demanding emotionally and intellectually, given the vast scope and open-endedness of the syllabus, the fact that it brings onto a common evaluation platform science, engineering, and social sciences students (where maths and pure science as subjects are by their very nature more scoring than others), and the long, uncertain duration — a full year each time around. Arguments below, therefore, are not those of an armchair theorist!
First, India is rapidly globalising and its various institutions are evolving; as such, it needs its finest minds in the civil services. Any examination should have only one criteria, namely to pick the best. CSAT is meant to test logical reasoning, problem solving skills, analytical abilities, basic numeracy and English skills of 10th class levels. If someone cannot solve 10th class maths and reasoning, they certainly should not find a place in India’s civil services at all. These are tested in almost every serious examination in the world, are essential to assess one’s scholastic skills and are absolutely critical for civil services. They hit at the heart of rote learning.
Second, the so-called bias against Hindi language students is a specious argument for almost every Board, irrespective of the primary medium of instruction, teaches English also as a second language. Where’s the question of bias? This argument should not be conveniently misinterpreted to say that only those who know English can be good administrators. Also there should be strict controls to check where regional language question papers are set and evaluated, for the marks obtained in say Assamese or Bangla or Tamil are often disproportionately high.
Third, if the protesting candidates are chosen for Indian Foreign Service (IFS), will they decline to learn the foreign language allotted to them? And without proficiency at an advanced level of both English and the foreign language, how can they ever represent India effectively on the global stage?
Likewise, depending on the cadre one is allotted to, in the premier Indian Administrative Service (IAS) they would need to master both written and spoken variants of the local language. Will they not do so then? They will have no option but to do so, and therefore, shall do so; why not apply the same discipline here?
Fourth, the argument that these skills are irrelevant for civil services is laughable. Who are the candidates of any examination to decide what they should be tested in? That’s the sole prerogative of the testing authorities, in this case UPSC.
Given the complexity of institutions and policy choices today it is extremely important to revamp the CSE to test analytical and problem-solving skills, which CSAT does. In fact there is merit in increasing the rigour of testing, to ensure it competes with IIT/IIM to attract the best. Why should there be a prima facie assumption that civil services are ‘second-best’ and therefore can do with children of a lesser God, when actually the reverse is true?
Fifth, the real issue is a simple one of English-to-Hindi translation that some unimaginative babu, perhaps from the same shabby stock who indulged in violence on this issue, appears to have designed. This can be easily corrected by getting a competent translator rather than using Google Translate to do the job!
Quality at entry into the civil services is a mixed bag today, with some extremely brilliant and many who are pedestrian succeeding. Civil servants are also required to read balance sheets of companies, engage in valuation for public sector privatisation, engage with and analyse large amounts of data while designing policy interventions, or do simple calculations to do breakeven or profitability analysis. They cannot get by without looking at data based evidence during policy design. All these require an analytical and logical mind, which needs to be tested at entry. In fact statistics was always part of UPSC evaluation for all these years and no one ever complained!
What’s required of our civil servants is a deep understanding of problems, which requires skills that are tested by CSAT in a very rudimentary manner. They also require spine and strength of character, for which sadly no reliable test has yet been devised in the world. Civil services cannot and must not remain the last (or is it the first?) refuge of the uncompetitive, untalented, and unwanted castaways of other professions.
The writer is an IAS officer.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.