Each year, approximately 600,000 students attempt the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam, competing to fill up anywhere between 1,000 and 1,200 positions. These 1,200 candidates are then entrusted with the herculean task of the world’s most diverse democracy’s administration. Hence, for a test that essentially aims to select one candidate for every 500 rejected, it is imperative that it is designed in a scientific manner that effectively sieves out the proficient and the competent from a pool of mediocrity. If the present government’s incoherent policy flip-flops are anything to go by, a substitution of scientific reasoning for mindless populism could well be the order of the day.
The discourse over the past few weeks has been centered on the Hindi-versus- English debate with, aspirant protestors claiming that the knowledge of English was inconsequential in their pursuit of civil service careers. This has prompted calls for the second paper of the CSAT to be scrapped completely. I believe this argument is flawed for two reasons. I served in the Indian Police Service for exactly 10 years from 1986-96, and was a Superintendent of Police in the Bihar cadre. Despite being proficient in Hindi, I found myself throughout my career needing to be equally proficient in English for fulfilling even the most basic duties as a police officer. I am bewildered and equally distressed by how any of the protesting civil service aspirants have effectively concluded that knowledge of English is of little importance for a civil servant in the 21st century. Today, English serves as an important link and is very widely spoken in most northeastern and southern parts of the country.
The repeated argument in this one-sided discourse has been that the focus of CSAT-2 is entirely on a test of English comprehension, thereby putting rural and regional language candidates at a gross disadvantage. This is untrue. The CSAT-2 seeks to test a candidate’s ‘applied intelligence’. Of the 80 questions in the second paper, only eight test English comprehension skills. The remaining 72 test a host of other broad skills, including ethics, elementary class 10 mathematics and logical reasoning. This is similar to the practice in several foreign countries.
While scrapping an entire test that contains just eight questions of English comprehension is ludicrous and unwarranted, the larger disconcerting issue revolves around guiding a myopic policy discourse through an opportunistic lens that seeks to influence the process through political mechanisms. This can prove to be perilous in a heterogeneous democracy like ours. The civil services were envisioned to be the emissaries of change as India increasingly assumed a greater role in an increasingly globalised world. However, over the years, rampant corruption and other systemic inefficiencies have highlighted the need for a paradigm shift in the talent pool the civil service was attracting and absorbing. Moreover, as bureaucrats started handling various PSUs at different stages of their careers, it was also becoming crucial that they possessed managerial skills coupled with a sound knowledge of subjects that had a strong quantitative focus. There was also a need to curb rote learning. Dozens of coaching centres in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had been thriving on their ability to train students to ‘mug up’ general knowledge textbooks such as the Manorama Year Book and Tata McGraw Hill. Other students also pursued high-scoring optional subjects like Pali Literature and Sanskrit, which were easier compared with conventional subjects like public administration and economics, but the knowledge of which was absolutely irrelevant to their role as bureaucrats. The CSAT exam was thus being seen as a suitable addition to the UPSC scheme of testing. By reducing the scope for rote learning, reduction of optional subjects from two to one, and, at the same time, introducing a testing strategy that was able to assess a candidate’s logical, verbal, quantitative and ethical inclinations, the UPSC was effectively killing several birds with one stone.
Kautilya’s Arthashashtra remains the most seminal work on public administration in India. An important component of this classic discusses how a king must select logical and quick thinking ministers for effective administration. Were he to be alive today, he would have been delighted by the idea of the CSAT.