Edition : September 2014

Civil Services Devalued

Watching the row over the civil services aptitude test (CSAT) and the agitation outside the UPSC headquarters in Delhi two thoughts crossed one's mind. One, here was a group of young people, aspiring to serve as administrators of the country, ready to break the law to lower the bar for entering the coveted civil services. Two, politicians have the right to jump into the fray on occasions like this to score brownie points against opponents, not for anything good. In this particular case it has been reduced to a 'English versus Hindi/Indian languages' controversy. The government buckled under the false hysteria against 'language bias' in the CSAT examination which has rendered the test in rudimentary knowledge in the examination totally irrelevant. If the marks in English language test are not going to count why include it in the question paper? Better still, why have any examinations or tests if we really want to scrap the system of 'elitism' in civil services? Ironically the crowd of agitators outside the UPSC did not disperse even after the government bowed to their pressure. Having tasted blood, why should they have?

A committee (headed by Arvind Verma) appointed by the government to look into the question of 'bias' in the CSAT examination reportedly held the view that the test was based on scientific approach. The government threw it into the dustbin. A bureaucrat of the standing of Naresh Chandra, whose mother tongue is Hindi, told a newspaper that a class one officer is expected to know English. He added that the English comprehension test of the UPSC can be passed by 'anyone who has passed his class X English paper with a second or third division.' The government's action was based on expediency and the opposition parties had their eyes on populism. The two sides showed a rare unity to back the agitating UPSC aspirants. The next logical step may well be to declare that a minimum level of English ('foreign') language skill is not needed for qualifying as a class one (IAS) officer. It is possible to see a situation where successful candidates refuse to learn the language of their 'cadre' state on the ground that they are proficient in Hindi (or one of the other of the recognized 'Indian' languages) and that should be enough. The foreign services may have to recruit personnel from outside the UPSC qualifiers who would have naturally refused to learn any 'foreign' language which have 'colonial' association.

The needless language controversy over the CSAT examination deflects attention from the worrying fact of falling standards in the quality of services rendered by the civil servants and their calibre, particularly at the levels of the states. Add to this is overall decline in ethical and moral standards in the services. The need of the hour is raising the bar for entry into civil services, not lowering it. The English comprehension test in the UPSC examination carries 22 marks in a 200 mark question paper. A minimum level of proficiency in English is absolutely necessary for civil servants who serve within this country of vast diversities. It cannot be denied that English is still the link language in the country for the purpose of administration and intellectual interface. In some states in the north east, English is the official language. CSAT is designed to test the 'logical reasoning, problem solving, analytical abilities, basic numeracy and English skills of 10th class level.' That sounds quite reasonable for a test that selects candidates for the highly competitive all-India services. All-India services should attract the best minds in the country but no longer do. The young men and women who appear for the UPSC examination know very well that if selected they will become part of a 'privileged' or 'elitist' group. Some would argue that it is one of the main attractions of the civil services. Strange that before appearing for the UPSC examination, some decry it as 'biased' and tilted in favour of the 'privileged'?

This is not to say that the UPSC and the various examinations that it conducts are above criticism. It is a shame that the UPSC could not ensure adequate translation of some CSAT questions. The UPSC has not been without controversies. Just before the start of the fresh session of Delhi University, the UPSC was criticized for its flip-flop on the four year degree course at Delhi University. It also needs to be said that there has been no dearth of 'scams' and 'scandals' involving civil servants who pass the UPSC examinations. Anyone who has had contacts with civil servants at the lower and middle levels and even some top bureaucrats would have noticed the decline in the 'quality' of the civil servants over the years. Political patronage and interference in the selection and promotion of bureaucrats is one of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs. As a result persons of lesser competence manage to slip into the civil services and often rise to the top. The situation will be a lot worse if the UPSC examinations are reduced to class X tests. It is not that the UPSC candidates do not have the option of answering questions in Indian languages. But candidates selected for all-India and foreign services have to be proficient in the English language.

If some candidates feel handicapped in the English language, the blame has to go to the government for not providing them opportunities for attaining skills in the English language when they were studying in (government-run) schools. Anger on this score is justified but cannot be taken out on the UPSC which does not run the school education system. English is an important part of the tests for admission to the IITs, IIMs and medical colleges in the country. IIT or IIM alumni profit a great deal from their felicity with the English language. Indian doctors are said to be the pillars of the National Health Service in the UK. Regrettably, controversy over the English language has become a staple of politics in India even as it is acknowledged that Indians have benefitted immensely because of their familiarity with this 'foreign' language. Most politicians who debunk the English language rarely, if ever, send their children to government-aided schools which are not known to sharpen the English language skills of students. They hardly bother to fight for better standards and facilities in government-aided schools. They are interested only in injecting politics into the field of education and have a pliable or 'committed' bureaucracy which need not be efficient.

The government at the centre has passed an order that bureaucrats who had served the staff of the ministers in the previous government cannot remain on their posts. The idea may have been welcomed in some quarters but it also implies that bureaucrats serving in the office of the ministers must be aligned politically.

-By Our Special Correspondent

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