18 August 2014 National controversy: upsc exam

Brown Sahibs Club?

The UPSC mandating English proficiency as a qualifying criterion runs the risk of fostering the bureaucracy’s old elite bias
Brown Sahibs Club?
AFP (From Outlook 18 August 2014)
Brown Sahibs Club?

‘Upper Class Public Service Commission’. So read a placard at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, where civil service aspirants have been protesting for the last two weeks against the Union Public Service Commission’s alleged bias against Indian languages. Thousands of aspirants see the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) in the preliminary examinations—introduced in 2011—as discriminating along class lines and working against those who have studied in government schools and with an Indian language as medium of instruction. The replacement of the multiple choice paper on an optional subject of the aspirant’s choice with an exam that tests aptitude, logical reasoning, analytical ability, decis­ion-making, besides English language skills lends an unfair advantage to a thin, distinct English-educated urban class, they allege.

Unfortunately, the protesters’ cause was ill-served by the bunch of rag-tag young men who appeared on TV channels to explain their opposition. Making yourself heard on Indian television discussions is a tough ask even at the best of times, but the situation was made worse as the nervous, overawed, even hysterical and less than smoothly articulate bunch found themselves sandwiched between anchors barely concealing their hostility and condescending panelists. “This bunch surely does not deserve to be civil servants,” their smirks suggested.

Nearly half a million candidates applied for the civil services preliminary examination in 2011. This year, the exam is scheduled for August 24, and there are an estimated 8,00,000 applicants. Not all of them eventually appear for the prelims—trends suggest only about half the number do. In 2011, barely 12,000 managed to get through to the mains. One-sixth that number made it to the interview and only 920 were finally selected for the various services, which include not just the elite administrative, foreign and police services but also the allied revenue, railways, audit & accounts services.

The high-pitched cacophony of the past two weeks generated plenty of heat but shed little light. The protesters were quickly dismissed as a bunch of goons, underqualified by definition—precisely the kind of misconstrual such an agitation wished to target. The governm­ent sheepishly admitted it did not want to be saddled with a problem of the UPA’s making and took the easy way out, meeting the agitators halfway. The firefighting satisfied neither side: the protesters blamed the government for missing the point; senior and reti­red civil servants felt it had needlessly succumbed to blackmail.

The ‘nativist’ colours in which it was painted mischaracterises the protest: it is in fact more than just about opposing English. It’s to do with how the race is ‘rigged’. Veteran administrators Out­look spoke to freely admitted to a class bias in the selection of civil servants by the UPSC. N.C. Saxena, ex-IAS officer and fomer Planning Commission member who has been director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, told Outlook, “In the years I’ve spent training civil servants, I have noticed the selected candidates come from a narrow pool of English speakers, whose parents can afford English education. Even those who come in through the 49 per cent reservation are from the top five per cent.”

Loose cannon Protests outside the UPSC office at Shahjahan Road in New Delhi. (Photograph by Indian News Network)

The question everyone is asking is: just how can the government expect the same level of English fluency from all students when it hasn’t ensured similar access to English education in its own schools? Even today, it is only the government schools that have compulsory education in the regional language and not in English. “In the zila parishad schools that I visit, it is in Class 8 that children are taught the English alphabet,” says Pallavi Akurathi, an IAS officer from Andhra Pradesh posted in Karnataka. Till such time as English is not made equally available for all stud­ents in government schools, selecting administrators on the basis of their proficiency in English will only mean the systematic exclusion of a large number from the civil services, which effectively perpetuates the inherent class divide. This tacit kind of ‘linguistic caste’ bias within the system raises another disturbing question: are we somehow scrupulously keeping out exactly those who could humanise the bureaucracy, be more in touch with the ground, be resposive to the real needs of the people?

The protesters’ beef is not with English per se, it’s with the changes that have mandated an enhanced English proficiency to be considered for the civil services. After all, the entire paper, both in the prelims and in the mains, is set only in two languages—English and Hindi. Those opting to take the paper in Hindi are better-placed than those who appear in various other languages. The latter need a basic comprehension of English anyway to understand the questions before they can answer them in their regional language. Despite this, CSAT further tests proficiency in English. This is viewed, effectively, as an attempt to weed out non-English speakers.

Several officers who appeared for their exams prior to 2011 in Indian languages say they learnt to speak English fluently only after joining the services. “A six-month course in the language of the state where civil servants are posted is mandatory after selection. Why can’t English training be given too to capable candidates? By basing selection of administrators on English skills, what kind of administrators does the government want?” asks B. Srinivasan, an IAS officer in the Punjab cadre. It’s a simple enough idea. Judge candidates on communication skills, which isn’t the same as English skills—and then weave Eng­lish into the training post-selection.

Jitendra Singh, MoS, personnel, has announced that the eight questions on English comprehension in CSAT that are not translated in Hindi will be scrapped. That does little to address the issue. “The eight questions the government is suggesting will be scrapped are the easiest of the lot,” says Vijay Jha, senior vice president, Career Launcher, a coaching centre for civil services aspirants. “Aspirants who know enough English to raise slogans like ‘We want Justice’ can easily answer them. The remaining 30-odd English comprehension questions, very poorly translated in Hindi with the help of a software program, and not translated in any other regional language, are the ones which deny candidates a level playing field.” Even officers who have been educated in top ICSE schools and have taken the CSAT in 2011 say they had trouble answering some of those.

Incidentally, there was a distinct rise in the number of civil servants from small towns after the exam design was changed in 1979. That was when the UPSC for the first time allowed candidates to answer questions in the mains in regional languages. This was also when Hindi translation of the questions began to be provided. Candidates were also given the option to answer questions at the interview in their preferred language and get the answers translated.

“The CSAT aims at preserving the class character of the bureaucracy, the people-like-us attitude, based on English-speaking snobbery.”
Ashok K. Singh, IIT-K alumnus coaching IAS aspirants

All these changes still failed to provide a level playing field, says Ashok Singh, an IIT-Kanpur alumnus who has been coaching civil services aspirants for the past three decades. Examiners and int­erviewers continue to have a patronising attitude when it comes to those preferring to use Indian languages, including Hindi. Even as it introduced Hindi translations of questions, the attitude remained perfunctory and no more than a token gesture, a formality, he adds. Interviewers are known to have claimed that they did not follow Hindi and encouraged candidates to try and answer them in English even if they had opted for Hindi or any other language.

The introduction of CSAT in 2011 further queered the pitch. The cases of Pawan Kumar and Raj Kumar Kaushal are instructive. They are among the many who had reached the interview stage before 2011 but failed to clear the prelims after CSAT was introduced. They believe they lost out because they failed to comprehend the original complex passages in English and found it even more difficult to negotiate the convoluted Hindi translations. Numbers bear this out. The percentage of students appearing for the prelims in regional languages shows a sharp fall after 2011. If 37.7 per cent students managed to clear the prelims in 2010 using regional languages, the percentage fell sharply to 17.07 and 18.14 in 2011 and 2012 respectively (see graphic on page 31).

Not all are convinced, though. “Examinations will always select some and eliminate others. The protests over the UPSC are by those who have failed to clear the exam and are driven by frustration,” says Vijay Singh, UPSC member and former IAS officer.

Will the protests die a natural death then? Most political parties from the Hindi heartland, especially those with the old Lohiaite legacy like the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, have thrown their weight behind the protests, hastening to give it an anti-English colour and making political capital. In fact, they have gone a step further and demanded that the entire CSAT paper be scrapped as it favo­urs students from engineering backgro­unds over those from humanities. Thank­fully, this has found little support even among those who are opposing the CSAT for the cause of regional language students with a distinct class disadvantage. “Every exam, whether conducted by the NDA, CDS, SSC or banks, has quantitative ability and logical reasoning as sections in the paper. To ask for them to be scrapped is nothing but opportunism,” says Vijay Jha.

At its heart, though, the protest is about why the government should further privilege the English-speaking upper class. “The CSAT in its current form reproduces discrimination and is a defence of elitism, masked as merit,” says Kavita Krishnan, politburo member of the CPI(ML). What ought to be tested is the candidates’ willingness to learn languages, not command over English.


Clearing The Air On The UPSC Row

  • Charge: The agitation has been engineered by the UPA to embarrass ‘Modi Sarkar’
  • Reality: Far from it. Data for the 2011 exam became available only in 2013. Protesters expected NDA to be more sympathetic to linguistic concerns.
  • Charge: The timing of the agitation.  CSAT was introduced three years ago, why the protests now?
  • Reality: Protest letters had been sent to the UPSC from 2011 onwards. The penny dropped only when the data was finally made public two years later.
  • Charge: Protesters objecting to English because they don’t know it
  • Reality: All questions in the prelims are only in English and Hindi. Candidates opting for regional language need basic English skills to understand the questions in English. They also have to clear an English paper in the main exam anyway. Protest is about the unfair advantage given to people with greater proficiency in English.
  • Charge: NDA has succumbed to pressure by dropping 8 questions in English
  • Reality: All it has done is drop the easiest questions which have no translations—30-odd other English comprehension questions (with poor translations) remain.

Could you understand this if you didn’t know English?

A test of English comprehension from the 2012 General Studies II paper

“Development can scarcely be seen merely in terms of enhancement of inanimate objects of convenience, such as rise in the GNP (or in personal incomes), or industrialisation—important as they may be as means to real ends. If democracy is understood in a broader way, then…democracy has to be seen partly in terms of their constitutive connection, rather than through external links.”

Our Take: This excerpt from Amartya Sen’s work, claims the UPSC, aims merely to test the basic English skills of aspirants. (Though it may challenge even the well-endowed.) A translation is provided only in Hindi, leaving those attempting the paper in regional languages in a total lurch. 


Different strokes for different folks

Shoddy Hindi translation of a question in the 2013 General Studies, Paper III

Our Take: By translating ‘public-private partnership’ as ‘non-govern­mental’ in Hindi, the entire meaning of the question gets changed. So would the answers, and the candidate’s chances. 


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