Testing the English Language Ability of the Aspirants for the Civil Services through the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT): Issues and Options
Dr Sudhir Krishna | February 4, 2015
The issue of retaining or omitting the English language comprehension test (ELCT) from the civil services aptitude test (CSAT), which is a part of the preliminary examination (“prelims”) for the combined civil services examination, was debated hotly just about six months ago and seems to be surfacing again.
After juggling with the issue for some time, the new government had announced, almost on the date of examination, that the candidates need not attempt the ELCT part in the CSAT and that it would not be evaluated even if attempted by a candidate. However, the matter was apparently left at that, only to surface again with the onset of the next year’s examination. Media reports have suggested that the government has initiated fresh consultations on the matter, including the fundamental question of retaining the CSAT as a part of the prelims.
The opposition to the ELCT part of the CSAT was started by a section of the civil services aspirants who were mainly humanities students and those with background of Hindi. Meanwhile, aspirants from non-Hindi regions raised the demand for having the CSAT in regional languages as well. As the debate went on, added to it were allied issues, such as the implementation of the three-language formula and the role of Hindi as a lingua franca. Such digression was, understandable, as any social dispute, if not addressed in time, starts gathering allied dimensions, related or unrelated, and tends to grow as an avalanche, even out of control.
When the CSAT is some months away, it would be desirable now to analyse the issue thoroughly and take a conclusive decision soon to maintain the glory and integrity of the examination.
Though the union public service commission (UPSC) conducts the combined civil services examination (CCSE) for a large number of services under the union, the agitation has implicitly assumed the framework of the Indian Administrative Service, which accounts for just about 10 to 15 per cent of the recruitment through the CCSE. All the same, the core issues that need to be examined relate to the need for having the CSAT as a part of the CCSE, justification for retaining English in the civil services examination and the need for striking a balance between the objectives to getting the most meritorious candidates versus social inclusion.
The need for CSAT
The prelims were introduced for the CCSE pursuant to the recommendations of the Kothari Committee (1979) in the backdrop of the growing number of aspirants for the civil services – then around 40,000 and currently in the range of 2 lakh. Following the Kothari Committee schema, the prelims used to have two papers— one on general studies and another on any one of the 23 listed subjects. However, the concept of optional subject was criticised, mainly on the ground that performance of candidates in thoroughly dissimilar optional subjects could not be rationally compared.
Subsequently, the YK Alagh committee set up by UPSC recommended in 2001 replacement of the optional subject by an aptitude test (CSAT), observing that the successful candidates must have an ability to interface with modern technology. The framework for CSAT mooted by Alagh Committee did not have ELCT.
However, the UPSC let the matter await and set up yet another committee, headed by SK Khanna, which gave its report in 2010, in which it mooted the ELCT in the CSAT. The UPSC replaced the optional second paper with the compulsory CSAT in the Prelims from 2011 as recommended by the Alagh Committee and also included the ELCT in the CSAT recommended by the Khanna Committee.
The debate now has two major issues: (a) whether to have the CSAT at all and (b) if CSAT were to continue, whether have the ELCT part in it.
As for continuation of the CSAT, the arguments put forth by Alagh seem very valid, as information and technology have evolved into the most significant drivers of public administration and the incumbents to the civil services must be comfortable not only with the current levels of technologies, but should also have the capacities and mindset to accept, understand and absorb subsequent technological advancements for better public administration.
The issue of information management is equally important, as more and more voluminous data that has become available in recent times, thanks to the internet. Public administrators need to be capable and comfortable with handling such information for making policy analysis and decisions. Therefore, an aptitude test is very much called for in the CCSE.
Even though CSAT is highly desirable, in reality, it is a huge drain on the time and energies of the aspirants. The CCSE is a three Stage examination, comprising the Prelims, the Mains and the Interview. The Prelims being the first stage, take the major time and energy of the aspirants, as may be seen in its elaborate syllabus and the voluminous guide books available in the market. Another irony is that the aspirants for the Civil Services have to try their luck in numerous other service examinations as well. Many such examination too have tests for GK and aptitude and there are different framework for each such examination. The youngsters end up expending huge time and energy for preparing for the GK and aptitude tests of numerous service examinations.
In fairness, candidates should not be expected to prepare for the CSAT and the General Knowledge (GK) papers of the Prelims from the scratch. The school education should be designed to inculcate and nurture the basic levels of aptitude and GK among all youngsters. Preparation for the Prelims should need only few weeks of brushing up the knowledge and skills developed during the school years. This should be coped with a general examination of the type of the GMAT, duly structured for Indian conditions, which should be conducted by an independent organisation. The scores obtained by a candidate in such examination should enable the UPSC to call the aspirants for the Mains directly.
The need for English in the Civil Services
The major argument against emphasis on English in the civil services examination is that English is quite unwarranted for public services, as people at large would benefit more if they communicate with the government in their local language. This would also help demystify the administration. Use of local language in public administration would also strengthen local governments, as the elected representatives of the panchayats and the municipalities can harmonise the administrative machinery with the people more effectively if the administration were conducted in local language.
However, there are arguments in favour of retaining English in public administration. English is the language for global interface and exchange of ideas and information, thanks to the critical role of the USA and the UK in world trade, politics, science, technology, financial markets and even in the field of education & learning. That a large number of Indians find place in various fields of employment all over the world, is attributed largely to their knowledge of English. It is also generally accepted that the main scoring point for Indians over the Chinese is the relative higher comfort with the English language.
English is also required by the officers working in the various central ministries to work effectively with their State counterparts, be it for the centrally sponsored development schemes or for projects of national highways, railways and others. It would be impracticable to expect the Union Ministries to correspond with the states in the 22 languages of the eighth schedule.
On balance, it can be concluded that the candidates selected for the civil services must be comfortable with English. The combined civil services examination (CCSE) should, therefore, continue to test the ability of the candidates in English comprehension as well as communication, both written and oral. The question would then arise as to the appropriate stage for testing the English language ability of the candidates.
Stage for test of English language ability in the CCSE
Should the ELCT be part of CSAT component of the prelims? Logically, CSAT is for measurement of aptitude, which is done through numerical and logical exercises. Introducing measurement of the English language ability of the candidates does not have any correlation with measurement of the aptitude. Moreover, the prelims weed out over 90 per cent of the candidates, which is very much required. But the weeding out needs to on the basis of general knowledge and aptitude and not on the basis of the English language ability. After the first round of elimination, the English language ability could be tested in the next round, that is, the mains which has already provided for a qualifying paper in English and includes tests of comprehension of the language, précis writing, vocabulary and short essays. This framework has evolved over some years and gives ample scope for judging the candidates for their required competence in English. Appropriately, this is only a qualifying paper, to ensure that the finally selected candidates possess the threshold level of the English language ability.
The logical conclusion would, therefore, be to remove the ELCT from the CSAT altogether and let the English language ability be tested through the qualifying paper in English language comprehension and communication in the main examination, as at present.
CSAT in regional languages
The CSAT is conducted only in English and Hindi. This has been causing heartburn to the candidates from non-Hindi regions. Their anxiety needs to be addressed, as one would like to bring in fair and transparent competition among the interested candidates from all parts of the country. Logically, CSAT is about measurement of aptitude, which includes test of reasoning, measured through numerical problems and situational analysis. The medium of posing the problems and of responding by the candidates should enable making these as truthful an exercise as possible. A candidate not fluent in English and Hindi, would find it difficult to comprehend the question and may not be able to answer it in the short time available to the CSAT, which is in fact a ‘Rapid Fire’ paper. In this situation, measurement of aptitude would not be accurate.
One option would be remove even Hindi version for the CSAT and let every candidate have a level playing field with the question paper only in English. However, that may not be perceived as an inclusive approach. The right course of action would be to provide the CSAT question paper in all regional languages. As the answers are of multiple choice types, evaluating the large number of answer sheets should not pose any difficulty. All question papers of the main examination, including of the sophisticated technical disciplines of medicine and engineering are already being made available in all regional languages. Therefore, there should be no problem in doing so for the CSAT.
Care would, however, need to be taken to make the regional language versions of the CSAT Paper accurate, as in the past, even Hindi translation had been found faulty at times.
Measuring general knowledge and aptitude through the language that the candidate is most comfortable with would be a highly effective and inclusive processes that would help the best talent from all parts of the country get a level playing field and would, in turn, provide the most appropriate talent to cross over the Prelims to the Main Examination. It would also allow the senior civil services to have a true all India character, which would go a long way in nurturing the federal structure of the country.
Delink Recruitment for the IAS from that for the Central Services
There are currently only three All India Services (AIS), namely, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the Indian Forest Service (IFS). Of these, only the IAS and IPS are included for recruitment through the CCSE, while an exclusive examination is held for the IFS. While the CCSE is commonly perceived to be primarily for the IAS, in reality only about 10 to 15 per cent of the vacancies are for the IAS, another 10 to 12 per cent for the Indian Police Service, while about 75 per cent are for the various Central Services, such as the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Postal Services, the various Civil Accounts Services for Railways, Posts, Defence etc., the Defence Estates Service, the Income Tax Service, the Customs & Central Excise Service, various Railway Services, Information Service, Corporate Law Service etc. For the CCSE Examination 2013, of the total number of 1228 vacancies, as many as 230 were for the Customs & Central Excise Service. The job framework and, consequently, the core competence required for the Central Services are significantly different from those for the All India Services.
Moreover, legally, recruitment to the All India Services (AIS) is to be regulated under the AIS Act, 1951, which mandates consultation with the State Governments. This is very much warranted as the AIS officers are primarily encadered with the States and serve the Government of India (GOI) only on deputation that too with the mandatory consent of the State Government concerned. For the Central Services, no such consultation with the States is either mandated or required, as the officers of these services work only for the GOI.
It is also interesting to note that the CCSE also recruits candidates for Group B. Services, of the rank of Section Officers, for the Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Service and for the Civil and Police Group-B Services of the Union Territories. There is no logic to assume that the process of selection of the over two dozen services, which are all of dissimilar nature, should be common.
Therefore, recruitment for the All India Services needs to be detached from that for the Central Services. As a corollary, it can also be suggested that the recruitment for the IAS and the IPS should be separated, as the nature of job for the two services is quite different. Moreover, for the Indian Forest Service, the process of recruitment is already distinguished and is working well.
Renaming the Central Services
All the Group A Civil Services, as well as the three All India Services recruited through the CCSE are named starting with the word ‘Indian’. However, in legal and functional terms, the All India Services are quite distinct from the Central Services and are created per specific provisions of the Constitution (Article 312) and the special law made by the Parliament, namely, the AIS Act, 1951. The common recruitment examination and the similar sounding first name for these two distinct category of services is doing no good. The All India Services serve the State governments, besides the GOI, by legal mandate, whereas the Central Services do not. The nature of the jobs performed by the members of these two sets of services are fairly different. Therefore, for prudence, the Central Services need to be renamed, so as to distinguish from the All India Services. For instance, the Indian Civil Accounts Service may be named as the Central Civil Accounts Service, and so on. Only those services that are governed by the AIS Act, 1951 may be given the title commencing with ‘Indian’. This is not to reduce the significance of the Central Services, but only to give a separate identity to the All India Services and facilitate better management of the process of recruitment and subsequent management of the cadres.
The Political Process of the Debate
The last debate on the CSAT was mostly on the streets and in the media, with sporadic reaction in the Parliament. The debates were largely unstructured and unguided, and tended to become unseemly. At the end, the debate could not give any rational conclusion and was left inconclusive. However, the debate need to be made more formal and structured, by taking it up as a formal agenda in the State Legislatures and in the Parliament. Involvement of the States is necessary because the AIS are primarily to serve the States and a majority of the AIS officers are, at any given point of time, required to be serving the State Cadres. Formal debates in the Parliament and the State Legislatures on the key aspects of these Services, including the method of recruitment, would also enable the Parliamentarians and Legislators to emotionally own the structure of the All India Services, which would make the AIS more responsive to people’s needs. This would also enhance the credibility of these Services, besides removing the undue halo that they are supposed to have. This would also enhance the stature of the Civil Services Examination and provide to it a predictable and respectable future.
(The article appeard in February 1-15, 2015, issue)
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