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Governance : What are we testing?

Prelim exams for IAS and other civil services need not get reduced to examining the warehousing capacities of examinees

preliminary examination

A great number of educated youths in the country aspire to join the Indian civil services and work for the country. For being successful in their efforts, they have to pass through three gateways, namely (i) preliminary examination; (ii) main examination and (iii) interview. Only when they walk through these gates successfully, they can become members of these prestigious services. This article is focused on going through the first gateway of clearing the preliminary examination (prelims for short) and the unrealistic attitude of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) towards such exams.

A large number of young boys and girls appear each year to get through the prelims but get knocked out at this gate itself. This examination, to my understanding, should be meant to check whether the candidates possess the basic attributes of being a civil servant namely intelligence, knowledge of what is happening around, quick responses to the issues arising and capacity to take quick decisions. The examinees are expected to be a storehouse not only of recent happenings but also of that which transpired decades back in India and abroad and have no present relevance to their functioning as civil servants. The process of learning does not end after appointment in government.

The varied nature of the prelims paper ensures that merely 3-4 per cent of the 4 to 5 lakh candidates qualify for the main examination, only increasing frustration levels among the youth

It continues unabated throughout the tenure of service period of the civil servants. What then needs to be seen in the first test is whether the candidates possess, inter-alia, this attribute and questions in the prelims need to be asked to test such qualities. But regretfully, the prelims paper contains questions that test how much knowledge of heterogeneous nature the examinees possess and can recapitulate and do not adhere to the norms stated earlier. Thus, a vast number of candidates are eliminated at first stage itself because of the unbalanced approach of paper setters by asking candidates to answer questions covering a range that has no boundaries.

The unbalanced approach is evident if we go through some questions from the paper for prelims for the year 2017 held recently on June 18, 2017:

Q-1: Which one of the following was a very important seaport in the Kakatiya kingdom?

  • Kakinada
  • Motupalli
  • Machilipatnam (Masulipatnam)
  • Nelluru

Q-3: With reference to the religious history of India, consider the following statements:-

  • Sautrantika and Sammitiya were the sects of Jainism.
  • Sarvastivadin held that the constituents of phenomena were not wholly momentary, but existed forever in a latent form.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

  • 1 only
  • 2 only
  • Both 1 and 2
  • Neither 1 nor 2

Q-17: If you want to see gharials in their natural habitat, which one of the following is the best place to visit?

  • Bhitarkanika Mangroves
  • Chambar River
  • Pulicat Lake
  • Deepor Beel

Q-51: The object of the Butler Committee of 1927 was to –

  • Define the jurisdiction of the Central and Provincial Govts.
  • Define the powers of the Secretary of State for India.
  • Impose censorship on national process.
  • Improve the relationship between the GOI and the Indian States.

Q-94: At one of the places in India, if you stand on the seashore and watch the sea, you will find that the sea water recedes from the shore line of few kilometers and comes back to the shore, twice a day, and you can actually walk on the sea floor when the water recedes. This unique phenomenon is seen at:-

  • [a] Bhavnagar
  • [b] Beemunipatnam
  • [c] Chandipur
  • [d] Negapattinam

THERE are many other instances of this nature, but space is a constraint here. However, the issue is as to what the examiner wishes to test from such questions. Are we testing a candidate’s suitability for civil services or his utility as a warehouse of varied nature of information, which currently can be procured on pressing a button in the computer.

The UPSC, which conducts the exams for the civil services in India, should ponder how the knowledge of such varied nature of information unconnected with administrative exigencies needs to be included in general studies paper for the prelims.

There are, of course, no limits for acquisition of knowledge but there are certainly constraints for human beings to be well versed in information of all kinds irrespective of periods and places of their happenings and then expect the candidates to answer 100 questions, running to nearly 21 pages and that too in a period of two hours. Such an approach is highly unrealistic and harsh.

Then arbitrariness is also exercised in fixing the cut off percentage for migrating to the second gateway. No guidelines have been prescribed for this too.

The examinees are expected to be a storehouse not only of recent happenings but also of that which transpired decades back in India and abroad and have no present relevance to their functioning as civil servants

The result is that merely 3 to 4 per cent of the young brigade, which appears for the examination (numbering 4 to 5 lakh) qualify for the main examination. They get eliminated by not being able to answer the questions of the nature stated earlier. This is highly frustrating for the youth of the country, who are on the threshold of starting their careers. The government and the UPSC needs to ponder whether such frustration amongst the youth, about whom the PM speaks with great pride, is in the interest of the country. The setting of papers for general studies for prelims for Indian civil services clearly needs to be reviewed for future examinations to avoid questions of the above nature, which have no relevance for testing the suitability of aspirants for civil services.

The writer is former Chairman, CBDT

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