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Resurgence of civil services?

While more and more aspirants are opting for the civil services, the increase in age limit and number of attempts have resulted in undermining the quality of entrants

GOVERNANCE is the main mantra of any government. As bureaucracy is the main agency of the government, it won’t be wrong to say that the quality of senior bureaucrats would determine the quality of governance. How well it has fared in the last 68 years since Independence has been a subject of endless debate and though the performance can be termed as above average, the detractors have not shied away from dubbing bureaucrats ‘babus’, clubbing them with junior-level functionaries like clerks. This has obviously not deterred aspirants in hundreds of thousands from trying to enter the haloed portals of the civil services.

In the early years following Independence, there were few career options that were considered more elite than the civil services (CS) and armed forces. Not unnaturally, the IAS, the successor of the all-powerful ICS, and IFS were considered the most sought-after. Though private companies, especially large corporate groups, paid much higher salaries and good perquisites, the perceived lack of security dissuaded many a worthy aspirant. For graduates from engineering colleges, including IITs whose graduates started arriving on the scene in 1955, Indian Engineering Services was the most sought-after option. That was followed by state government jobs in the public works department, electricity boards and public sector enterprises.

This remained the position till the 1970s, by which time the Indian Institutes of Management and other leading business school alumni entered the market, commanding attractive salaries and perks. Many of the business school alumni were engineering degree holders as well. The corporate sector and multinationals became the cynosure of aspirants. The hard work and stressful life that ensued didn’t deter the bravehearts. It had its rewards, of course: salaries and savings not imaginable by government officers and postings abroad with added perks. A time came when it was said that the government attracted only mediocre students. This was only partially true and was on account of government servants believed to have become shy of taking bold decisions and preferring to play safe in the absence of rewards, increasingly feeling the presence of the sword of Damocles.

Engineers and other professionals also joined the CS, though initially their number was small. Some of the disciplines, like medicine and veterinary sciences, were not permitted to compete. Besides, the age limit was 20-24 years for IPS applicants, who had to write two optional papers, 21-24 for all others. But central service aspirants had to opt for three lower papers in addition to compulsory papers, while IAS/IFS were required to write two more optional papers. The choices of optional papers were circumscribed by some conditions. Age was relaxed for SC/ST candidates and they were also given an extra chance. Subsequently, apparently due to political pressure and lobbying, doctors and veterinarians were also permitted to compete. More relaxations were to follow.

A disturbing fact is that the age limit has gone up from 24 to 32 for the general category (including creamy layer of OBCs) and number of chances up from two to six

In initial years, the entire examination process was conducted in English. The alternative of Hindi was anathema to non-Hindi speaking states, citing unfair advantage to candidates from the Hindi belt. Dilution has reached such a stage that there were agitations against even the English paper that tested only passing familiarity of the candidates with it. As a result, marks obtained in English (and one Indian language) are merely qualifying papers and not added for preparing the merit list.

Whether one likes it or not, our colonial past can’t be wished away, nor the fact that English has been truly the only link language so far. Besides, English is a global language and any suggestion that it will be replaced by any other language in the near future is idle speculation. This does not mean that we should not allow other languages to come up. Already, many states carry out their administration in their respective language along with English. AIS officers (IAS, IPS, IFoS) have to learn the language of the state allotted to them. So, if a person is allotted to a state with a language different from his own, one has not only to learn the State’s language, but must also have a decent command over English as well.

IN due course, more candidates from rural areas started attempting the CS, which was a good thing. The demand then arose that in view of their background and non-elitist character, age relaxation should be given and number of chances increased. Reservation was also extended to OBCs, in addition to SC/ST candidates. Down the line, more and more caste groups have started demanding OBC status, regardless of the Supreme Court having restricted reservation to 50 per cent. SC/ST status seems more or less settled. However, there are STs, who, by any stretch of imagination, do not fit the criteria for being declared a ST. There may be similar cases among SCs and OBCs too. Creamy layer considerations also seem to have been given a go-by in case of STs. It is time to revisit the SC/ST/OBC reservations. The conundrum of caste reservations in services and even in educational institutions seems to have stood the logic of integration in due course on its head! But that is another story. Age relaxation and number of attempts have also been going up, thus giving the wags a chance to claim that mugging is the passport to civil services.

A disturbing fact is that age limit has gone up from 24 to 32 for the general category (including creamy layer of OBCs) and number of chances up from two to six. In case of OBCs, upper age limit is now 35 and number of chances nine. In case of SC/ST, age limit is 37, with no limit of number of attempts. One can see some SC/ST MBBS doctors making 8-10 attempts. This means that for these years they are not giving more than a nodding tribute to their basic discipline. Making a rough estimate of number of “doctor years” wasted or underutilised would run into a tidy figure. Hundreds of MBBS candidates would not be selected for any service, leading to frustration, which could also affect their performance, in more than one way. Such wastage in all likelihood is the maximum in case of ST candidates and considering that medical services in rural and tribal areas are sub-minimal, it does seem a pity.

On a recent visit to the LBS National Academy of Administration, staff members mentioned many problems in dealing with older Officer Trainees (OTs). For one, they have been working in some field or the other. They are worldly wise and feel that there is little for them to learn in the Academy, especially as they may be taught by CS officers on the staff, who are actually younger than the OTs! Academy curriculum includes physical training, yoga and horse riding. Except those not so young OTs, who have been following fitness regimes, or playing games, it is unlikely that they will be able to come up to the expected standards of fitness, nor inculcate the values attached to sports. In Mussoorie, most OTs live in the valley and have to climb a hundred feet or so for the classes. Many are out of breath by the time they reach the classroom. All this is likely to tell on their performance as officers as well.

A very important aspect of the candidates who attempt CS is the disciplines they come from. As the purpose of allowing all sorts of disciplines is to broadbase the knowledge pool coming into the services, one would expect them to take an optional paper from their own subject. Instead, a majority of candidates opt for one out of just five-six subjects: public administration, sociology, philosophy, psychology, geography. History, an old-time favourite, now finds but a few takers, mostly from those who studied the subject for their degree. Many opt for subjects like literature in various Indian languages. Maithili/Sanskrit were seen to be favoured by many (even though their degrees may be in engineering or medicine) who did not even speak the language! Reason is obvious: these earn decent scores. In most cases, where optional paper is different from the basic discipline, reading guide books with standard Q&A seems the norm and not a desire to learn the subject. This becomes clear when questions are put during the interview on the topics covering their respective optional subjects.

In most cases, where optional paper is different from the candidate’s basic discipline, reading guide books with standard Q&A seems the norm and not a desire to learn the subject

Around 75-80 per cent of the successful candidates are BE/BTech degree holders, including those from premier institutions like IITs (Kharagpur, Kanpur, Delhi, Mumbai, Roorkee) and NIITs, and so on. Nearly 75-80 per cent of them hold degrees in computer science, IT and related subjects. This is followed by MBBS, comprising 10-15 per cent or so, and a meagre 10-15 per cent from BA/BSc and other degrees. These are rough estimates, but sufficiently close. This suggests that the extant pattern is more favourable to technical and medical graduates and, by implication, less favourable to candidates with humanities background, thereby limiting the so-called broadbase considerably. While scientific temper is useful, utility of humanities in administration can’t be denied. Moreover, technical and medical talent is being sacrificed at the altar of the CS.

Many of the BEs have spent years in Navratnas like NTPC, BHEL and other industries and earned one or more promotions. They are sometimes drawing salaries much more than what they might get after another 10-12 years at current rates. From the private sector, some are drawing salaries higher than that of GOI secretaries, a level they are unlikely to reach if they enter the CS at an age higher than 30.

Among doctors, some have graduated from prestigious institutions like AIIMS and even worked there. So, what are they seeking by joining the CS? One possible attraction is the status conferred by the CS. As IAS is the top priority followed by IPS, the trappings of offices of DC and SP, the most visible symbols of ‘power’ seem to be attracting many of them, though they could not be unaware of the transient nature of a DC’s tenure, followed by years of glorified file pushing. Yet, strangely, the white collar seems to score over even the surgeon’s white coat.

While part of the answer seems to lie in the skewed value system of Indian society and the colonial mindset, it is difficult to get rid of the suspicion that power (as perceived by aspirants) also means much else. Traditionally, the CS have been lionised for their integrity. But over time, many idols seem to have fallen at the altar of selfindulgence. Considering that several candidates attempting the CS have worked at cutting-edge levels of services like Police (SIs), IT (Inspectors) and Revenue (Tehsildars), known for their corrupt practices, what are the chances these persons so knowledgeable about the nitty-gritty of the system will resist the temptations that will come their way on a much wider platform?

Disadvantaged groups and rural candidates should get additional chances and age relaxation. But, upper age limit should be fixed at 28 and number of chances limited to three

Disadvantaged groups like SC/STs and rural candidates should get additional chances and age relaxation. But, upper age limit should be fixed at 28 and number of chances limited to a maximum of three for all except SC/ST, who may get two more years and two more chances. If a candidate has reasonable talent and aptitude, he should be able to clear all three stages of examinations in these attempts. Clearing exams after years of mugging and by rote does not exactly establish his aptitude for the CS.

Overwhelming majority of BE/BTech are from IT-related disciplines and are absorbed in the IT industry as software engineers. But, other engineering disciplines and BCA/MCA degree holders also get employed in similar positions, creating a paradoxical situation. Wherein, on the one hand, there is demand in IT-related fields, on the other hand, the supply seems excessive. Sensing a killing in education, many technical colleges have opened. It is a colossal waste and raises questions about education policy, curricula, demand projections in different disciplines. Quality education also comes into focus, because the industry does need talented persons in each discipline. Obviously, medical or BE degrees are essentially being used as fallback positions for those who are not successful in getting the “coveted” CS.

A side effect of this phenomenon could be that fewer bright minds would be opting for humanities. It can’t be anybody’s case that subjects like history, geography, economics, literature, and so on do not need competent people. Those who join such streams as a last resort may often end up looking for teaching jobs. There would, of course, be those who study these disciplines because of interest and may also go in for research. Some of them would enter CS as they are capable and CS would be richer too. But, the long and short of this situation is that humanities themselves would be poorer in the long run.

Finally, once upon a time, a candidate had to obtain passing marks in the interview as well. This was later dispensed with, possibly for good reason. Maybe even now, a board may award low marks if a candidate appears to be falling short. Suggestions have been made to include a psychological test, but it can’t be said with certainty that such a move would be constructive. Still, as the performance of CS officers is crucial to governance of the country, some more value needs to be attached to the interview and broadbasing it to judge their personality, mental attitudes and leadership qualities.

It is learnt that one more committee is being constituted to look into the whole process of recruitment for CS. It is hoped that the committee will take a practical view and not be swayed by political considerations that seem to have led to the present situation, of which only some aspects have been mentioned above.

Arun Kumar is former IAS officer of 1965 batch, Kerala cadre

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