August 07, 2014

The UPSC exam: Looking for a long term solution

Wednesday saw a lively discussion in Parliament on the Civil Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The issue is out on the streets, with candidates, particularly from Hindi-speaking states, protesting about the format of the preliminary examination. They want the removal of the English language comprehension test and of the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), which tests soft skills such as communication and problem solving.

In a knee-jerk reaction, the government has dropped the English language comprehension component, but this hasn’t solved the problem. The controversy is a complex one, especially in a country of such linguistic diversity and divergence in English language use. It follows that the solution should be nuanced as well. A sledgehammer approach – drop this paper, cut out that language – will not do.

Candidates who appear for the Civil Services Examination take two general studies papers at the preliminary level. They can take these in Hindi or English. These are multiple-choice tests of basic general knowledge, the CSAT, and till 2013, the English comprehension section (“Where do you place a handkerchief? In (a) a shoe; (b) a pocket...” and so on).

Those who qualify for the main examination, sit nine additional papers. Of these two are qualifying papers – English and one modern Indian language. The English paper is worth 300 marks. Even if the candidates avoid the English test at the preliminary stage, they cannot avoid it when it comes to the main examination.

The main examination also tests the candidates in four general studies papers and two papers in any one specialised subject – it could range from physics to economics. These subject papers can be taken in not just English or Hindi but a variety of Indian languages.

Following this, those who qualify from the main examination are interviewed. Successful candidates are then trained for about two years. The shortest training period is for the Indian Revenue Service (18 months) and the longest for the Indian Foreign Service (three years, including foreign language training).

What is Trinamool’s solution? India’s variety of languages and the fact that many good, suitable civil service candidates may not come from English-speaking families is a reality. On the other hand, the ability to use English in working life, whether in government or the private sector, is also a reality.

As such, we have four suggestions:

Just like the optional subject papers in the main examination can be answered in any one of many Indian languages listed in the Eighth Schedule, there should be – from 2015 – provision for translation of the preliminary examination papers as well. Candidates should be able to appear for the two papers in their mother tongue or the language of their choice, not just English or Hindi.

CSAT should not be summarily rejected or blindly defended. It has its uses in today’s world and needs to be debated by all stakeholders – candidates, academics, public administration specialists, former civil servants, even human resource consultants from the private sector.

The English comprehension test at the preliminary stage should be permanently dropped, as the government has already agreed to do for this year. The 300-mark English paper at the main examination stage should and must be retained.

Successful candidates should have English language training, particularly spoken English training, as part of their first-year programme. They should be imparted 300 hours of spoken English training over 12 months, with 100 hours coming in the first three months. This is what language specialists recommend for non-native speakers.

In this regard, I would like to point out Mamata Banerjee, when she was railway minister, made sure Indian Railway recruitment examinations were conducted in all languages of the Eighth Schedule. As West Bengal chief minister, she has adopted this inclusive policy when it comes to the State Public Service Commission examinations. Even OlChiki, the language of the Santhali tribal people, has been brought into the examination process, to increase the social base of government recruitment.

Language is a sensitive issue in our country. In some states, there are apprehensions about English. In other states, there are apprehensions about Hindi. As such, this matter needs to be tackled with deft. However, it is also important for those in the upper echelons of government, or any job, really, to be conversant with English. Rightly or wrongly, it is the language much of the world uses.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress