Saturday, August 20th, 2022 05:25:23

UPSC CSAT: From Big Bang To Whimper?

Updated: October 15, 2014 2:24 pm

On a sedate Sunday afternoon, within the laxities of Kolkata, sometime in July; with as far as the memory lane can be stretched backwards, I received a call from one of the reputed—if not the most vibrant TV channels of the country. It was not unusual and as on previous occasions, I expected a call for participation in a debate on the Maoist movement. At that juncture I was attempting to decipher any recent acts of insurgency which could propel the channel to conduct any such show. Before I could gather the notoriety of the Maoists, I was basically taken aback at the query posed by my friend from the media: “Is there any separate examination conducted after the Civil Services Examination, so as to select the candidates for IAS, IPS etc.?” After I uttered a blunt “No”, she continued with added zeal and without any apparent dismay; “Then what is the procedure for selecting candidates to the different services? And how many services are there?” I felt contented to have satiated her thirst for knowledge about the ‘Steel Frame of India.’ At the same time, however, I was not at all a bit, but rather perplexed to have discovered the lack of information about the country’s arguably most arduous examination—and that too for an informed and giant media-house.

The Roaring July

Let’s not castigate my friend from the media for not having adequate information about the Civil Services Examination [CSE]. She surely wasn’t the only one. July 2014 witnessed a series of agitations in the Indian Capital—especially in those ‘gullies’ and streets of Mukherjee Nagars and Rajinder Nagars which are thronged by the civil service coaching centres. Sustained as they were, sometimes the aspirant-police duel in the streets, lanes and chowks imitated the anarchic realm composed by the sans-culottes during the momentous French Revolution. Equally upbeat was the string of reportage and analytical pieces inundating the print and digital media.

Though Louis XVI diarised “Nothing”, 14 July 1789 was a day of the beginning of the end of the Ancien Regime in France. The storming of the fort of Bastille on that day, scripted a radical departure from the past. It was not mere symbolism, but sculpting of a new era—decorated with the engravings of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The spirited aspirants of Civil Services, claimed to ‘fight’ from an alleged plane of inequality so as to uplift not only themselves but their entire brethren across the country to a dais of equality and in the process had the affront to liberate the system from its ancient trappings of sheer elitism and colonial relics.

Without delving into the rationale of the agitations, the Kaun Banega Crorepati question, however is, whether the diligent, enthusiastic and gumptious aspirants—cutting across gender, religion and region; succeeded in achieving what they had set out for? Could they make a mark, rather an indelible imprint on the history of student agitation in India, as the subaltern sans-culottes could do during the late 1780s and early 1790s in Paris? Or even on a lesser intensity—could they achieve anything noteworthy so as to equate them with the European and Latin American students dreaming romanticism to bring an end to the neo-liberal agenda in the 1960s? Or could they manage a reflection of the Bengalee students of the lanes and by-lanes of College Street of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Or did they simply run helter-skelter?

Their demands were starkly different. I mean that of the Parisian mobs, the fans of Franz Fanon in Europe and the followers of Chairman Mao in erstwhile Calcutta; and the Delhi-ite aspirants of CSE on the other hand. Undoubtedly so. The former underprivileged set [Parisian mobs] were fighting for bread and loaf whilst the latter group, with all not being privileged and naturally so, were forcing their demands for a change in the examination structure, in order to build a passage connecting their flats and chawls with the corridors of power. Mere ‘bread’ was never their agenda; cakes, pies and chocobars of power and authority, always were. Setting the trajectory of liberty and equality through the labyrinth of antiquated and improvident state structures was in no way their goal; settling scores with the Union Public Service Commission [UPSC] for the latter’s revised examination pattern definitely was.


On that count, the CSE aspirants were probably mimicking the Calcutta rebels of the 1960s & 70s—to the extent of ransacking the corridors of education and defying any standard sets, norms and patterns of examination. Liberty—was the clarion call !

One concern indubitably emerges—a set of aggressive individuals—sometimes though with a facade of non-violence and Gandhi-esque fasts, hell bent upon having their demands accepted; do they ‘qualify’ for being Civil Servants and nurture the ‘disciplined’ master-servant hierarchy in India’s bureaucracy, even if they may qualify the CSE? Or is this the New India with would-be-bureaucrats in their neo-avatars which indicate a de-bureaucratisation of the colonial vestige?

August Engulfs All

The unrest fizzled, if not completely petered out by the first week of August by when the government assured of addressing the demands of the agitators. By the way, what exactly were they demanding? To appreciate this question, it is germane to understand the erstwhile structure of the CSE. The examination for the coveted services is duly conducted by UPSC—a constitutional body and it takes place in two stages: Preliminary and Mains. However, the Mains further encompass a Personality Test and the combined marks obtained in the written part in the Mains and the Personality Test determines the final merit of the candidate. The rank in the merit list alongwith the preference for services, finally place a candidate/aspirant in a particular Civil Service—viz. Indian Administrative Service [IAS], Indian Foreign Service [IFS], Indian Police Service [IPS], Indian Revenue Service [IRS], Indian Defence Accounts Service [IDAS], Indian Defence Estates Service [IDES], Indian Audit and Accounts Service [IA&AS] and so on. With over three hundred thousand candidates appearing at the initial stage of the examination and the numbers are growing every year—reportedly four and half hundred thousand in 2014; it is imperative for UPSC to screen or ‘weed out’ the so-called ‘non-serious’ candidates at the initial stage itself—hence the justification to have a Preliminary exam or ‘Prelims’.

The Prelims consist of two papers on General Studies [in fact, there is no paper titled CSAT—it’s a name coined by the coaching institutes of Delhi and seem to be favourably buttressed by the media]—the first paper concentrates on anything and everything about India—her polity, history, geography, economy among others; alongwith a focus on environment, ecology, human diseases and basic sciences of matriculation level. The level of the questions varies from year to year. Nevertheless, it could be said with impunity that no average being on the street with a graduation degree will be able to answer those. Though UPSC assures that no specialised knowledge is necessary to tackle the questions in Paper I, it is not always so. Whatever, some serious knowledge about India from the pages of the plus two text books of National Council of Educational Research and Training [NCERT] or as gleaned through Bipan Chandra’s historiography and that doyen D D Basu’s scholarship is essential—if one is serious enough not only to scurry past Prelims but crack the code in Mains.

The Fundamentals

It’s the General Studies Paper II [GS II] which was the bone of contention during the July agitations. The agitpropists were keen to abrogate the paper altogether. Their demand was based on the fundamental premise, that the paper was discriminatory and hence skewed against the aspirants coming from the vernacular mediums / humanities background. In what way?

GS II actually contains in its realm Mathematics of class X standard, Decision Making problems for administrators, data interpretation and logical reasoning, and finally English Comprehension—again of class X level. However, it is safe to point out here that the syllabi delineated by UPSC for CSE in reality can always ‘cross the Alps or Rubicon’—without rationalising for the same. To be fair to UPSC or any examining / recruiting body, the privilege of choosing the examination pattern / structure / level of questions should lie with that body and not on the examinees. In this case, we may do well to remember that the CSE is an examination with high stakes for many actors—aspirants, coaching industry based in Delhi and North India, media and government—and thus so much under the scanner. And more so since it’s an examination to choose the country’s bureaucrats, there are always the questions of equitable social representation in the top echelons of civil service. Nobody raises eyebrows when the questions of the management entrance examination—the mighty CAT [Common Admission Test] or stylish XAT [Xavier Aptitude Test]—cross the sphere of toughness and venture into the zone of ‘very difficult’ mathematical riddles or incomprehensible passages in English. Agitations and fracas however continued with the police on the aspect of whether to have a GS II paper—which according to a section of the aspirants, is / was discriminatory / exclusive because of it containing English passages [though with lesser degree of toughness compared with CAT / XAT] and maths [again with a level lower than XAT / CAT].


Furthermore, it is to be noted that there is a full-scale English paper of 250 marks of the level of class X at the Mains stage. The paper is of qualifying nature only; i.e. marks scored in this paper will not be counted for merit determination, but, aspirants will have to pass this paper, if they are to be considered for a rank. Secondly, the State Civil Service Commissions; viz. that of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh conduct their Prelims having English as a subject / topic and there seems to be no hue and cry against it. Thirdly, isn’t it interesting to observe that only a few hundred aspirants road-blocking in Delhi should be strong enough to shake the authorities? Even with all magnification of this July-agitation, an honest journalistic submission must be that this movement was narrowly local and not broadly representative.

In fact, why the aspirants from the regional bases; especially the Hindi-belt, not voicing their concerns? Why was there no movement expressing solidarity with their Delhi brethren through social networking sites? On the contrary, posts over Facebook were rather antagonistic to the anti-CSAT tirade.

A plausible counter-argument would be that ‘most’ of the aspirants assemble at Delhi for preparation and hence agitations at Delhi reflect the pulse of the nation in this regard. Though, there is no gainsaying the fact that due to centrality in location, accessibility to coaching institutes and study materials and Delhi being the seat of political power, it is all the more logical to have a substantial number of aspirants staying / preparing / appearing for the exams from Delhi. In 2014, around 66,000 candidates, took the Prelims from Delhi. Clearly, it shows that everything about CSE is not in Delhi, with close to four hundred thousand taking the Prelims from other parts of the country. With the rise of the internet, information and study materials are now at the press of a nimble finger—and the regional players are also seemingly confident of unfettering the anchorage of Delhi. The myth of Delhi is slowly eroding with toppers and qualifiers coming from Kerala, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and other regions. So what happened to those voices in non-Delhi India? Or did they not have the consciousness to fathom the gravity of the problem / oppression by UPSC and revolt accordingly? Or were they simply looking at the Big Brothers and Sisters in Delhi to show them the path to salvation?

The Debate

Since 2011—the year of introduction of GS II/CSAT in Prelims, UPSC in its bilingual question paper format, is setting two types of passages in English—one set quite simple and without Hindi translation; while the other having the translation but relatively difficult. Along with the fundamental demand of scrapping the GS II altogether, the protestors also expressed extreme reservations on the quality of translation – which according to them turn out to be bizarre since the Google Translator is used without much application of mind. The big question is whether inclusion of English Passages while selecting the Civil Servants should be construed as discriminatory? This may not be fundamentally correct since some command over English is required for diplomats, bureaucrats, managers and police officers alike—the functional requirements of the job necessitating so. Arguments galore: post-selection training can bridge the gap—but the debate ensues, to what extent a building can be erected with a fragile base? Moreover, a very pertinent point is why the agitators did not ask scrapping of the English Compulsory paper at the Mains stage? Either they were focusing on a narrow field of view or they would have done so at an opportune moment—may be after their initial demand of scrapping the ‘CSAT’ was adhered to. Further, why they did not raise the clamour in 2011 itself? Silence.


A sorry tale was that nothing substantial occurred. The final decision taken by the government and published about a week before the D-Day Prelims [i.e. Sunday, August 24] narrated a ‘middle path’. Since, it was too late for UPSC to print fresh question papers—legally and logically so, and that the Arvind Verma Committee constituted to look into the feasibility of continuing with ‘CSAT’ did not recommend to scrap the paper; the level of the English and Maths / logical reasoning questions framed in 2014 Prelims turned out to be a fait accompli. As a last moment salvation bid, the aspirants were ‘requested’ not to attempt the questions on English Comprehension of Class X level. Those were around 8-9 questions based on 2-3 passages, whose English translation was not available. Fact of the matter is that those passages were the most scoring and ‘friendly’ to the aspirants educated in the vernaculars since they are generally quite easy. Moreover, the ‘middle path’ solution created more confusion since many interpreted it to have a license not to attempt ‘any’ question on English Comprehension—such an insight emerging in the perturbed mind of the average aspirant due to the dual effect of a late official response and concomitant hullabaloo in the media.

A peep into the GS II paper as conducted by UPSC on August 24, 2014 evoked surprises. By reasonable standards, it was a time consuming and a ‘bit’ difficult paper for most aspirants. The English passages were lengthy and the level had gone up a notch higher it seemed. The maths / logical reasoning questions were not very straight forward—at least for the aspirants from the humanities background. Even the CAT/XAT aspirants found the paper challenging so as to enable them score high. In real terms then, what was the gain of the protestors and their ‘passive’ fraternity? Hindi translation remained as is, difficult English passages made their way through and maths / logical reasoning was there to stay.

It is quite a logical point of view why English, maths and reasoning should not be a part of the Prelims for CSE—when management, banking and even other UPSC exams carry out similar exercises—and in those cases, without any hindrances. Furthermore, in the pre-2011 paradigm of CSE, Maths and Logical Reasoning questions were very much a part of the GS paper. Only English passages and Decision making problems were the new agenda post 2011. Intriguingly, in 2014, even the decision making questions, which do not have negative marking associated, were missing from the ambit of GS II—to the consternation of many. The point of concern actually is somewhere else—a point not much highlighted either by the agitators or the journalists.

GS II contains 80 questions totalling 200 marks whereas GS I contains 100 questions for 200—a clear case of disparity and bias. Further, with GS I encompassing a wide range of subjects, it is all the more plausible that GS I should have more weightage. And more so since in the Mains [the actual stage of the exam, when determination of merit takes place, as Prelims is only a screening exam], the subjects / topics of GS I are vividly dealt with. In fact, having a candidate writing Mains with scant knowledge of the topics pertaining to GS I can be a ludicrous situation and it does not augur well for bureaucracy either. A candidate who took Mains in 2013 but missed the final merit list by less than half a dozen marks, narrated this author his laughable experience of seeing an aspirant leaving the examination hall during mains just after the first bell ! This is not the scenario contemplated, since it defeats the very purpose of Prelims—viz. weeding out the non-serious aspirants.

What Next?

Decisions are supposed to be taken at the appropriate level. May be an all-party meet. If solutions do not emerge this year, another spate of protests, more furious may be, just before the examination in 2015 can be in the offing. Then again, a knee-jerk solution could be proffered. That’s obviously not the emerging scenario which is expected. More weightage could be accorded to GS I or at least in relative measure, GS II could have lesser importance. Another solution could be to have a GS II in line with the compulsory English paper in Mains; i.e. make GS II of qualifying nature altogether. A minimum standard could be set for GS II and the marks won’t determine the graduation to the Mains level.

Meanwhile, it would not be a facile proposition that the aspirants need to breathe deep, study meticulously as per a well-knit plan, extricating themselves from the extraneous questions: What will be asked in the exams? Will English remain or not? Will CSAT remain? By all probability, they were doing so; it was only the handful of agitators in Delhi who need to do it. Nonetheless, it won’t be catastrophic at all if the structure of CSE-Prelims is looked into and reforms unleashed. Reforms are warranted.

(The author is a Civil Servant under Ordnance Factory Board, Ministry of Defence, Govt.

of India.)

By Uddipan Mukherjee

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