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Civil Services Examination: Selecting the right candidates

The article seeks to highlight some of the anomalies in the selection process of the civil services examination conducted by Union Public Service Commission and suggest corrective measures to rectify them.

By Anubhav Srivastava

June 20, 2009

The Indian Civil Services have been regarded as the steel frame of administration. Despite the lure of high salaries from the corporate sector, the civil services continue to retain their charm. Every year, lakhs of young aspirants apply for the civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). Only a few hundred among them finally make it to the coveted list. 

Considering that these people will get to play a crucial role in shaping the destiny of the nation, the selection procedure leaves a lot to be desired. For any genuine selection process, the element of luck should be kept to the minimum so that the candidates with actual capabilities emerge on top. However experience has shown that civil services examinations need to become more objective and transparent so that the best and the brightest people enter the Indian bureaucracy.
The first stage of the selection process is the preliminary examination, held in the month of May. The preliminary stage of the exam consists of two objective-type papers with the optional paper and the general studies paper carrying a maximum of 300 and 150 marks respectively. According to some aspirants, due to the manifold increase in the number of candidates appearing for the exams since the time the current system was evolved and with no corresponding increase in the total number of posts, the questions have become absurdly tough over the years. 

They admit that many a time, it is just on the basis of intelligent guesswork that they decide as to which of the four options is the right one. The tough question paper perhaps became necessary to eliminate more candidates but at the same time, it has led to a situation where more than the ability and knowledge of the candidate, luck become the deciding factor for crossing the preliminary stage. 

A candidate, appearing for his third attempt with history as an optional, jokingly commented, “The most important reforms undertaken by the most important ruler in the history of India will never be an important question for the prelims. However, the least important work done by a little known ruler becomes the most important question.” Hence there are many cases when people with sound knowledge of the subject fail to clear the prelims while those who have the ability to cram the facts and figures make it to the main examinations.

The main examination, held in October-November also does not seem to be fool-proof in this regard. In this, every candidate has to appear in a total of nine papers. Out of these, five papers – Indian Language, English, Essay and two papers on General Studies – are common for all the candidates. Apart from these, the candidate has to appear in four more papers which test his/her knowledge on the two optional subjects he has to select from a prescribed list. 
The biggest cause of contention in this exam (this is an issue in the preliminary exams also) has been the scaling that is done by the UPSC to account for the inherent difficulty of various subjects and the variations in the difficulty of question paper of a particular year in comparison to the papers of the previous years. The UPSC has till date not disclosed exactly how it goes about the scaling process in order to bring parity in the marks obtained by candidates in different optional papers. 

Similarly, for the personality test of the candidate, just one interview is held. This is inappropriate as it is easy for anyone to prepare for a half an hour interview by taking mock interview classes and formulating (and cramming) answers for the expected questions. There is an urgent need to change the system of the personality test in the civil services examinations and model it on the lines of Services Selection Board (SSB) tests which are conducted for entry into the armed forces. 

Here are some suggestions to remove the above mentioned anomalies in the selection process – 

  • More candidates should be selected from the Preliminary stage of the civil services exams for the Mains examination and from the Mains examinations for the interview stage. The ideal ratio of selected candidates to the total number of candidates appearing should be 1:10 in both stages. 
  • The marks obtained by a candidate in the preliminary stage should be added to the marks obtained by him/her in the Mains examination for determining the final ranking. 
  • The optional papers in the civil services examinations should be done away with at both the preliminary and optional stage. All the papers should be common for all the candidates. This will ensure that there is a level playing field for all the candidates. The written exams should test a candidate knowledge about the contemporary socio-economic-political themes like globalisation, terrorism, economic meltdown, corruption, sustainable development, renewable energy, etc.  

  • A more comprehensive process for personality assessment of candidates should be adopted where every aspect of a candidate’s personality is minutely analysed. It should include psychological tests, logical reasoning, situation reaction tests and mental alertness tests apart from judging a candidate’s leadership abilities and group-skills. 
  • The government should review the recommendations of Y.K. Alagh committee on a priority basis and make all the necessary changes in the selection process. A time gap of two years should be provided to the candidates to get accustomed to the new selection process. 

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India. 

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