Preference for English, Upper Caste Candidates: How UPSC ‘Biases’ Impact Civil Services Exam

New Delhi: In 2013, when Suraj Singh Parihar took the Civil Services Examination (CSE) and chose Hindi to converse with the interview board, he made it to the merit list, but with a rank lower than he wanted.

So, in 2014, Parihar took the CSE again. But this time he opted to converse with the interview board in English, suspecting that the language would make a difference to his marks. Sure enough, he received the merit list rank he had aimed for. Parihar has been an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer in the Chhattisgarh cadre for six years now.

Parihar’s experience does not in any way prove that the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the body that identifies and recruits candidates for India’s many Central civil services, including the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service, the IPS, and other Group A and B Central Services, has any sort of bias.

But the fact that he thought about what might have held him back the first time he took the exam, then changed the medium of his interview rounds to English the next year and emerged successful perhaps suggests that the accusations of bias that the latest batch of CSE aspirants have been making lately against the UPSC on social media may hold some truth.

The UPSC has not yet released its detailed annual report for CSE 2020, which provides figures such as the number of candidates who took the exam in Hindi. But according to the data fetched from different sources, including coaching institutions, it is estimated that only 1.5% or a mere 11 candidates who took the CSE 2020 in Hindi made it to the final merit list. This is the lowest number in a decade of steadily declining success rates for aspirants who take CSE in Indian languages. A case thus could be made to scrutinise the functioning of the UPSC for possible biases.

The language of partiality

The dismal figure of 11 successful candidates from among those who took the CSE 2020 in Hindi, claim aspirants from the Hindi-speaking north Indian states, shows that the UPSC has a language bias through the entire selection procedure, from the preliminary screening to the written examination to the personality test. This bias, they say, has been in place since 2011, when the UPSC introduced a new syllabus and examination pattern for the CSE.

The syllabus introduced in 2011 covers two separate question papers, each worth 200 marks. Paper 1 features general awareness questions relating to history, geography, political systems, environment, ecology, economic development and current affairs. Paper 2 is based on general arithmetic, data interpretation, logical reasoning, comprehension and general aptitude.

The struggle for candidates who take the exam in their local languages lies in the new examination pattern, the CSAT or Civil Services Aptitude Test.

According to Devashish, a Delhi-based civil services aspirant who has taken the CSE’s mains exam in the past, language is a big barrier for candidates in both the written and personality tests. The model answers for evaluation are exclusively in English, Devashish has told The Wire. This puts candidates taking the exam in Indian languages at disadvantage.

Parihar believes that the problem is due to poor quality Hindi translations of the question papers’ original English texts.

“The examination is highly competitive. One or two marks, even decimal points in some cases, can decide the fate of a candidate,” explains Parihar. “It is very unfortunate when an aspirant is unable to make it to the final list due to the poor translation of the questions. We live in a world where skilled linguists and content creators translate complex novels accurately, so why is it difficult to prepare an error-free translation of a question paper?”

However, Parihar also believes that translation is not the only reason why a few candidates who take the CSE in Hindi make it to the final merit list. “The entire approach, curriculum, and pedagogy of the education system in the Hindi belt of India need an overhaul,” he says.

The issue of the declining number of recommended candidates from Hindi and other Indian languages medium has been raised in the parliament as well. In August 2019, Harnath Singh Yadav, Rajya Sabha MP had given a zero-hour notice and put up a question before the house regarding the alleged disrespect shown to Hindi and other Indian languages in UPSC exams. He said that in recent years the percentage of Hindi medium students had come down.

According to the 2013-14 annual report of the UPSC, 2,096 candidates of the 2,669 candidates who appeared for the personality test in the CSE 2013 opted for the English language and 573 candidates opted for an Indian language as the medium of conversation. In the CSE 2014, 2,825 candidates opted for English while 483 candidates preferred an Indian language as the medium for their interview.

As time passed, the representation of those taking personality tests in an Indian language has grown more dismal. In the CSE 2017 and the CSE 2018, the numbers of candidates who chose an Indian language as the medium for their personality test were reduced to 273 and 250 respectively, showing that the selection from among candidates with an Indian languages background has fallen with each successive year.

“Before 2011, 10% to 15% of the candidates on the final merit list comprised aspirants from the medium of Hindi and other Indian languages. But, ever since the changes in the syllabus and exam format were made, the number of successful candidates who take the CSE in Indian languages has reduced sharply,” says Devashish.

Language barrier is not the only obstacle in the path of civil services aspirants, say academics and intellectuals. Over the years, they say, the selection of successful candidates from a humanities backgrounds has also seen a relative decline compared to the selection of candidates from the engineering and science streams.

“The figures are not encouraging,” says Professor Ashraf Imam, head of the department of Urdu at the Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar College of Bihar University in Muzaffarpur.

Imam adds: “The constant decline in the numbers of successful candidates from the Indian languages medium and the humanities backgrounds could lead to students avoiding arts (subjects) at the university level. For that matter, the Urdu language is already facing various challenges because job opportunities in the Rajbhasha departments in different states have shrunk. Policymakers must find a way to ensure diversity and equal opportunities for all.”

The issue of caste

While many of the candidates who took the CSE 2020 vouch for the language bias, several intellectuals who examined the system of marking in the personality test for the same year have discovered that fewer marks tended to be given to candidates from marginalised backgrounds compared to aspirants from the general or unreserved category.

The personality test score reveals that in the top ten rankings, none of the candidates from the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) categories crossed the benchmark of 200 marks that is crucial for entering the final merit list.

List of toppers of Civil Services 2020 exam and marks scored by each of them in written and personality tests.

In contrast, candidates hailing from the forward castes secured more than 210 marks in the personality test. In fact, the marks sheet disclosed by the UPSC strongly indicates that many aspirants from the general category would have lost the IAS rank if they had not been given ‘generous marks’ in the interview.

Senior journalist and academic Professor Dilip Mandal has been critical of this particular issue for a long time.

“Is it merely a coincidence that the heavy-weight interview board did not find a single candidate from a depressed class who could impress the panel enough to touch the benchmark of 200 which is regarded as the point of entry for the final list?” he asks, speaking to The Wire.

“Such a picture exposes the caste bias of the senior UPSC officers who search for talent in India. The functioning of the commission has been opaque. The overall selection procedure requires greater transparency and accountability.”

The final cut-offs for CSE 2020 also display a surprising picture. In an examination where entries into the merit list and the ranks of successful candidates are decided by narrow margins, the cut-offs for the newly created category of Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) were much lower than for the OBC category. For prelims and mains, the cut-offs for EWS were 77.55 and 687 marks respectively, as compared to the 89.12 and 698 marks for the OBC category. Since both categories are tested on the same benchmark of income, experts question the rationale behind the difference in the cut-offs.

The ‘reserve list’ puzzle

The same experts also question the pattern of the UPSC’s recommendations to the ‘Reserve List’ (not to be confused with caste reservations) of candidates to be inducted into the services later. As per the UPSC communique dated January 7, 2021, along with the list of recommended candidates from the Mains’ result, the Commission also maintains a consolidated Reserve List of candidates of both general and reserved categories ranking below the last recommended candidate in the merit order. This is done for subsequent recommendation to the government under each of the categories after concluding the exercise of service allocation of the recommended candidates.

While the Reserve List is meant to proportionally benefit candidates from all categories, including the reserved sections of SC, ST and OBC, on October 11, 2019, when the UPSC released the Reserve List for the CSE 2018, it was noted that out of 53 candidates recommended for the services, 38 or more than 70% were from the general category, while 0.1% were from the SC category, 0% were from the ST category and 14% from the OBC category. This means that the Reserve List of 2018 did not actually benefit the candidates from the reserved categories. Rather, it was the candidates from the general category who profited the most.

Similarly in CSE 2016 and CSE 2017, candidates from the unreserved category formed 80% and 73% of the recommendations on the Reserved List respectively.

“The IAS is the steel frame of Indian democracy. In a representative democracy like ours, equal representation of underprivileged communities should be given due diligence according to the arrangements made in the constitution of India. Unfortunately, the statistical analyses of UPSC results show that the authority responsible for recruiting a representative bureaucracy doesn’t pay heed to equity and somehow plays a catalyst role in building a barrier against the depressed sections,” alleges Prof. Mandal.

He adds: “The puzzle of the mysterious Reserve List which is made available long after the declaration of the CSE result creates doubts in the minds of aspirants. The statistics clearly show that the Reserve List turns out to be beneficial for candidates who come from unreserved categories. What is the rationale behind the disproportionate selection of general category candidates under this category? The commission must furnish the details of the individuals who could not find a place in this list.”

Former civil servant and CSE mentor Vikas Divyakirti also advocates for greater transparency in the UPSC’s selection procedure.

“Unless the results reflect equal representation, aspirants will remain sceptical about their preparation methodology. Social and linguistic diversity plays a key role in shaping the future of this country. The UPSC must think about these concerns and formulate a plan of action to encourage diversity and inclusion in the bureaucracy. Otherwise, it will remain the colonial-era administrative system where nobles and affluent individuals ruled the people,” says Divyakirti, speaking to The Wire.

This is not the first time that the transparency and the functioning of the UPSC are being questioned. In 2014, CSE aspirants held a nationwide protest alleging discrimination in the selection for the final list based on language and medium.

Over the years, the number of applicants has increased exponentially, but the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ political gimmick has cast a shadow on the hopes and aspirations of thousands of young people.

At present, the number of vacancies in civil services is almost half of those in 2013. In such a scenario, candidates from the socially and educationally marginalised classes are left with no option except to petition the government to scrutinise the functioning of the UPSC for biases.

Aadil Raza Khan is a freelance journalist. He was earlier with Rajya Sabha TV.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty