The recent agitation by civil services aspirants, focused as it was on the language issue, raises a larger question about the mode of recruitment to this critical institution of governance. The quality of governance is largely dependent on the quality of civil servants, which in turn is determined in large measure by the rigour and integrity of the recruitment process.
What are the attributes that make for an effective and good civil servant? Men and women who can think in an analytical manner, communicate effectively and take crucial decisions of administration and policy. To quote Joseph Schumpeter, "It is not enough that the bureaucracy should be efficient in current administration and competent to give advice. It must be strong enough to guide and if need be to instruct the politicians who head ministries."
Is the current recruitment process able to effectively identify individuals who fit the bill? The answer is 'no'. Despite the many changes in the process of recruitment, the system has remained essentially unchanged; however, the rigour that was once associated with the examination has been eroded.
The recruitment process introduced post-Independence was an adaptation of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The medium of examination was English, the aspirants for the most part were from urban backgrounds. Since English was the medium of instruction at the college level, aspirants faced no difficulty in taking the civil services examination.
The situation changed when the medium of instruction in colleges was no longer limited to English. Many institutions introduced Indian languages as their medium of instruction. The swelling in the ranks of the graduates led to a demand to broad-base the civil services. It was articulated as a move away from its elitist and post-colonial moorings to become a truly Indian service. The change came with the Kothari Commission, which was accepted by the government in 1979. Candidates were now permitted to take the examination in any of the languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. To contend with the explosion in the number of candidates, the Kothari Commission introduced an integrated system of two examinations consisting of a qualifying preliminary, comprising objective questions, and a second examination, subjective in form, which came to be known as "mains" to be taken by those who got through the qualifying "prelims". Given the large number of candidates, and the limited numbers that were to be recruited, the preliminary examination took on the nature of an elimination round.
This "elimination" character of the preliminary examination was inevitable. In the last round of the civil services examination, some 7,76,565 candidates registered for the examination, of these only 3,23,949 appeared for the examination. Of these only 14,959 qualified to appear for the "mains", this group was whittled down to 3,003 candidates who were interviewed for a total of 1,122 positions. These numbers indicate how crucial the preliminary examination (CSAT from 2010) is and why every question counts. It also explains why students, who are not conversant with English, were agitating about questions on English comprehension worth 22 marks.
The central question remains: Is an objective examination whose main aim is "elimination" the best way to identify the men and women, who will form the backbone of governance in this complex and diverse country? The most serious indictment of the recruitment process came from the man appointed by the government to look into the system, former University Grants Commission chairman Arun Nigavekar: "Most of the current crop neither have an understanding of the realities nor know how to react to various crises". The Nigavekar report also makes a veiled reference to the inability of a large number of the candidates to communicate effectively or even express themselves with a modicum of clarity: "What we want is the candidate to be able to intelligently converse in at least one language, and it doesn't matter whether it is English or a local language." This is even more worrisome, when we consider that the level of language proficiency required is quite low, set at the class X level. Remember, all candidates have completed 12 years of schooling and at least three years of undergraduate studies.
It is clear then that the recruitment process has, over the years, lost its rigour. It is difficult to pinpoint any one factor. But one thing is clear: as India moves forward to address the increasing complexities, it will require civil servants who are capable of interfacing with the world with increasing sophistication — of thinking, decision-making and implementation abilities and communication. For this to happen the rigour and integrity of the recruitment process must be restored.
It would be prudent to start the recruitment process early, right after completing high school, in a system akin to the IITs. Those interested in joining the civil services will seek admission in these IIT-like public- funded institutes, with each state having one. The civil service intake will be only from these institutes through an examination. The combined demand from the Central and state services will probably exceed the total intake. In time, even other sectors — non-governmental and private — could benefit from this system. This will stop the "social waste" arising out of engineering, medicine or management degree-holders joining the civil service.
The transition to this new system could take five to seven years. In the interim a modified version of the current recruitment process should be used. The first round will comprise three papers — the two language papers of the current "mains" examination and a suitably designed third paper. The first paper is an Indian language paper, this will offset the perceived advantage that English medium students have. Candidates will be tested on their knowledge of English in the second paper, ensuring a level-playing field. The marks obtained in this round will determine which candidates appear for the next round of examinations, and the final ranking will be determined on the basis of scores in both rounds of the examination and the personality test or interview round.
The long-term solution of an IIT-like specialised institute will hopefully reduce the rural-urban gap, as the curriculum will ensure that students are conversant with administrative and other issues, learn and improve their language and communication skills as well as have a better understanding of diversity and the diverse nature of the problems that India faces.
The author is a former Indian diplomat