Challenges before bureaucracy
“Civil services in India are in an urgent need of reforms, if not an overhaul,” says Pranay Aggarwal.
Bureaucracy in India has always been at the forefront of delivering public services, getting things in order and implementing government schemes and programmes irrespective of the elected representatives governing the system. Such is the nature of the system that an administrative official has to face challenges at every step while dealing with people and the policy makers to ensure the governance is in place.
Although it has its own charm of serving the nation and bringing about a qualitative transformation in the lives of millions of people, getting into the civil services is not that easy. The civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and the respective state public service commission in their own territories is considered to be one of the most difficult exams in India.
These exams not only check your knowledge and intelligence, but also patience and aptitude to deal with a particular situation which a civil servant is likely to face while discharging his or her duty.
To discuss how civil services have evolved over the years and its preparatory pattern which saw a radical shift in the recent past with the introduction of CSAT (the preliminary test), we talked to Pranay Aggarwal, Convenor of the Indian Civil Services Association, a leading think tank of retired senior bureaucrats working to make government more effective.
He is also the president of Indian Social Science Council and the vice president of International Sociological Society. He is also the youngest recipient of
the International Jurists Award for contributions to issues of the youth.
Aggarwal also happens to be the Director at IAS Gurukul, a leading institute established by seniormost members of India’s civil services, judiciary and academia with a view to achieve excellence in the field of civil services exam preparation.
The civil services have always been a great career option for youth in India, but the craze for taking their exams appears to be losing steam these days. Do you agree with it? What factors are responsible for the same?
Unlike earlier times, today’s youth have multiple career options before them. With the opening up of the Indian economy during the 1990s, job opportunities in the private sector have increased. Therefore, civil services are no more the only attractive career choice for the youth today.
Despite this, the craze for civil services has greatly increased and not declined. This is evident from the manifold increase in the number of applicants for civil services – from 3.5 lakh in 2005 to 5.5 lakh in 2010 and around 10 lakh in 2015.
The reasons for the continued popularity of civil services as a career include security of tenure, respectable salary, attractive perks, very high social status and proximity to power. Most importantly, entering civil services provides the chance to serve the nation and bring about a qualitative transformation in the lives of millions of people.
Also, the civil services have gradually shed their elitist bias. Today, it is not only candidates from the metros and elite institutions like St. Stephens and JNU in Delhi that are aspiring for civil services but also those from smaller towns, rural areas and ordinary academic institutions.
After implementation of CSAT, the aspirants are quite serious and cautious of not killing a chance. Is the new pattern serving the purpose of screening candidates at the very initial level?
The introduction of
CSAT paper in 2011 was followed by public protests by some aspirants – such as those from humanities backgrounds – because they felt they were at a relative disadvantage. In response, the government made the CSAT paper qualifying – candidates now need to score only 33% in CSAT to clear the preliminary stage.
The new preliminary examination pattern may not be the best way to identify candidates with administrative skills. However, it does a fairly good job of sifting a few thousand serious candidates from the lakhs of nonserious applicants. The subsequent stages of main examination and personality test then try to identify candidates with not only academic knowledge but also administrative traits required for a career in civil services.
Although the civil services are open to candidates from all academic backgrounds, the aspirants from technical and professional fields are excelling more in numbers and somewhere killing the prospects of candidates from humanities where scores are low. What is your take?
Most of the syllabus of the CSE comprises humanities subjects like history, political science etc. In fact, reading of NCERT humanities’ textbooks from 6th to 12th standard provides a very solid foundation for CSE preparations. Seen this way, it is humanities students who have an edge in this examination.
According to UPSC’s latest report, 87 per cent of optional subjects opted by the recommended candidates were related to humanities, and only 13 per cent related to science and engineering. However, 70 per cent of the recommended candidates were from Engineering and Science backgrounds. This shows that most of the candidates have made a cross domain shift from their original stream (i.e. engineering and science) to humanities.
How do you look at the decline in results of Hindi medium candidates who usually come from rural background?
In the last exam, out of 14,605 total candidates who appeared in Main examinations; 11,790 appeared in English medium. This shows that candidates are increasingly opting for English medium even though the examining authority permits Hindi medium also. And candidates are rational.
Though UPSC officials claim there is no bias against non-English medium candidates, results show otherwise. An overwhelming 95 per cent of selected candidates are from English medium. It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that our administrative system has a colonial era legacy bias against candidates who appear in this examination in their mother tongue.
Being a career guidance expert with specialisation in civil services exam preparation, can you suggest some changes that the UPSC and the state commissions should bring in order to motivate aspirants?
An analysis of the existing scheme shows that intellectual standards have been maintained, the social base of recruitment has widened, the standard of candidates from weaker sections has improved and performance of female candidates is significantly better. At the same time; the predominance of certain academic disciplines and institutions, the phenomenon of "preferred" optional subjects deemed "effective" and bias against Indian languages have resulted in a perceived failure in identifying the most suitable candidates and a mismatch between the persons selected and the requirements of the job. Also, this examination carries a very high social cost attributable to its lengthy cycle.
Recommended changes are that (a) The present lengthy time cycle for the examination should be shortened (b) this exam may be conducted twice a year (c) candidates who qualify for the Interview Test should be exempted from taking the Preliminary examination in the following year (d) Government and UPSC should create a database of unsuccessful candidates of the Main exam and make it available to PSUs and private sector to select candidates from it for other jobs. (e) Consciously higher selection of candidates from rural backgrounds, non-English medium and female candidates.
The credibility and efficiency of bureaucracy are often questioned. What’s your take since you are also the convenor of the Indian Civil Services Association?
The workings of the Indian civil services over the past 70 years have revealed several areas of concern: a difficult relationship with the political bosses becoming even more challenging with the deepening of democracy, charges of corruption and allegations of favouring class interests; and being termed as outdated and inefficient.
Today, Indian civil services operate in a vastly different social and administrative environment than even the recent past. That is because of various factors – including ushering in an era of transparency with the right to information regime, an increasingly assertive civil society and a vigilant media.
A bloated bureaucracy does not augur well for our government’s efforts at improving ease of doing business in India. Prime Minister Modi has acknowledged the competition the government is facing from the private sector and exhorted civil servants to change ‘from regulator to enabler’. Some question the very relevance of a big bureaucracy in the era of globalisation. Consequently, civil services in India are in an urgent need of reforms, if not an overhaul.
Above observations do not diminish the importance of civil services for contemporary India. In fact, civil services continue to be amongst the most sought after career options even today. Civil servants continue to be at the forefront of ever-expanding and newer governmental initiatives, be it universalising education, infrastructure development, implementing social sector schemes and Acts like MNREGA, or even pushing the agenda of globalisation itself.
How is your Association contributing to the public governance systems and how has been the response?
Indian Civil Services Association is established as a leading think tank of senior bureaucrats working to make government more effective.
We provide rigorous research and analysis, topical commentary and public events to explore the key challenges facing the government. We offer a space for discussion and fresh thinking to help senior politicians and civil servants think differently and bring about change. We ensure the advancement of education in the art and science of government in India for the benefit of the public and on a non-party political basis. We promote efficient civil services in India by providing programmes of education, training, research and study.
The response from political leadership as well as bureaucracy has been very encouraging. For instance, India’s first female IPS officer Dr Kiran Bedi, former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian and former Cabinet Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar joined us in our public deliberations in June this year.
We focus on the big governance challenges of the day and on finding new ways to help government improve, rethink and sometimes see things differently. Our programmes help ministers, senior civil servants and their teams to govern and lead more effectively. We undertake assignments for government, PSUs and international agencies on a wide range of policy areas. We provide practical advice from people with in-depth experience of working inside government to support senior decision makers to improve performance.