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The five per cent lead to Englishwalas

Few years back a colleague covering the education beat had startled me with the input that for the past several years none from Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College had made to the civil services merit list. St Stephen’s College for years was considered nursery of nation’s civil servants and they did dominate the scene till the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the early 1990s, which reserved 50 per cent of seats for candidates belonging to the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes (OBCs).

The implementation of the Mandal Commission report took place concurrently with the opening of the economy and also allowing private news channels, bringing a boom in the nation’s corporate sector. The social elite, now denied the opportunity of making it to civil list, made good in the corporate and media sectors, where being scion of a bureaucratic family or coming from a public school background became an added and sometimes defining qualification.

However, the loss of being part of nation’s policy-making mechanism could never be overcome and not surprising that the government in reformatting the civil services examinations has made it extremely biased against those not coming from an English medium background. It goes without saying that the reformed civil services examination pattern has the predominant influence of the fast vanishing tribe of English-speaking brown sahebs.

The latest round of reforms in the examination pattern seeks to turn the ongoing reform process of making it friendly towards the students coming from rural and semi-urban background on its head. It seeks to re-establish the predominance of English language even as the government continues to spend a fortune in the name of promoting official languages other than English.

Last week, for the first time in two decades, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) notified changes in the existing format on the pretext of giving a level playing field to aspirants from all the streams. It’s true that the earlier format favoured those from the science, mathematics and technology background but it’s also true that it did not differentiate between those coming from English medium background and otherwise.

The notification issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) mentions that the new pattern of the Civil Services Examination conducted by the UPSC will have a separate paper on ethics, integrity and aptitude. It will include questions to test the candidate’s attitude and approach to issues relating to integrity, probity in public life and their problem solving approach to various issues and conflicts faced by them in dealing with society.

The DoPT has also changed the marks distribution of papers and increased the number of compulsory subject papers of general studies for the main examination. From this year itself, in the Civil Services (Mains) examination, there will be four compulsory general studies papers of 250 marks each, in addition to two optional papers of 250 marks each. The total marks for the main exams will be 1800.

The government justification in favour of the reforms is that it would bring a semblance of a level playing field among lakhs of candidates appearing in different subjects as aspirants earlier had to clear two qualifying language papers; English and a regional language. The regional language paper has been completely withdrawn. According to estimate, about six to 11 per cent candidates – who passed the preliminary qualifying examination – failed in the language papers in the second-tier examination. The UPSC has doubled the number of general studies papers to four and halved the number of optional papers. The new exam pattern has scrapped one optional subject.

As per the new scheme, paper one would have two section. The first section would be essay writing of 200 marks, to be answered in any language under the Eighth schedule. The second section would deal with proficiency in English language and would consist of 100 marks. Papers two, three, four and five of 250 marks each would cover topics in social and general sciences and also the newly included paper on ethics, integrity and aptitude. Papers six and seven would be optional to be chosen from an extensive list and will have 250 marks each.

The government’s justification is that several deserving candidates missed the bus under the earlier scheme as they failed to qualify the compulsory language – English and vernacular – papers. Thus the decision to do away with the qualifying papers but then why the introduction of the test of English proficiency of 100 marks.

According to reports, the decision to scrap one of the optional papers and also proficiency in the regional language was taken at the highest level by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The prime minister would not have taken this decision without getting the necessary inputs from his officers, which must have strengthened his resolve to make the scheme acquire a pro-elite bias as in line with his economic philosophy.

Those for the scheme could point out that after all the examination of English proficiency is just for 100 marks but these constitute more than five per cent of the total marks of 1800. At the time when merit list is finalised deciding what service a candidate could get, these five per cent could play the crucial role in getting the Englishwalas entry into the elite Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and the Indian Foreign Service.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is consulting editor, Millennium Post

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