august 16, 2014 vol xlIX no 33 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
Much Ado about Aptitude
Maruthi P Tangirala
Views are personal.
Maruthi P Tangirala (tangirala_mp@yahoo.
com) is a civil servant who was associated with
the committee that reviewed the structure of
the civil services preliminary examination.
The recent spate of changes in the
civil services examination are a
response to the changing needs of
public administration occasioned
by paradigmatic shifts in the
nature of governance. To critique
them under pain of disruption
is to burden the examination
process with expectations that are
way beyond its remit. Reasoned
review of examination reform
cannot be replaced by agitation
on the streets.
he visible and vociferous “CSAT
(Civil Service Aptitude Test) pro-
tests” witnessed recently are not
surprising. What should cause concern,
however, is the inability of the discourse
surrounding the reform efforts to tran-
scend the binaries – of English and Hindi,
Hindi and other bhashas, sciences and
humanities, rural and urban, or, for that
matter, poor and rich – so as to address
the core issue of whether the changes
made meet their limited objectives. The
sound and fury accompanying the argu-
ments on all sides do little to throw light
on important aspects of the controversy,
leave alone to resolve the articulated
grievances. The changes no doubt go to
the root of political economy, but to cri-
tique them on this ground, and call for
their rollback, is to confuse cause with
effect; to challenge the effect of the shift
in the perception of the role of the state
without recognising the widespread
acceptance of the prevailing governance
paradigm that causes – indeed, that
mandates – the reorientation of the
b ureaucracy is to do injustice to both the
role of the Union Public Service Com-
mission (UPSC) and the function of the
civil services examination (CSE) that is,
after all, only a recruitment test intended
to identify “crack men of the kingdom”
(Compton 1968: 267) who can subserve
the sovereign’s agenda.
The CSE remained largely unchanged
since 1979 till the pattern of the prelimi-
nary stage was modified in the 2011 edi-
tion, with the optional subject paper being
replaced by a common paper (loosely
referred to as the “aptitude test”) covering
comprehension, interpersonal and com-
munication skills, logical reasoning and
analytical ability, decision-making and
problem-solving, general mental ability,
basic numeracy, data interpretation, and
English language comprehension (the
last three areas at Class X level). The pre-
existing syllabus of the first, common,
general studies paper too was changed
to include areas such as panchayati raj,
public policy, rights issues, sustainable
development, ecology, biodiversity, and
climate change. Given the huge (and
growing) number of candidates, the pre-
liminary examination is essentially a
“screening test” intended to allow a
more manageable number to take the
main stage;
as such, it is also conducted
in the objective-type format unlike the
main examination that is of the con-
ventional (essay) type. The change in
the structure and syllabus of the main
examination (effected from CSE 2013)
was also attended by considerable con-
troversy (Tangirala 2014).
Uneven Pre-existing Pattern
There is not enough recognition that the
change in the preliminary examination
pattern was occasioned, among others,
by the felt need to bring some order to
the uneven nature of the pre-existing
pattern. Till 2010, the preliminary exami-
nation consisted of two papers, set both
in English and Hindi: paper I (carrying
150 marks) on general studies and paper II
(300 marks) on a subject to be opted by
the candidate from 23 on offer.
disparate nature of the subjects and the
proliferation of many subject areas since
the list was first drawn up for the 1979
were the source of much dis-
satisfaction within the UPSC as well as
among sections of the candidates. The
Kothari Committee report (the basis of
the new CSE pattern) acknowledged that
“there can be no clear cut criteria for de-
termining optional subjects for the Civil
Services Examination”, and assumed
that “a candidate would offer as one of
the optional subjects, the subject which
he may have studied for the honours or
master’s degree” (UPSC 1976: paragraphs
3.29-3.30). The assumption was belied in
practice, and an overwhelming m ajority
of the candidates started to opt for a few
subjects such as Indian history, geography,
public administration, political science,
and sociology irrespective of whether
they had formally studied the subject.
Apart from the question mark over the
utility of retesting candidates in their
Economic & Political Weekly EPW august 16, 2014 vol xlIX no 33
own field of study, this tactical choice of
optional subjects was one of the reasons
motivating the 2011 changes, as were
apprehensions regarding the scaling
procedure adopted to equalise marks
across subjects (note that the then paper II
had twice the weight of paper I), the per-
ception that the trivial nature of some of
the questions tended to encourage cram-
ming and rote learning, and the sheer lo-
gistical complexity of preparing ques-
tion papers of a uniformly high standard
in 23 subjects year after year. At the same
time, given the steep increase in the dis-
ciplinary areas on o ffer at the under-
graduate level, it was neither possible
to include all available subjects in the
examination scheme nor feasible to
mandate that candidates choose only a
subject they had studied at university.
This is not to say that the new pattern
is an ideal solution; indeed, that cannot
be said of any testing procedure, whether
as tests for job aptitudes or for academic
credentials. The sensitivities attached to
CSE, including the need for sending up a
balanced cohort of candidates to each
succeeding stage till the number needed
to staff senior bureaucratic positions in
our diverse and democratic country is
identified, however, tend to magnify the
shortcomings of the second-best solution
that was finally adopted in 2011. A quick
before-and- after comparison of the lan-
guage medium chosen by the candidates
who qualified for the main examination
stage (Table 1) is perhaps a good enough
proxy of the first effects of the changes
made. The reasons for the articulated
dissatisfaction seem to flow from the
steep reduction in candidates opting to
tackle the main examination stage in
an Indian language. If the number of
Table 1: Indian Languages as Medium of
Response in the Main Examination
Year/Period A H IL % H % IL
1979 6,815 800 898 11.7 13.2
1980 8,366 983 1,095 11.7 13.1
1981-90 92,693 13,293 15,277 14.3 16.5
1991-2000 84,129 22,335 24,686 26.6 29.3
2001-10 75,611 31,079 33,278 41.1 44.0
2011 11,230 1,700 1,914 15.1 17.0
2012 12,176 1,916 2,215 16.2 18.2
A-total appeared candidates; H-with Hindi as medium;
IL-with any Indian language (including Hindi) as medium;
% H- per cent using Hindi to total appeared; % IL- per cent
Indian languages to total appeared.
Source: UPSC Annual Reports, Tangirala (2009).
“serious” candidates at the main exami-
nation stage is indeed a valid metric for
measuring the life chances of educated
youngsters, it is apparent that the ability
of Hindi and Indian language-speakers
to occupy prestigious positions in the
bureaucracy have more than halved a fter
the introduction of the new preliminary
examination pattern, going by the reduc-
tion in the per cent using Indian languages
(predominantly Hindi) as the medium of
response in the succeeding main exami-
nation stage in 2012 and 2013 compared
to the average in the previous decade.
What does this say about the CSE itself
and about the larger issues of equity?
It is easy to find fault with the prelimi-
nary examination on the ground that it
now privileges city slickers and other
“management types” over the aspirants
from the mofussil areas who may not be
comfortable with its reinvention as an
aptitude test. However, the changes
themselves mirror the larger consensus
emanating proximately from new public
management to move towards a paradigm
of governance that privileges outputs
and outcomes over inputs and pro cesses.

It could be validly argued that the re-
invention of the public administrator as
manager is the only reasonable way for-
ward to avoid a dysfunctional chasm
between the administration and its
political masters, in the full recognition
of the “publicness” of public administra-
tion that imposes a unique set of con-
straints for which the administrator has
to be adequately trained after coming
through the aptitude test and subse-
quent stages of the CSE. To excoriate the
preliminary stage for attempting to
make a beginning in that direction
stems from an ideological objection to
the decisive neo-liberal turn in the larger
political economy that has little to do
with more mundane matters such as
s yllabus-setting and test design. To call
for scrapping the test that is into its third
edition barely days before hundreds of
thousands of candidates are slated to
a ppear after many months of preparation,
rather than seek a reasoned, time-bound
appraisal of its effects (and even perhaps
an expert review) can only indicate
i mpatience with the rule of law and
growing distrust of our institutional
c apacity to mediate between contending
conceptions of public interest.
The UPSC, both by virtue of its status
as a constitutional body and by its per-
formance as a relatively non-controver-
sial recruitment agency, deserves better
than to be accused of a grand conspiracy
to dis empower the rural Hindi-speaker
of her right to equitable opportunity.
anything, the changes made recently
The 2014 annual Krishna Raj Fellowships, instituted by the Sameeksha Trust in the
memory of the late editor of EPW (1969-2004), were awarded to ten groups of students
of the Delhi School of Economics who worked on the following projects last summer:
(i) Impact of MGNREGS on Women Empowerment,
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(iii) Food, Identity and Globalization: Parsi Cuisine and Identity in 21st Century
(iv) Are Electric Rickshaws a Pro-Poor Informal Occupation Option for Cycle
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Functions Performed by Wall Art in Urban Landscapes (A Case Study of Delhi),
(viii) Brides for ???? : A Study of Bahraich District of Uttar Pradesh With Special
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(ix) Socio-Economic Factors Driving RO Water Use in Rural Punjab, and
(x) The God-Makers of Kolkata: An Economic Exploration of the Informal Sector
of Artisans in Kumortoli.
august 16, 2014 vol xlIX no 33 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
perhaps more than meet the recruitment
objectives that have been enunciated by
various expert committees and bodies
such as the Alagh Committee (in 2001)
and the Second Administrative Reforms
Commission (in 2008), objectives that
have been arrived at after extensive con-
sultation and substantial cogitation.

Easy Capitulation
It is equally a reflection of our easy
c apitulation to the short term as much a
measure of the state of confusion that
pervades our public discourse that we
agitate on the streets after the event, and
never adequately debate the pros and cons
of proposed policy before it is adopted,
whether in the macroeconomic p olicy
realm or in the relatively minor matter of
adapting our recruitment methods to suit
the requirements of the new economy.
1 According to the Kothari Committee report
(UPSC 1976),
…a screening test is necessary to prevent
overloading of the selection process by a
large number of indifferent candidates
which undermines seriously the efficiency
and reliability of the process itself. It is in
the interest of candidates, as also in the
national interest, that those who have little
chance of making the grade know about it
at an early stage of the s election process.
This would help them to use their time,
energy and resources more gainfully in pre-
paring for careers better suited to their
interest and abilities (paragraph 3.2).
2 The 23 optional subjects were: agriculture,
animal husbandry and veterinary science, bot-
any, chemistry, civil engineering, commerce,
econo mics, electrical engineering, geography,
geology, Indian history, law, mathematics,
mechanical engineering, medical science, philo-
sophy, physics, political science, psychology,
public administration, sociology, statistics,
and zoology.
3 Medical science was added in 1993 as the 23rd
optional subject.
4 The Second Administrative Reforms Commis-
sion (SARC) noted, for example, that the new
paradigm seeks to “establish a framework in
which it can be ascertained what quanti fiable
outcomes have been achieved” (GoI 2008: 62).
5 That UPSC chooses to remain reticent in the
face of public criticism does not help its cause,
of course.
6 The S K Khanna Committee, which recom-
mended the changes, too conducted extensive
consultations before arriving at its recommen-
Compton, J M (1968): “Open Competition and the
Indian Civil Service: 1854-1876”, The English
Historical Review, Vol 83, No 327 (April),
pp 265-84.
Government of India (GoI), Second Administrative
Reforms Commission, Tenth Report (2008):
Refurbishing of Personnel Administration: Scal-
ing New Heights.
Tangirala, Maruthi P (2009): “Language Choice
and Life Chances: Evidence from the Civil
Services Examination”, Economic & Political
Weekly, Vol 44, No 39, pp 16-20.
– (2014): “Calibrating Civil Service Examination
Reform”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49,
No 1, pp 16-17.
Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) (1976):
Report of the Committee on Recruitment Policy
and Selection Methods – Annual Reports.