The article “Only crammers need apply,” by T.K. Ngaihte (Editorial page, November 24, 2012), provides a highly distorted picture of the Civil Services examination.
Let’s begin by spelling out the meaning of “Cramming.” According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary it means “to prepare hastily for an examination.” Even a cursory glance at the nature of the questions asked in this year’s compulsory General Studies (GS) papers belies the assertion that this examination is for “crammers” (given the large number of optional papers, I am only considering for the purposes of my argument the compulsory papers common to everyone).
Why it’s not for ‘crammers’
Sample these questions:
“Why have the resource rich African and South Asian countries remained poor for decades?”
“Domestic resource mobilisation, though central to the process of Indian economic growth, is characterized by several constraints. Explain.”
“Do you think that China’s emergence as one of the largest trading partners of India has adversely affected the settlement of the outstanding border problem?”
It is evident that none of these questions (and many more in the question paper) is concerned with any one particular event or theory.
To answer them, “knowledge” and depth of understanding are required; neither can be acquired overnight by “cramming.” Superficial knowledge will, expectedly, produce only substandard answers.
Beyond the books
Can a “crammer” be expected to have an “informed opinion” i.e. one that is formed after careful consideration of various aspects of an issue? Here’s how this exam was a crammer’s nemesis on this front.
Let’s take the question that demanded a critical examination of the issues involved in the Endosulfan ban and asked for the candidate’s view on what should be done in the matter. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the country has been debating the issue of Endosulfan ban for the past many years with the National Human Rights Commission, Central government, State governments, the Supreme Court, civil society, academia, and international bodies, all being a part of this debate (which is still ongoing, by the way). A quick online search on The Hindu’s website with the keyword “Endosulfan” between January 1, 2011 to November 24, 2012 threw up as many as 1,137 results!
Similarly, another question that asked candidates to comment on the need for the Planning Commission to revise the chapter on Health in the 12th Plan document was very straightforward because the debate was at the forefront of national discourse on health continuously for months prior to the exam. Innumerable articles appeared in various daily newspapers and elsewhere, including in this very newspaper (Op-Ed, “Setting up Universal Health Care Pvt. Ltd,” September 13, 2012).
There were three marked changes in this year’s General Studies papers that Mr. Ngaihte completely missed writing about, and these need to be highlighted (and the Union Public Service Commission or UPSC needs to be applauded for them).
First, there were hardly any questions about specific Articles of the Constitution, or about specific events and names of personalities from history. These were a staple in previous years, and a candidate could score almost 30-50 marks purely on the basis of “cramming” such details. This change should be welcomed as it makes the exam “repeater-proof” (i.e. advantage that accrues by writing this exam year after year through becoming familiar with the pattern).
Second, there was also a clear shift this year in favour of a greater number of 25 marks and 15 marks questions (76.66% and 58.33% of questions in GS I and GS II respectively), which would make it difficult for any candidate to hide behind “superficial knowledge” and mere rote-learning, alongside giving ample scope to those who were well-prepared to display deeper understanding of the subject.
Third, a large number of questions specifically sought candidates’ own views on the issues, giving them an opportunity to make new arguments and display intellectual creativity. This also implies that there were no ready-made answers to these questions which could be “crammed” up right before the exam (least of all to be found on Wikipedia or in guidebooks that enrich the coffers of the coaching industry).
And here’s something more — it isn’t as if such questions were not to be expected in the examination, least of all by anyone who browsed through the syllabus released by UPSC nearly eight months before the exam. This is what a few lines from the “General Guidelines” under GS syllabus said: “The questions will be such as to test a candidate’s general awareness of a variety of subjects, [with relevance] for a career in [the] Civil Services. The questions are likely to test the candidate’s basic understanding of all relevant issues, and ability to analyze and take a view on conflicting socio-economic goals, objectives and demands. The candidate must give relevant, meaningful and succinct answers.”
When the UPSC syllabus is so clear on what is expected from candidates, it is unfair to blame the questions for not being “easy” and demanding “nuanced and complex arguments.” Simply because learning how to answer such questions is precisely what the syllabus prescribes us to do before we attempt this exam.
An eye on the time
No examination can please all its takers. But criticising the examination for its time restriction is not on. It is also puzzling why Mr. Ngaihte chose to criticise the examination over the absolute scores of finally selected candidates when the selection itself is relative and there is no other cut-off that is prescribed by UPSC.
There is an insane amount of competition for a place in the Civil Services, reflected in the fact that out of 2,43,003 candidates who appeared in the preliminary examination in 2011, only 910 were finally recommended for appointment (roughly one out of 267 candidates!).Yes, to be one out of 267 does require perseverance, hard work, practice of writing answers, as rightly pointed out by the author among host of other factors. But here’s what the author missed out: it also requires time management (both during preparation and while writing the exam), an awareness of critical debates at the national and international level, an ability to form one’s own opinion and take a stand, and an ability to express one’s views lucidly. Will anyone disagree that these are qualities one naturally expects the future administrators of the country to possess?
(Ruchika Sharma, a civil services aspirant, appeared for the recently concluded UPSC Civil Services Mains Examination in October 2012, her first attempt. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)