New Delhi: Of the 326 civil servants who took the Foundation Course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in 2019, just eight had taken their civil services examination in Hindi, while 315 candidates wrote the exam in English. The numbers underscore the oft-made argument that the exam remains inaccessible to a majority of the non-English-speaking aspirants.
The Foundation Course is an introductory course conducted by LBSNAA for newly-recruited civil servants — Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Foreign Service (IFS), among others. While the course was compulsory only for the IAS and IFS until last year, the government has now made it mandatory for all new civil service recruits.
According to the LBSNAA data examined by ThePrint, in 2018 as well, of the 370 officer trainees who took the course, just eight wrote the civil service exam in Hindi, while 357 took the exam in English.
In 2016, of the 377 officer trainees, 13 had written the exam in Hindi, and 350 in English. In 2015, of the 350 trainees, 15 had taken the exam in Hindi and 329 in English.
In 2014, of the 284 total officer trainees, the number of candidates who had taken the exam in Hindi was six, while that of English candidates was 272.
The remaining number of trainees each year had taken the exam in regional languages such as Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, among others.
For example, in the 2019 batch, eight officer trainees had taken their exam in Marathi, three in Tamil, two in Gujarati and one in Telugu.
“This tells you about the acute lack of representation in India’s top bureaucracy,” said a 2012-batch IAS officer, who wished to remain anonymous. “The system, formally speaking, enables regional and linguistic representation — that is why you have the option of taking the exam in different languages — but when it comes down to actually enabling it, non-English speaking candidates find themselves at a massive disadvantage.”
Not just the exam
The linguistic under-representation makes itself apparent in other parameters and not just the medium of the UPSC exam.
Consider this: While the medium of instruction in school for just 22 of the 326 officer trainees in 2019 was Hindi, it was English for 298 of them. The number of trainees for whom the medium of instruction in school was Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, and Tamil was one each. Two of the trainees had taken the exam in Telugu.
Further, the number of trainees for whom the medium of instruction at university level was Hindi, Telugu or Kannada was just six, two and one, respectively. Meanwhile, for the remaining 317 officer trainees, the medium of instruction at university was English.
In 2018, the number of officer trainees for whom the medium of instruction in school and university was Hindi was 30 and five, respectively. In contrast, the corresponding figures for officer trainees with English as medium of instruction were 328 and 363, respectively.
The same pattern repeated itself in the preceding years as well.
Hindi medium versus English medium
Last year, the government told Parliament that of the 812 candidates selected by the UPSC in 2019, 485 had chosen Hindi as their mother tongue. Similarly, in 2017, of the 1,056 candidates picked by the commission, 633 had chosen Hindi as mother tongue.
However, this paints a “false picture”, argued an Indian Forest Service officer. “Most Indians’ mother tongue will be a regional language, but this does not mean they have not got high-quality English education…The mother tongue data point is irrelevant, because that does not reflect on the social status of the candidate, as much as the medium of instruction in school and college does.”
The officer argued: “What this means is that a large part of the Indian bureaucracy continues to come from very privileged backgrounds…For a kid from a Hindi medium school in Bulandshahr, it is going to be extremely intimidating to compete with a kid from an English medium school in Delhi – And that is a problem we have been unable to overcome.”
An IPS officer, on condition of anonymity, said each year the topper in the Hindi medium often ranks 300 or below. “Consider the results of the 2019 batch… The Hindi topper is ranked 317… And that’s the case each year,” he said.
“The situation is so bad that it’s better for someone who is not good at English to take English coaching for a year, rather than take the exam in Hindi…That’s what I did even though I was very bad at English,” he said. “You cannot prepare for UPSC, let alone crack it, if you are not an English medium student.”
In 2011, the Centre had introduced the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) — to evaluate candidates’ comprehension, communication and decision-making skills — to the civil services exam.
Given that the exam tested candidates on their English-speaking skills, among other things, the provision triggered massive protests across the country, with the government being forced to make it “qualifying” in nature in 2015. This means while it is necessary to pass this exam with a minimum 33 per cent, the score in this test is not added to the final UPSC marks.
That, however, was just a part of the battle won in terms of ensuring representation, argued the Indian Forest Service officer. “Majority of the aspirants who cannot converse well in English are still at a disadvantage,” the Indian Forest Service officer said.
In the Indian Forest Service, whose aspirants appear for a different mains examination than those aspiring for all the other civil services, the problem is even more pronounced. There is no option of taking the exam in a language other than English, and separate marks for English are added to a candidates’ final marks.
Still an ‘imperial’ service
For some, the trend highlights the Indian bureaucracy’s failure to move from its imperial history.
“Indian Forest Service officers work in the remotest of areas and interact with tribes, etc. Why do they need to know English? The truth is, that in our minds, we have not moved very far from the colonial conception of the Imperial Civil Service,” the officer said.
Arun Anand, research director at the RSS-linked think-tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra and author of two books on the RSS, agreed. The problem is that the bureaucracy in India has not changed in its character even after it formally ceased to be the Imperial Civil Service, he said. “With the Indian bureaucracy, the raja bana praja syndrome is obvious,” he added.
Anand, who has worked as a media advisor in the government, said he knows how elitist and disconnected to the masses the bureaucracy is.
The problem is also that the UPSC — the body meant to recruit future officers — is manned by retired officers, he said. “How do you change the elitist structure of a system whose entry doors are guarded by insiders? We have rarely had educationists be at the helm in the UPSC, so they keep looking for their own kind of people.”
Anand added, “Couple this with the deep complexes of those who do not know English and have studied in regional languages, we know why the system is so unamendable to common people.”
He said the bureaucracy in India “thinks in English”. “Then we complain that there is a disconnect between the bureaucracy and the common man. But over the last six years, things have started undergoing a change,” said Anand, who also writes for ThePrint.
‘Not enough takers’
Zafar Mahmood, a former IAS officer who now runs a civil services coaching centre for Muslim and other aspirants from underprivileged communities, however, said there are not enough takers for the regional language provision of the UPSC.
“I have studied this issue in some detail…Very few candidates opt to take the exam in the regional medium,” Mahmood said. “A few years ago, the UPSC had stopped Arabic and Persian as an option for taking the exam in those languages,” he said. “When I studied the data, I realised there were just no takers…And that is true for all regional languages.”
There is another issue as well, argued Mahmood. “Most of the preparation material for civil services is in English. There are hardly any books, mock exams, etc. in regional languages…It is at that level itself where the disadvantage starts.”
A former UPSC chairman, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed.
“You have to go to the roots of the problem, and I’m afraid UPSC is not the root of the problem,” he said. “Education, coaching and preparation in a country like India will always benefit those with some kind of privilege… If you compare the bureaucracy of today to the bureaucracy of the 60s and 70s, you will see it is a lot more representative.”
The change is coming, but the change in the bureaucracy cannot be faster than the change in the country’s demography, he said.