New Delhi: The 2020 civil services (preliminary) exam is scheduled for 4 October, but with five days to go, the Union Public Service Commission and aspirants are still locked in a battle.
Aspirants are running online campaigns for the exam to be postponed due to the rising Covid-19 numbers, and have challenged the UPSC in the Supreme Court. But the UPSC submitted before the Supreme Court Monday that the civil service exam cannot be deferred further.
The preliminary exam was originally scheduled to be held on 31 May, but was postponed to 4 October due to the pandemic and the consequent lockdown.
The aspirants, in their plea before the Supreme Court, have said conducting the civil service exam amid a pandemic is violative of Article 14 (equality before the law), since there is likely to be a bigger impact on lower income groups aspirants compared to their economically privileged counterparts, and Article 16 (equality of opportunity in public employment).
ThePrint explains why the UPSC is insisting on holding the exam on 4 October.
If JEE, NEET can be held, why not UPSC exam?
In its submission before the Supreme Court, the UPSC said it has already spent Rs 50.39 crore on logistical preparations for the exam, so its postponement would cost the exchequer greatly.
But another main reason behind its decision is that India is now entering the fifth stage of ‘unlock’ after the lockdown, and other competitive examinations like the JEE for engineering and NEET for medical aspirants are being conducted with adequate safety protocols and safeguards in place.
“There was enormous pressure from students to postpone the NEET and JEE as well, but they have been successfully conducted despite the Covid-19 outbreak,” a UPSC official said.
“The commission cannot wait indefinitely to hold the exams, since there is no clarity on when the cases will come down. Even elections are being held, so why not the UPSC exam?” the official asked.
In its affidavit, the UPSC has also said those appearing for NEET and JEE are much younger than those appearing for the civil service exam, and so, if the younger people can be managed by the government, there’s no reason why this exam would spread the virus.
The central and state governments have been grappling with a shortage of civil servants — as of 2018, 22 per cent of the total posts sanctioned for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) were vacant across the country — so missing an entire year of recruitment could mean disrupting a well-established cycle of recruitment, promotions and retirement.
The UPSC told the apex court: “Over the years, a cycle has evolved involving recruitment, training and final appointment, ensuring that the government gets its requisite manpower in time. Any disruption at any stage has the potential of upsetting the entire cycle.”
It added the impact won’t just be felt once, but is likely to have a cascading effect in the future too.
Satyanand Mishra, a former Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) secretary, explained the UPSC’s stand to ThePrint.
“If a whole batch of 700-plus civil servants is missing, that is bound to impact the government,” Mishra said.
“Every year, cadre restructuring of different civil services is done on the assumption that a certain number of civil servants will retire, get promoted and recruited… If you don’t recruit, promotions will also be impacted, and there will be an even larger number of vacancies,” he added.
Mishra explained that the impact of skipping one year’s recruitment may not be felt immediately, since after recruitment, civil servants undergo training for two years or so, but it will be felt when they are needed for postings.
“For example, with IAS and IPS, states will start to feel the shortage in one or two years when the posts need to be filled at the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) or sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) levels,” he said.
All logistical questions answered, except one
Instead of postponing the civil service exam further, the UPSC has made arrangements and issued guidelines to ensure that it is conducted safely.
It has not increased the number of centres of the exam though — there are 72 centres across India — prompting candidates to ask for more centres to ensure physical distancing as well as an easy commute for candidates travelling from far-flung or remote locations.
But officials in the UPSC said there is already a provision for two-metre distancing between candidates, so there is no need to increase the number of centres.
As a one-off provision, the UPSC gave candidates the option to change their examination centres in July, since it believed that Covid-19 would have made their whereabouts uncertain.
“We have taken as many precautions as we could. It is important now to take the exam since at least those candidates who want to appear for the exam this year can take it and move on,” the UPSC official quoted above said. “For others, there is no compulsion to take the exam this year.”
However, one unanswered question is what happens to candidates for whom this will be the last shot at a civil services posting, due to the limit on number of attempts or age.
Alok Srivastava, the advocate appearing for the aspirants in the Supreme Court, said: “The UPSC has not said anything about that, but that is our alternate prayer. If the court does not allow for the deferment of the exam this year, we will plead that it should at least be postponed for those who are unable to come for the exam and had the last opportunity to take it.”
Srivastava added: “At least every attempt for a level-playing field needs to be made…For example, why must a person who had a last shot at the exam and got Covid not be given a chance to fulfil their dreams?”
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