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Single Civil Services Exam outdated. UPSC holding separate exam for Indian Railways—good idea

Before the nationalisation of the railways in 1951, all constituent railway companies had their own methods of recruitment. Then why not now?

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As in the previous three years, over a million aspirants filled the online application form for the Civil Services Examination 2022, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission for 1,011 positions offered through the announcement in February 2022.  These include, in addition to the two all-India services — the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service — 14 central services. The latter include the Indian Foreign Service and four Group B services – the Armed Forces Headquarters Civilian Service, the Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Civil Service, the Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Police Service, and the Pondicherry Civil Service.

The notable exceptions this year were the three railway services — the much-coveted Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS), the Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS), and the Indian Railway Personnel Service (IRPS). It is learnt that the Railway Board will request the UPSC for a separate examination for induction into the non-engineering cadre of the Indian Railways.

Recruiting new talent for railways

The Indian Engineering Services (IES) exam, also conducted by the UPSC, recommends officers in the civil, electrical, mechanical, electronics and telecommunications branches of the railways.  With 1.4 million employees, it is the largest employer in India and the seventh-largest in the world. The Human Resources (HR) decisions taken by Indian Railways have a far-reaching impact on the political economy of the country.

The decision to hold a separate examination for the Indian Railways comes with a red herring. Perhaps the Railway Board felt that the skill sets and competencies required to run a commercial organisation like Indian Railways — with the new emphasis on multimodal transport, infrastructure, freight movement and Metro projects in Public-Private Partnership mode — were different from those required to run district administrations and government departments.

There is merit in this, and therefore, inducting the ‘non-technical’ managers for railways from amongst management, commerce, and law graduates makes much greater sense. It must also be mentioned that before the nationalisation of the railways in 1951, all constituent railway companies had their own methods of recruitment, except for the accounts/finance function. Is this, therefore, the beginning of the end of the generalist recruitment through the CSE?

Also read: Opposition uproar in Parliament over Modi govt IAS cadre rule change, BJD calls it ‘dangerous’

Looking into ICS history

This brings us to the background of civil service recruitment in India. Prior to Independence, the examinations for the ICS, IP, and the central services were held separately. From 1922, the ICS examination was held every year, both in England and India. The London examination for the IAS (and allied services) continued well into the ‘70s, and it was discontinued only after 1976 on the recommendation of the D.S. Kothari Commission.

The decision to hold a common examination for the successor services to the ICS and IP – the IAS and the IPS, as well as other senior positions in the Government of India including the IFS, can be traced to the meeting of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Home Member of the Interim Government with the premiers of the provinces (as the states were then called) in October 1946. Patel impressed upon the states the need to constitute the IAS and the IPS as the successor services to the ICS and the IP as well as the need to have a common examination for all the senior positions. This was the time when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted a separate (exclusively interview-based induction) into the foreign service, but it was opposed by the home ministry, which insisted that all recruitments were to be made through an open competitive examination.

Between 1947 and 1950, a combined competitive examination was held once a year for recruitment to the IAS, IFS, IPS and central services. While the lower age limit was 20 years for the IPS, it was 21 to 24 for all services except the IRTS, which could go up to 25 as well. There was no limit to the number of attempts.

However, in effect, there were four sets of criteria for selection. While the IAS and the IFS had to take ‘additional’ papers of the master’s level, in the case of the latter, the weightage for the interview marks was higher. In the case of the IPS, only one ‘optional’ paper was required against two for the ‘allied services’. The optional papers were equivalent to the honours level.

Also read: Hire better public prosecutors through exam, tackle India’s abysmal conviction rates

Roots of ‘single examination’

Although in the immediate aftermath of Independence there was overwhelming support for a common examination for all services, there was a concern that ‘a single examination for all the services made sense only if there were uniform conditions of service for all the services’. But the arguments in favour of a common examination were buttressed by the recommendations of the Dr M. S. Gore Committee on Police Training (1971), which felt that a great deal of mediocrity had crept into the IPS on account of the lower standards prescribed in the examination as well as the lower entry age stipulated for it.

They strongly recommended that the examination for the IPS should be identical to that for the IAS. The Kothari Commission accepted that even though the professional expertise required of a general administrator, diplomat, police officer, or a member of any of the other central services varied, ‘their general qualities of competence, traits of character and sense of commitment necessary had a common denominator’.

The same applied to other qualities needed in an officer — ‘intellectual cohesion, articulation, sense of awareness and purpose, integrity, depth of understanding, the courage of conviction and ability to respond to changing socio-economic and political situations.’

However, as the number of aspirants was growing exponentially — from less than 4,000 in 1950 to nearly 30,000 in 1975 — the Kothari Commission recommended a two-stage examination process, consisting of a preliminary examination followed by the main examination and a personality test (interview).

While this was accepted ‘in- principle’, two key recommendations were kept in abeyance: the first was that once an aspirant had cleared the Prelims examination, she may take multiple attempts, and second, that officers be asked to join the FC without the disclosure of their marks and allocation of Service. After a year-long Foundation Course (FC) at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), another examination should be conducted by the UPSC to assess intellectual competence, personality traits, and the broad interests of an officer. This post-FC training examination was assigned a weightage of 30 per cent, and the final service allocation was made thereafter.

Sanjeev Chopra is a historian and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

This article is the fourth part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India. 

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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