Let Us Unleash the UPSC

What are the options that confront the UPSC – the sole agency responsible for selecting the civil services as also for testing all Armed Forces officer candidates That something is seriously amiss is the brutal truth which can no longer be kept under wraps.

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) is the Government’s apex Human Resources (HR) clearing house. Every year, UPSC examines/interviews a staggering 15 lakh plus (over 1.5 million) candidates who wish to serve the country in diverse professions ranging from a plethora of civil services to the Armed forces. The UPSC is involved in a work of staggering complexity and is the world’s biggest Government agency involved with HR selection in a democratic form of Government.  The article examines what the Commission is all about and how it is executing its charter in these challenging times, with special reference to the civil services and Armed Forces. It also explores how the UPSC can ensure not just quality HR selection but, equally importantly, follow up on its selection norms by oversight and by taking calibrated feedback on its selected candidates end delivery .


The teacher if he is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of wisdom but leads you to the threshold of your own mind. - Kahlil Gilbran, poet and painter.

The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British dramatist, critic, writer.


A Serious Problem Confronts India

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, is remembered as the founder "Patron Saint" of India's civil servants. In an unprecedented and unrepeated gesture, ,500 officers of India's civil and police services mourned the demise of the “Iron Man” on 15 December 1950 in Delhi and pledged "complete loyalty and unremitting zeal" in India's service. Sadly, that has not happened. If anything, the civil services who should have been proud successors to the Indian Civil Service (ICS); once considered the most powerful officials in the British Empire, if not the world, are sad caricatures of “the steel frame on which the whole structure of government and of administration in India rests"which British Prime Minister David Lloyd George thought they were in 1935.  Jawaharlal Nehru wrote disparagingly the same year that the ICS was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”…Cynical observers would probably agree with Nehru that the civil services today richly deserve that scathing criticism.

The Indian Armed forces have not remained untouched either. With a crippling shortage of 15, 273 officers and with over 5000 officers training at any given time, the quality of intake over the years on a number of counts, has been as worrisome as the declining popularity of the Armed Forces.  On yet another front, the prevailing, dismal ethical climate in Governance is starting to make inroads into the Service ranks. The recent, unprecedented surge in cases related to conduct unbecoming and gross violation of good order and military discipline is a worrisome development.

So what are the options that confront the UPSC – the sole agency responsible for selecting the civil services as also for testing all Armed Forces officer candidates (though not interviewing them)? That something is seriously amiss is the brutal truth which can no longer be kept under wraps. That change is needed is equally clear. What is potentially heart warming is the fact that ‘Barkis (the UPSC) has been willing’ since 2009… to bring in reform.

Before we proceed further, it will be necessary to review the origins of Public Service Commissions and examine the part they have played in HR examination and selection world wide.

The Origin of Public Service Commissions

Dr AL Basham, the famous British History expert on ancient India, in his classic book, “The wonder that was India”, wrote that Our over-all impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane...”.   Although ancient Egypt, Greeceand Rome were also front-runners in efficient public service, there is little evidence that formal selection of civil servants through the examination/interview mode was in vogue in these cultures. The originof civil service and particularly its HR examination system is indisputably Chinese and can be traced back to the murderously tough examination system founded in Imperial China. The  then prevailing  Xiaolian system of recommendation (we in India call it sifarish) for public service appointments was reversed during the Sui Dynasty (581–618), which initiated a civil service bureaucracy recruited through written examinations.  Succeeding dynasties implemented a system of three levels of examination — prefectural, provincial, and the prestigious palace exams; popularising a new class of people: the scholar-official class. These were civil servants appointed by the Emperor to perform day-to-day governance, from the Sui to the Qing Dynasty in 1912. These men had earned academic degrees (such as Xiucai, Juren, or Jinshi) by passing the rigorous Imperial entry examinations. The examinations were carefully structured in order to ensure that people of lesser means than what was available to candidates born into wealthy, landowning families were given a greater chance to pass the exams and obtain an official degree. This system was admired and  borrowed by Europeans from the 16th century onward and prevails world-wide today.

Evolution of the Indian Public Service Commission

Wikipedia records that the 18th century British system was based on the inefficient norm of purchase or patronage. In 1806, the East India Company established the East India Company College, near London, to train administrators. It was established on recommendation of British officials in China who had seen the Imperial examination system. A permanent, unified and politically neutral, merit based civil service was subsequently introduced in Britain on the recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. A Civil Service Commission was accordingly set up in 1855 to oversee open recruitment.

In Indiareform came through the Royal Commission on the Superior Civil Services which in 1924, recommended the setting up of the Public Service Commission. This led to the establishment of the first Indian Public Service Commission on October 1, 1926, followed by the setting up of a Federal Public Service Commission. This became the Union Public Service Commission after Independence and  was given Constitutional status on January 26, 1950.

The UPSC Charter

It will now be instructive to examine some facets of the organisation, charter and difficulties faced by the UPSC.

The UPSC is amongst the few elite institutions in India which function with reasonable Constitutional autonomy. The Chairman and the nine members are appointed by the President of India. They are generally working or retired Civil Servants (there is an Armed Forces member too) and hold office for a term of six years/65 years of age.

The function of the UPSC is to conduct examinations/interviews for appointment to the services of the Union of India. Under the recruitment-through-examination method, the UPSC conducts 14 examinations; 10 for recruitment to Civil Services/Posts and 4 for Defence Services. The civil services examinations are: Civil Services Preliminary and Mains, Indian Forest Service, Engineering Services, Indian Economic Service/Indian Statistical, Geologists’, Special Class Railways Apprentices’, Central Police Forces (Assistant Commandants), Combined Medical Services and Assistant Commandants (Executive) in Central Industrial Security Force.

The 60thAnnual UPSC Report 2009-10 (the latest accessible on web) states that a total of 15,00,787 applications (8,96,804 Civil and 6,03,983 Defence) were received and processed; 7,541 candidates interviewed for Civil Services/Posts (Interviews for Defence Services are conducted by the MoD) and 3,697 candidates recommended for appointment to various posts, 2,421 for Civil Services/Posts and 1,276 for Defence Services/Posts.  We get a sense of perspective when we realise that the 1951- 52 applications for joining the civil and defence services were only 24,680; a staggering enhancement of work-load by 61 times.

Besides examinations/interviews as above, UPSC also does recruitment to services & postsunder the Central Government by direct selection, using interviews and, sometimes, written tests.  Their other mandates are to advise the Government on the suitability of officers for promotion, transfer-on-deputation; on all matters relating to methods of recruitment to various services/posts, and finally, disciplinary cases relating to different civil services and miscellaneous matters. The UPSC is replicated at the state level by State Public Service Commissions.

In 2009-10, the Commission, in additionto the civil services/Defence Forces Examinations listed above, processed 634 Ministry/Department requisitions involving 3,583 Government posts. Of these, 138 requisitions involving 934 posts were treated as closed for want of clarifications from the Ministries/Departments. In all, 267 requisitions involving 1,236 posts were advertised. However, the recruitment action in respect of 20 requisitions involving 165 posts, after their advertisement, was cancelled on the request of the Ministries/Departments. A total of 82,221 applications were received against direct recruitment cases; 4,341 candidates called for interview and 3,280 candidates interviewed.

UPSC Testing Regime

The top-of-the-shack civil services examination is a three stage process which consists of Civil Services Aptitude Test CSAT (Earlier termed the Civil Services Preliminary Examination), Main Examination and the Interview. The Main examination comprises of nine papers. The nine papers are worth 2000 marks and the interview another 300, thus grading candidates out of 2300 marks.

The CSAT is designed to test candidates on their aptitude and analytical abilities rather than on their ability to memorise. “The CSAT is expected to come into effect from 2011,” Minister of State in the Ministry of Personnel, Prithviraj Chavan, told Lok Sabha on 10 March, 2010. The UPSC proposal to this effect was sent to the PMO in 2009 for selecting candidates for the elite All-India services, including IAS, IPS, IFS, IRS and other Group ‘A’ and Group ‘B’ central jobs.

Scheme of CS (Preliminary) Examination

The Preliminary Examination conducted by the UPSC consists of Paper I and Paper II of multiple-choice, objective questions answerable in English & Hindi. Paper 1 will be on:

· Current events of national and international importance.

· History of India and Indian national movement.

· Indian and World Geography.

· Indian Polity and governance.

· Economic and social development.

· General issues on environmental ecology, bio-diversity and climate change.

· General science.

Paper II will be on:

· Comprehension.

· Interpersonal skills including communication skills.

· Logical reasoning and analytical ability.

· Decision making and problem solving.

· General mental ability.

· Basic standard 10 level numeric and data interpretation.

· Basic English language comprehension skills.

The graduate entry military written examinations (for the Indian Military, Air Force and Naval Academies) comprise three papers: English, General Knowledge, and matric level Mathematics. The papers for the Officers Training Academies exclude Mathematics. The undergraduate (10 plus 2) entry level examination for joining the NationalDefence Academyand Naval Academy has two objective papers: Mathematics and General Ability Test.   On passing, candidates are tested and interviewed for Intelligence/ Personality through the MoD run Services Selection Board (SSB) system. It holds a two stage test. Only candidates clearing Stage I enter Stage 2 testing.

Why were Reforms Needed?

To examine this aspect, let us digress for a moment and glimpse the career and personality of the man who made some civil service reforms possible.

Professor DP Agrawal assumed the charge of Chairman UPSC in August 2008. Member UPSC from 2003 to 2008, he had earlier set up a much lauded deemed university for post graduate IT and management studies. He was Professor and Dean at IIT Delhi from where he took over as Joint Educational Adviser (T) in the HRD Ministry. He has developed a number of initiatives at national level in  the areas of IT and computer education. Professor Agrawal has contributed significantly to the growth of quality technical education in the country through his close interaction with AICTE. Currently he is the Chairman of the PG Board of AICTE. He has been a visiting faculty at ImperialCollege, Londonand Cranfield Universityin UK.

One can only surmise that, with his kind of ground experience, awareness and energy levels, Professor Agrawal and his UPSC Team discerned the empirical truth behind the statement: "The path to real reform begins with the truth."  The truth was that our education system has always rated linear mnemonic skills over a liberal, inter-disciplinary, questioning, inquisitive, knowledge led approach that educates people on how to think rather than what to think and can respond to the challenges that people face with equanimity, capability, integrity and balance. Agrawal told the government in 2009 there was a need to test not just the knowledge of aspirants in particular subjects but their aptitude for “a demanding life in the civil services”.He had also recommended bringing down the number of attempts a candidate could take. The changes, as per him, were designed as two objective-type papers having special emphasis on testing their “aptitude for civil services” as well as on “ethical and moral dimension of decision-making” using the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT). Both these papers — “having equal weightage” — would be “common to all candidates” and thereby compulsory. This is in dramatic variance with past practice till 2010 where Paper I was on General Studies (compulsory) but Paper II allowed a candidate to choose from over ten odd subjects of his/her choice.

Reforms UPSC has Suggested/Are in the Pipeline

That UPSC is unhappy with status quo and seeks additional reform is clear from the fact that, in its current dispensation, it considers reforms as “unfinished agenda; a monumental “work in progress”. The PMO hasn’t yet responded to the Chairman’s plea of a cap on the number of chances candidates are given to crack the civil services examinations. Agrawal is also looking at reforming the Mains part of the civil services examination; ensuring a feed back mechanism under which civil servants post appointment are tracked in their formative years. Being IT, computer and management driven, he wants to modernize UPSC in a big way in these spheres. Sounds, noble, progressive and good.

A Reality Check

The public perception of the UPSC varies widely. It varies from cheerful validation of what it does to being a gargantuan, bureaucratic, typically Government run enterprise (it is actually autonomous). Let’s do a reality check to ascertain the truth. The UPSC’s 60th Annual Report  puts across some interesting details that make the reader sit up. Let’s start with the Civil Services (Main) Examination, 2008. Out of 3,25,433 candidates who had applied for the Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination, 2008, only 3,06,633 were found eligible. However, only 1,67,035 or 51.3 percent candidatesactually appeared in this examination held on May 18, 2008. On the basis of results of this examination, only 11,849 (7.1 percent) candidates were declared qualified for taking the Main Examination. In other words, 48.7 percent of the candidates applied did not turn up for the examination. No details of defence services candidates are available.

The report brings out that the average time taken in completion of the recruitment process took nine months. The delay by Ministries/Departments in offering employment to candidates selected by direct recruitment varied from one year for 70 candidates to over a year in 69 cases. The delay by Ministries/Departments in notification of recruitment rules approved by UPSC varied from one to five years. Delay in offers of employment for 292 candidates selected by UPSC on the basis of written examinations exceeded one year.

Nothing by way of reform measures exists in the report for the other mandates of the UPSC, including the four defence forces examinations that it conducts. The feeling one gets is that the issue has simply not invited the attention of the UPSC, or, if it has, then it has been accorded very low priority indeed. The November 2011 issue of Geopolitics in an article titled “Grim Portents” by this author, had highlighted the crying need for reform in the selection and training processes for Armed forces candidates. The UPSC has been inexplicably silent on its responsibilities towards selecting better candidates for the Forces. Not the least, it’s connect with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has not been listed. Although NCERT focuses on school education, its stated vision is “To be a magnet for education’s foremost thinkers and best resources to foster the development of world class practices in education”. Compartmentalisation of educational processes can only be justified as a linear exercise. In a liberal climate that UPSC seeks to promote, its synergy with NCERT should be non-negotiable.

As an objective Report Card, therefore, UPSC comes with a performance that could, to put it mildly, be improved. While one may agree that UPSC cannot be held accountable for promulgation lapses by the Ministries/Departments that it selects manpower for, one wonders why this situation cannot be transformed by UPSC getting the Constitutional clout to ensure compliance. Similarly, if only 51.3 civil services aspirants actually sit in an examination, isn’t the whole process reduced to a farce? Isn’t that adequate ground for stringent, holistic reform? The issue of waiting almost two long years for part clearance by PMO of its civil service reforms also sounds galling. The UPSC would be better off, if it had Constitutional clout to make autonomous changes that automatically become binding on the Government of the day.

The Military Selection Conundrum

The reader already knows that the military selection process begins with the UPSC and how, so far, the UPSC does not seem to have applied itself to its reform. It is not wrong to presume that the examination system has remained unchanged for long years, but it is only lately that the common man has become aware that the Armed Forces are undergoing a transition which is some spheres is not necessarily for the better. In particular, the issue of choosing the right candidate is currently hinged on the SSB interview; certainly not the examination regime, which, as for the civil services till 2010, focuses on memory more than it does on morality, ethics, mental fitness and integrity; all qualities that are the basic DNA of a 21st century soldier-scholar.

The problem actually goes well beyond a crib against dated linear testing of military candidates. For the sake of conveying focused concern, let us take the case of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and its UPSC connectivity. The NDA awards a BA/B Sc/BCS degree to its 2000 cadets (the intake will increase to 2500 by 2012). The degree is actually given by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a leading University to which NDA is affiliated. The civilian faculty that teach the cadets at the NDA are selected by the UPSC. The Commission therefore is not just involved with cadet but also with faculty selection at the NDA; once the world’s leading Inter Services Academy. Let us examine this issue in some depth.

Starting off as an Inter Science set up with the ratio of military to academic subjects set at 2:1, the NDA had its first JNU graduate degree course pass out in June 1974. A series of high powered internal and external committees have examined the academic content as well as faculty issues at the NDA since it was raised and arrived at the conclusion that the ratio of military vis-à-vis academic training should be 30:70.

On ground, the absolute reverse is in vogue. 70 percent cadet time is spent in physical activities and 30 percent in intellectual activity – for reasons that “Grim Portents” covers in detail. The NDA is probably the only institution which concurrently runs a grueling physical program alongside an undergrad academic program.  Whereas that may be justifiably taken as the military/MoD’s not the UPSC’s concern in the main, the NDA, for long years has been grossly understaffed in faculty terms, to extent of 50 percent. Today, NDA has an authorized faculty strength of 162. It is reliably learnt that the posted strength is just 122. There are 15 military Education Corps posted, five more than authorized, and around 30 ad hoc faculty hired on hourly/ monthly basis. Left at the deep end to fend for itself, the NDA covers its academic syllabus by holding more classes per day. Not many years ago, the NDA had an ad hoc Principal who remained in that position for long…The UPSC and MoD simply could not select the right person.

The next issue that arises is of quality. Is the UPSC sending the right faculty to the NDA? Are the selected candidates really geared up to be teacher/mentors in a world class fully residential set up that is training cadets to live by the Chetwode Credo: Of their country and the men they will command being above themselves, always and every time? Are they Role Models in knowledge, deportment, conduct; academics; imbued with the passion of educating a generation of soldier-scholars at par with the best in the world? Dispassionate observers would say that the UPSC has failed to deliver on most counts here, as has the JNU; a University that should have had both interest as well as oversight on the degree that carries its name.

JNU itself has 5,500 students and a faculty strength of around 550…its affiliate, NDA a faculty strength of 122 for 2000/2500 students. Is JNU really concerned?!  In 2006, The Times of Londonrated JNU amongst the top 200 universities of the world; ironically at a time when the NDA had  50 percent faculty shortage; besides some inductees being of questionable quality. JNU has collaboration arrangements with 71 foreign Universities. How has this benefited its affiliated Institutions such as the NDA? Not at all. The information isn’t connected, but UPSC statistics say that in the Civil Services Mains examinations of 2008, BITS Pilani was on top with a pass percentage of 39.1 percent and JNU a lowly 23rd with a pass percentage of 12.3 percent.  Where does this place JNU itself?

There was a vintage, halcyon time at the NDA when it had iconic faculty members who are remembered till date for being charismatic role models; for the values they imbued in the cadets and for their 24x7 involvement in nurturing them in concert with their military training…That phase has sadly passed, and surely, the UPSC, JNU and the overarching authority should be held accountable for this decline. Prof Jaspal Singh, an eminent academician-diplomat recently presided over the NDA Convocation and had this to say: “The quality of a nation depends upon the quality of its citizens and the quality of citizens depends upon the quality of education and training. Education, in turn, depends upon teachers and mentors, who impart the values of morality and goodness that frame a real human being,” he said. “It is important to understand what do we do but, more important is to know how we learn,” he said, calling for a shift towards innovating learning methods. “The role of teachers is important not just as a dispenser of knowledge, a counselor and a facilitator but, also as master who can read the psychology of his/her disciples,” he added.

An International example could be instructive. The rough equivalent of the NDA in Australia is its Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). It trains cadet officers of the Australian Defence Force, offering three/four year primary and postgraduate degrees. ADFA is operated as a campus of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and has full academic and support staff employed by the university. Military staff maintains a separate training program in non-academic time. The UNSW, like the JNU, is a research-focused university recognised as one of Australia’s leading teaching and research institutions. It has 46,000 students taught by over 5,000 full-time faculty. UNSW has nine faculties, the ADFA amongst them (JNU has 10 schools with 16 affiliated Institutions, the NDA being one of six military Institutions which are so linked). The University was ranked 49th on the 2011 QS World University Rankings and its ADFA degrees are much prized all over Australia and the world. More importantly, the ADFA degrees are run NOT by ADFA but by UNSW, for which purpose it is budgeted separately and has full autonomy.


The article has examined the UPSC functioning at some length, with special reference to both its lead as well as its most neglected offerings; its civil service and its defence forces examination and selection systems. With reference to the military selection systems, the article correctly brings the spotlight on the academic offerings at the NDA 9as a sample military Institution) and how UPSC/JNU and overall apex disinterest is negatively impinging upon the learning of a generation of soldier scholars.

The article notes that the UPSC is brilliantly led and has a select team of professional members who are beginning to make a difference in the way we look at civil service induction. This reform approach should urgently extend to its complete charter and, on priority, to the military, which needs as much if not more careful selection as the civil services do. The UPSC must take pride on choosing the very best as NDA faculty and ensure that the terms and conditions of service at the NDA rank amongst the best in India.The JNU needs to be put on positive notice to “shape up or ship out” warning to take charge of its academic obligations at the NDA on the lines of the UNSW if not better.

Given the multiplicity of agencies involved in invoking correction, a National Commission is suggested to be set up under a serving Supreme Court judge that should take a holistic view of the improvements needed in our civil service and military selection and training/education systems. The sooner that this call is taken, the better it will be for Shining India. The Commission can also look at the issue of constitutionally authorized autonomy of the UPSC along the lines currently vested in the Election Commissionand the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s Office.

4265 words

Maj Gen Raj Mehta (Retd)

[The officer was an Army Faculty at the NDA in 1981-1984. He is a graduate of OTA Madras and has been a Teaching Faculty at the Defence Services Staff College in 1993-1996.]


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