People burst into laughter when Amir Khan in ‘3-idiots’- a Bollywood movie, asked to imagine that if Sachin Tendulkar’s father would’ve insisted him to be a singer and Lata Mangeshkar’s parents would’ve made her play cricket, would Cricket/Singing get such great heroes? Well, let’s not laugh because this apparently amusing example is running the entire system of some former British colonies- India being one example. Interestingly, nobody finds it funny. In fact, it’s taken as the most prestigious achievement among the Indian middle-class students. The aspirants are not to be blamed. In this age of unemployment, to desire for a secure & powerful career is quite natural. Those who qualify it can’t be denigrated. Indubitably, given such a low success rate, it’s extremely hard to crack it.
However, my point is different. It’s the same extractive system which was established to govern, what Mihir Sharma in his Business Standard article calls, a vast, pastoral country on behalf of a distant island nation (Great Britain).He further says that India still has a tenured, generalist civil service, organized on Victorian public school principles. The examination is one-size-fits-all which messes it up, right from the beginning. It does not test skills of candidates for specific services. Does it test flair for accountancy so that an aspirant could be selected for Revenue Services? Does it recruit applicants for Foreign Services on the basis of their linguistic abilities? Does it check your physical fitness for the Police Services? The answer is No. It examines on very generic knowledge, primarily an ability to write detailed essays etc. The optional subjects even include local languages like Urdu, Telugu, and Tamil, whose score can very well help you to head Revenue. Even the interviews thereafter follow the same generic pattern. It doesn’t matter which field have you graduated in. It doesn’t count what interests you. It doesn’t play any role as to what your unique abilities are. They simply assign you a department to serve.
For God sake, this is the age of super-specialization. What archaic Babudom is this? The private sector runs solely on performance. The top companies won’t hire a general MBA; not even an MBA-Marketing, but an MBA- digital marketing, that too with a proven track record, for the position of ‘digital marketer’. This is because they mean business and that’s how they perform. Even in the field of Medicine, there is super specialization, subspecialization, and even sub-sub specialization. This is because the world has moved ahead from the time when a physician with a general knowledge of medicine was considered to be fit to treat any ailment. That’s history. And here we have a Civil Engineer with a responsibility to head foreign services and a Bachelor of Arts in Urdu heading Revenue, determining your excise and service tax. Remember the example cited in the beginning of this column?
Although I think that all these services should have separate criteria, right from the beginning, an Indian diplomat- Kishan S Rana asks why can’t at least be the final crop winnowed from the written exams be subjected to separate interview streams suited to particular services? That, however, would still not be a complete reformation of the process. To me, the candidates should apply for a specific service and be tested accordingly right from the beginning. This entails that Ministry of External Affairs would do their own examination and interviews for Foreign Service selection with these criteria that successful candidates be people’s persons with effective communication and a passion to explore different cultures. Mr. Rana says that he has seen Singapore, Thailand and the UK doing such interviews over many days through a residential program. The Home Ministry can do the same for IPS and the Department of Personnel for IAS, of course in collaboration with UPSC. Likewise, the Ministry of Finance can take its share, using its own standards. The State-level services (like KAS in our case) should also follow the suit.
The Carnegie Melon study called for immediate reforms by the Indian government to reshape recruitment and promotion processes for civil services. The study also delves into its promotions, political interference arguments, unaccountability, excessive power and much more, but I’ll stick to recruitment in this article. All these candidates, apart from having domain knowledge and a zeal for the service, should be tested for their administrative/management skills, since a knowledgeable person is not necessarily a good leader. Indeed, post-selection training must be improved but only the most trainable should find their way through the selection process. This brings me to another misunderstanding. Qualification of this exam is the demonstration that these candidates are highly motivated, hardworking and hence best ones to be trained. They are not experts on anything yet. In order to capitalize on these assets, the best training in their field of interest needs to be given to them. It makes absolute sense that a high-intensity degree program be tailor-made for a specific service they have been selected for, which would also include modules for administrative & leadership skills. This would also put to an end to the random shuffles later on, where an officer who’s just come to grips with Power department is asked to change fortunes of Tourism overnight because he had been a good Chemistry student in his college. Bizarre! Let’s not waste their grit and determination. The ministries are anyways victims of ills of democracy where merit and expertise don’t count, let them at least have expert lieutenants.
In the end, if you are someone who won’t hire a Surgeon for masonry and a carpenter for your orthopedic complications, you can’t help but laugh at this mechanism. These hardworking candidates who qualify such a competitive contest may have a reason to celebrate their personal success but the people who they serve, deserve much better. They could be catered to only if the unique capabilities of these officers are matched with the departments they have to serve. Till then, Civil Services process is plainly ridiculous.