The UPSC debate — Meritocracy has no place for a level playing field

Mr. Modi had promised us a strong and decisive government and it is heartening to observe that he is living up to the promise.

He is redeeming his pledge in a number of areas but in this article one would like to deal with the wholly unnecessary “controversy” about the CSAT paper in the UPSC’s exam for the Civil Services.

The Govt. has shown a rare resolve (in the face of the usual populist demands in Parliament and agitations on the streets of Delhi) in refusing to either dilute the standard of this paper or to postpone the exam itself. (This has not yet been officially announced but the statements of both, the Home Minister and the MOS [Personnel], indicate this quite clearly.)

Till just the other day it took just a few hundred lumpens on the roads for the govt. to develop policy diarrhoea and succumb to pressures, notwithstanding adverse effects on the public good.

The present govt’s stand, therefore, must be welcomed by all right thinking persons.

Arnab Goswami rarely gets things right but he nailed it the other night when he observed (actually, Arnab doesn’t ” observe” he” decrees”) that our politicians, having already divided this country on caste and religious lines, are now seeking to create another fault line- that of language.

The demand to abolish the English language component in the CSAT paper on the ground that it discriminates against non-English knowing students is thoroughly misconceived and is like demanding that maths be removed from the IIT entrance exams and biology from the Medical Entrance Test because it discriminates against students from the Humanities streams!

It betrays gross ignorance not only of the requirements of the job in an All-India or Central service, but also a failure to grasp the nature of the flow of global information, the increasing need to engage internationally in all sectors of govt. activity, and the fact that English is the only idiom that binds this country linguistically (other than YO YO HONEY SINGH, that is).

It also disregards the fact that English is the second most widely understood language in India, after Hindi.

But these are matters that have been, and will continue to be, debated by experts as long as the likes of Mr. Dina Nath Batra and his ilk continue to stalk this mortal coil, and I have no wish to dwell on them.

The issue I would like to address here is that last argument of all losers- that they have to be given a “level playing field”. Every political party (even the BJP, unfortunately, which is why Mr. Modi must be given even more credit for his stand) swears by it because it is the politically correct stance to have in a country whose educational standards are below those of even Srilanka and Bangladesh.

But the truth must be stated and this beating around the bush must stop.

The cruel fact is that there can never be a level playing field in any exam that is merit-based, nor should there be. The purpose of such exams- and the CSAT is just one of them- is to select the most meritorious candidate with reference to the job profile; the purpose is not to give representation to regions or religions or various IQ levels.

This becomes even more pertinent when the exam seeks to select the highest level of administrators for the country, in an era when the challenges to governance are most acute and intractable.

Enough damage has already been done to this structure by all kinds of reservations and this should not be compounded by further lowering the standards of the examination under the guise of a “level playing field.”

There is no such thing as a level playing field when it comes to competitive exams where one candidate can qualify only at the cost of another.

The huge disparities in educational standards across states, income categories and individual abilities ensures this. The candidate from Delhi will always have an edge over the one from Jhumri Tillaya.

The student from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi will always be better placed than the one from Govt. College, Tehri Garwahl.

The aspirant from a rich family who can afford multiple tuitions and coaching classes will have a better chance at cracking the exam than his counterpart from a rural area where there is a power cut for eight hours everyday and where the teacher is usually absent.

The student with an IQ of 130 is more likely to succeed than the one with an IQ of 90.

These are inevitable realities. To force a level playing field on this reality would mean reducing the standards to conform to the lowest denominator which would be an unmitigated disaster.

At the end of the day the only real leveller is the individual ability to educate oneself, the hard work that is put in and the fire in the belly.

Only this can explain why, in the CBSE Board exams, Govt. schools out-perform the elite private schools year after year; why more and more candidates from Tier 2 and 3 towns are making it to the IITs and Civil Services in greater numbers every year.

My late father-in-law was educated in a govt. school in Ballia (perhaps the most backward district in UP then, and now) untouched by even a syllable of the English language, but made it to the first batch of the IAS. He taught himself English, and was still making notes on the language and the literature when he passed on in 1972!

It is this kind of dedication and desire to improve oneself constantly that makes the field level and ensures success, not the degradation of standards that the current lot of agitators are demanding.

In fact, these people, by clashing with the police and torching public property, have made it evident that they are not the kind of human material the civil services need.

The Delhi police should identify these trouble makers, prepare their list and ensure that (in the unlikely circumstance of their clearing the exams) they are weeded out during the verification of their antecedents.

There are no level playing fields in life. Perhaps there may be one in the after-life, but I doubt even that.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at

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  1. says: Vishal Kanv

    Sir, I was waiting something to be written on this “controversial topic” from your end. A logical explanation indeed.

  2. says: Avay Shukla

    It is hugely disappointing that the Govt. has on 4.8.2014 decided that the English comprehension component of CSAT will not count for assessment in this paper. This attempt at appeasement is extremely short-sighted and will please no one, while causing immense damage to the whole examination process. The agitators have already announced that this does not satisfy them: they have smelt blood and will now go for the kill. On the other side, it will now open the floodgates for demands for having the paper in regional languages, especially from the southern states who will now see this as appeasement of the Hindi lobby. The fabric of the Civil Services Exam has begun to unravel and will soon be in tatters. The very concept of a unified, all-India service is now threatened by the politics of populism, which we had hoped was a thing of the past. Mr. Modi has failed his first big test.

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