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Make it mandatory for civil service probationers to learn two Indian languages and functional English: Harsh Mander

This past week saw civil services aspirants protesting and demanding the scrapping of the Civil Services Aptitude Test, or the CSAT. The agitators claim that the second paper of the CSAT, which tests reasoning, analytical ability and English language comprehension, puts those from a Humanities background or from non-English medium schools at a disadvantage. Avantika Bhuyan speaks to Harsh Mander, former IAS officer and now director of Centre for Equity Studies, about the validity of the protests and ways of making the CSAT more egalitarian

In your opinion, are the protests valid?

The controversy has two distinct aspects that have been bound together – one is about the test of English and the other is about the test of reasoning. In my opinion, the test of reasoning should certainly be retained. As for the other, you can say that the test of English language is inherently unfavourable to youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. This test could be modified. Being proficient in English does not in itself make you potentially a better or worse civil servant. Language, unlike the aptitude of reasoning, is something that can be taught and learnt by putting in an extra six months during the induction training. It should not become the means of disqualifying a person at the preliminary stage.

The agitators have questioned the rationale behind testing linguistic ability only through English and not other languages. What are your thoughts on this?

In principle, we should be ready to test reasoning and thinking ability in any language mentioned in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, that is, if we really want to bring in diversity in the civil services. Often one sees that the youth who work their way up from disadvantaged backgrounds are more sensitive to problems of the underprivileged, and I believe India’s civil services would be enormously enriched if more came from India’s many excluded peoples.

But let’s consider a situation of a person who speaks only in Hindi getting posted in a place where people only speak a regional language and the only way to bridge the language gap is to communicate in English. In such a case, isn’t a working knowledge of English necessary?

One way of addressing this is to make it mandatory to learn at least two Indian languages (including if you are not proficient in it English) at the training stage, and also including that of the state in which you are likely to be posted. That, along with lessons in the functional knowledge of English, should put those selected on an equal footing at the end of the two-year training period – irrespective of whether you come from an English-medium school or the bhasha-medium schools. I have been a faculty member at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, and I feel that we don’t do enough to bridge the language gap and to reduce the baggage that non-English speaking youth carry. This is not fair on them in a world in which English language proficiency carries so much social worth.

But hasn’t CSAT become easier for those not fluent in English after the essay format questions were eliminated?

I think we are facing a different kind of a problem. The problem is not that people are not fluent in English. I feel, today, young people are not fluent in any language. Those who come from a disadvantaged background don’t want to communicate in the language of their region. And they can’t communicate in English as they are not fluent in it. SMS-language has come into vogue. Language is an expression of a complex idea and it is a skill that is slowly becoming extinct. I don’t want to see the essay-style questions being eliminated. You can’t give single line answers to complex life questions which a civil servant has to construct, such as what is just and unjust, how can gender, caste and communal prejudice be overcome, how do you balance the rights of displaced people with the needs of industry. None of these questions lend themselves to simple multiple-choice answers. I would want the exam to have an extensive test to reason ideas through essays, but in any language in which the candidate is most comfortable. The requirement of the essay to be in English should be eliminated, but essay-type questions should not be eliminated altogether. We should approach this problem in the right manner. The issues that you confront during your tenure in the civil services don’t have “yes” or “no” style of solutions. Complex issues can’t be answered so simply.

Do you feel the agitation is being fuelled by a coaching schools lobby that thrives on training students in lengthy, technical essays?

It is quite likely that some of the opposition to the test of reasoning might have come from coaching centres who don’t want to invest time in encouraging students “how to think”. They should get their act together.

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