By Apoorv Pathak:
Every year around 10 lakh graduates undertake one of the world’s toughest exam to get selected in the Indian civil service and fill up one of the 1500 odd vacancies in the top services that together govern the largest democracy in the world. For an exam of such significance and stiff completion one anomaly stands out. In an increasingly digitalized world, this three stage exam is entirely conducted through pen and paper by UPSC with no use whatsoever of computers. It is as if UPSC is caught in a time freeze. Like many other avenues linked to the government, the pattern of this herculean exam has been slow to evolve with time. The influence of various lobbies makes change a difficult proposition in India. Yet going digital, especially in the mains by allowing applicants to first choose from two options (that of pen and paper and that of computers) and then gradually phasing the ‘back-dated’ version, is a promising step to reduce the anachronism of the system.
We live in a time where proficiency of computers is essential for our administrators to function efficiently. As such they are seldom required to write even now as most of the work today is being done through mail, word, PowerPoint, etc. on an array of digital devices. One can confidently presume that the dependency of machines will gradually increase in the future, with our beloved pen and paper becoming obsolete. In such a scenario it makes no sense to burden candidates with the added task of writing neatly and speedily, maneuvering tools of yester years.
Rather, it makes more sense for the exam pattern to demand proficiency in computer skills from the aspiring candidates in which they are required to improve typing and overall understanding of computers. The current hesitancy to accept the digital world will be greatly reduced as in the preparation phase applicants are eager to do anything it takes to qualify. Digital literacy in India will derive a significant boost from such a change.
Handwritten answer scripts often disadvantage many perfectly capable and deserving candidates. Not that it has much to do with competence to administrate anyway. If the exams turn digital this unfair difference that is created due to handwriting will be eliminated, thus permitting selection on more relevant criteria.
Since writing is distinct for each person, the problem with hand written copies is that the examiner has to spend greater time going through each answer-sheets. This is because they have to make an extra effort and devote more time to understand the different writings of different candidates. Also, given the paucity of time on which these answers are written their legibility is all the more a challenge. The examiner who has to unnecessarily make efforts to understand different handwriting is then unable to focus on his core job of evaluating the content. These issues can be comfortably resolved on a digital portal where the text will be available in standard form.
For such a large quantity of applicants, humongous amounts of paper is used each year. Also, during preparation, many of these applicants undertake practice tests. So the total consumption of paper because of this exam is rather hard to calculate. One easily forgets the ecological and economic implication of such consumption. Also, the safe transit of papers is another task which requires spending a large amount of money and manpower. If the exam goes digital, these issues can also be solved saving the government a lot of money. Digital copies will be far less taxing on the environment and will be way cheaper.
Currently, the UPSC selection process spans well across a year with prelims being conducted in August, mains in December, interview in March or April and results being declared as late as July. If the exams go digital, then at the least, the four-month gap between prelims and mains can be curtailed to less than a month as the exams are objective, and matching of digital answer-sheets with correct answer keys doesn’t require much time. This is how others large exams in the country function – such as JEE mains and CAT.
To conclude, for the sake of creating administrators better suited to thrive in an increasingly digital world; for saving paper; for reducing the cost and manpower associated with these exams; to make selections more transparent by reducing manual impediments like ‘writing’ and for speedier conduction of exams,the UPSC must move towards making civil services a digital exam at the earliest.