Seven days ago, a 26-year-old UPSC candidate was left with no choice but to begin a hunger strike after grievances of thousands of aspirants like her were met with the government’s apathy.
Over the past month, Priya Kumari and a few others had been dropping mails, making phone calls, visiting offices and sending out tweets to the Union Public Service Commission, Prime Minister Office, and Department of Personnel & Training, requesting them to postpone UPSC Prelims 2020 to be held amid the pandemic on October 4.
“We have been left in a hopeless state, with our voices unheard by the government authorities. Fasting as a protest was my last resort,” said Kumari. She began her fast on the morning of September 11, before having her last meal the previous night.
The protest is about more than just missing an exam, it’s about compromising the fundamental rights of suppressed voices. The National Defence Academy (NDA) exam, that was conducted by the UPSC on September 6, saw only 37% attendance as against 60.2% in 2018. Moreover, many suicide deaths have been reported by NEET and JEE aspirants after the Supreme Court’s refusal to defer the exams.
“After hearing about these reports and the government’s apathy towards the plight of students, I decided to collectively raise our voice,” Kumari said. She got in touch with co-aspirants she’d met through online channels who had addressed their concerns regarding attending the exam.
The exam was postponed from 31st May when the country was witnessing around 8,000 new Coronavirus cases a day. Currently, the cases are increasing at a rate of 90,000 cases per day. Cities are becoming unsafe and the treatment for Coronavirus is unaffordable for many people from poor families. Amid this, forcing aspirants to travel to cities, where most of the exams centres are located, would be a cruel step.
There is no denying that the lockdown has deepened the fault lines among the population — be it economic, geographical or health-related. If the government would choose to go ahead with the exam, it would mean negating issues being faced by people from flood-ravaged areas (including Bihar and Assam), people with disabilities, respiratory illnesses or Covid.
“Is it people’s mistake if they suffer from a respiratory illness or have been infected with corona? Many UPSC aspirants are corona warriors and have been infected with the virus. Is this how we choose to thank them for their service to society?” asked Kumari. The exam will be a violation of Article 16, (Equal Employment Opportunity), Article 14 (equality before law) and Article 21 (no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty), the aspirants said.
Kumari came together with a group of co-aspirants to submit a public appeal to the UPSC, addressing the concerns of the aspirants, requesting the UPSC authority to postpone the exam.
Additionally, the UPSC also sets a limitation on age and number of attempts. The upper age limit of a candidate is 32 years in case of General category, and 35 years under the OBC category, with only six and nine attempts, allowed respectively. For those giving their last attempt this year, not being able to give the exam might cost them their career.
While many aspirants have come in solidarity to protest for the deferment of the prelims exam, some are against the postponement of the exam as it is hindering their preparation schedule and career plans. Yet others are looking at this as an opportunity to increase their chances of getting selected.
To them, Kumari said, “Although we are competitors in the exam, we must stand together in the crisis. Why do we have to take advantage of this competition and see this crisis as an opportunity? If we have to compete, we must at least compete at an equal level,” Kumari says.
Requesting silent aspirants to join the cause and raise their voice, Kumari added,
“For our Mains exam, we study for an ethics paper, in which we write about compassion, being just to everyone, and being particularly concerned for suppressed groups. In our interview before recruitment, we promise to do anything for them. As future bureaucrats, isn’t it our duty to support a decision that is in favour of these suppressed groups?”
Kumari says that although a postponement of the exam is what will benefit the aspirants the most, there are other measures the government can take to ensure that more people are able to write the exam. These measures include giving relaxation to aspirants who are giving their last attempt this year and increasing the number of test centres to more cities and towns. Currently, only 72 cities have test centres.
Moreover, the current guidelines on exams centres in containment zones or covid positive aspirants are ambiguous. While the Standard Of Procedure (SOP) by the Health Ministry doesn’t give a definite protocol on the examination of candidates with Coronavirus symptoms, the UPSC don’t deem it relevant enough to mention it in their SOP.
This has led to arbitrary action being taken by exam centres on candidates who appeared for the NEET exam on 15th September. Students reported being asked to leave the exam centre due to mild coughing during the exam. Definitive guidelines will at least help reduce the anxiety of those writing the exam, says Kumari. Many aspirants are also calling for a merger of the 2020 and 2021 exam.
“Unlike JEE-NEET, the UPSC exam is a recruitment exam and hence, its postponement won’t lead to loss of an academic year. It’s not even a mass-employment exam. There are only 796 seats this year,” said Kumari.
Then why is it that the government is so adamant on conducting the exam?
“So far, no one from the government has approached me or addressed the issue. The sub-inspector from our local police station came to my house when I announced my hunger strike. He said he’s been sent by the Director-General of Police office and that I should concentrate on my preparation for the exam and take care of my health instead of fasting. Even my parents are worried about me and want me to end my fast. But they are asking me to be selfish, and I cannot be, not when my fellow aspirants are suffering,” said Kumari.
What follows is eerie silence over the question that we dare not ask and she hopefully doesn’t have to answer: what happens to her if the government refuses to respond to her protest?