Time long due for reforms in the conduct of civil services examination

The UPSC’s opacity and authoritarian ways has brought only discontent and disillusionment among the multitude of hopefuls.
Aspirants outside an examination centre before the Union Public Service Commission  Civil Services Preliminary Examination, in New Delhi.
Aspirants outside an examination centre before the Union Public Service Commission Civil Services Preliminary Examination, in New Delhi.(File Photo)

In the labyrinth of India’s civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the dreams of countless aspirants are ensnared.

A select few do come off with flying colours, amidst their celebration looms a stark reality — the opaque veil shrouding UPSC’s selection process. It casts a shadow of doubt over the fairness and transparency of the whole process.

The UPSC’s opacity and authoritarian ways has brought only discontent and disillusionment among the multitude of hopefuls. The examination process is marred by a litany of issues, epitomized by the egregious delay in the release of crucial information.

This time around for instance, with the final results announced on April 16, 2024, the preliminary answer key and cutoff saw the light of day only on May 9. This belated disclosure renders the information moot for many, as numerous answers in the key are disputed. However, with the results now finalized, objections are fruitless, relegating them to the status of a mere token gesture.

Is the sacrosanct image of UPSC’s selection process merely a facade, concealing a tangled web of arbitrary decisions and secretive manoeuvres? Isn’t it alarming that UPSC reveals the prelims answer key, questionable questions, and the cutoff only after the declaration of final results, leaving candidates in the dark until it's too late? How can this arbitrary timing, dictated by the Commission's whims, not erode trust in the fairness of the process and hinder candidates seeking legal recourse? This leaves candidates feeling lost and unable to challenge anything until it is too late.

Adding to the frustration, the chance to challenge it before the court of law, i.e., the scope of judicial review is very limited. This setup makes it hard for candidates to fight back against unfairness. Isn’t it time to heed the call for reform, as echoed by a former RBI governor, who likened the need for change within UPSC to the corrosion of a “steel frame”? But alas! who talk about the reforms in colonial UPSC or any other government exams.

Aspirants outside an examination centre before the Union Public Service Commission  Civil Services Preliminary Examination, in New Delhi.
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Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope emerged in 2023 when the candidates moved the Delhi High Court contesting the UPSC’s press note of June 12, 2023, which deferred the release of marks, cutoffs, and answer keys until after the declaration of final result, without providing any rationale for the non-disclosure. In response, UPSC predictably contested the petitions maintainability, citing the Administrative Tribunals Act of 1985 as a shield against judicial scrutiny.

The petitioners’ claims primarily revolved around concerns regarding fairness, the right to information, and candidates’ fundamental rights, necessitating the court’s intervention. While the matter remains pending, the court’s affirmative ruling affirms the Delhi High Court’s jurisdiction to entertain the writ petition.

Crucially, the court discerned that the petitioners are not challenging the examination process itself but are simply requesting the disclosure of the answer key post the Preliminary Examination. These prayers, centred on the release of the answer key, implicate candidates’ legal and fundamental rights, including fair play, legitimate expectations, and the right to information. In any scenario where the safeguarding of fundamental rights is at stake, the court cannot turn a blind eye.

To this, it is pertinent to discuss the necessity of timely releasing the preliminary answer key, which in no way compromises UPSC’s claimed confidentiality or obstructs the fair selection process. The Supreme Court, in the case of Rishal & Ors. v. Rajasthan Public Service Commission, has underscored the significance of publishing an answer key, emphasizing that it fosters transparency and provides candidates with an opportunity to evaluate the correctness of their answers.

The court emphasized that allowing candidates to submit objections against the key answers enhances fairness and accuracy in the selection process. However, if UPSC’s concern is that publishing the answer key or disclosing scores immediately after the prelimsresult might lead to objections, this apprehension requires clarification.

There exists a settled legal principle that the scope of judicial review against an answer key lies only when an answer is “demonstrably wrong.” This principle was affirmed by the court in Kanpur University, through Vice-Chancellor and others v. Samir Gupta and others. The court stated that the key answer should be assumed correct unless proven otherwise and should not be deemed wrong through inferential reasoning or rationalization. It must be clearly demonstrated to be wrong, such that no reasonable body of individuals well-versed in the subject would regard it as correct.

Aspirants outside an examination centre before the Union Public Service Commission  Civil Services Preliminary Examination, in New Delhi.
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Therefore, the publication of the answer key serves several crucial purposes. Firstly, it enables candidates to identify their mistakes and learn from them, thus facilitating improvement for future examinations. Secondly, in cases where answers in the key are demonstrably incorrect, candidates have the right to challenge them before the court of law, ensuring accountability and fairness. This approach stands in stark contrast to UPSC’s current practice.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect is the scenario where a candidate who did not pass the UPSC prelims desires to assess their performance to understand their shortcomings. However, they can only do so after an entire year when the selection process is concluded, and by then, the next UPSC examination cycle will have commenced. This lack of opportunity for personal assessment highlights a significant deficiency in UPSC’s approach, where candidates are left without recourse to understand their performance and areas for improvement due to the Commission’s arbitrary decisions.

At this critical juncture, it is imperative to explore whether India recognizes the right to know as a right under the Constitution. Drawing upon the landmark case of Reliance Petrochemicals Ltd. v. Proprietors of Indian Express Newspapers Bombay Pvt. Ltd. & others, it is established that, “….Right to know is a basic right which citizens of a free country aspire in the broader horizon of the right to live in this age in our land under Article 21 of our Constitution. That right has reached new dimensions and urgency. That right puts greater responsibility upon those who take upon themselves the responsibility to inform.”

Therefore, the right to know constitutes an integral part of the fundamental rights of every civil services aspirant, including the timely disclosure of answers under the preliminary answer key. This enables aspirants to assess their performance promptly and seek recourse through legal avenues if necessary. Unlike the UPSC 2023 examination, where numerous answers are now disputed but remained unalterable once results were declared, there is hope for change spurred by the Delhi High Court’s forthcoming decision on whether UPSC should timely publish preliminary answer keys.

In conclusion, timely disclosure of information, including preliminary answer keys, is essential to uphold the rights of civil services aspirants and maintain the integrity of the selection process. Upholding these principles ensures fairness, trust, and confidence in India’s civil services examinations.

(Sonal Gupta is an Advocate at the Supreme Court)

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