English Comprehension Remains Privilege of the Few

Indians were tested in English comprehension before the promulgation of the Constitution in 1950. It was expected that the practice would be discontinued in due course as the Indian languages developed to an extent where they could work as the vehicle of people to people, government to governments, people to government and government to people communication. It has not happened. Consequently the need and influence of the English language has only extended. There is no quarrel with that. However attempts to impose the English language once again is ill advised. The Union Public Service Commission has raised an unnecessary controversy by introducing a paper on “English Comprehension”.

English is spoken by less than 5-10 % population of the country. Of these not all are good at English comprehension. The ground reality is that most of the time superiors are correcting the English of subordinates and still there is no finality in comprehension. Decisions taken by the most careful officers in the best public interest are upturned by the superior authority on grounds of comprehension alone. Facts remain unchanged, narration remains the same, text undergoes no change and yet differences of comprehension crop up, giving rise to even vigilance cases. In courts, the confusion about comprehension gets terribly complex and really incomprehensible when the lower judiciary comes under attack of the higher judiciary for failing to comprehend the matter appropriately. It leads to upturning the order of the lower judiciary by the higher judiciary, even in serious matters like murder or rape. The confusion is further aggravated when the highest judiciary takes a completely different take on the issues depending on its manner of English comprehension.  It is not only the interpretation of the provisions of the laws that lead to differing comprehensions, it is what one makes of the text on record that requires comprehension. So the conclusion it leads to is that there can be no hard and fast rules of comprehension and it depends on the context, place, circumstances and other relevant factors as to how one reads a text.

The Union Public Service Commission is the “public” service commission and not the “privileged” service commission. On the one hand it make fair recruitment to various public services and on the other it opens all public services for recruitment from the public, not the privileged. There can neither be any prerogative nor privilege to the few to enter the public services on the strength of an unfair obstacle put up in the name of English Comprehension. The reason is that more than 90 % Indians are not comfortable with the English language. Most of them hesitate to speak, many find it difficult to comprehend the written text, yet many labour hard to communicate in English. The same people are excellent the moment they are given the option to express themselves in their chosen Indian language (mother tongue mostly). It means their comprehension of the text, subject and issues is sharp if the language impediment is removed. Should such candidates be rejected by the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission)? It will not be correct to do so. All Indians appearing for the UPSC written examinations have studied English up to the XII standard. They know the basics. Because of the mis-match between their life style conducted largely in their preferred Indian language and use of English for official purposes only, they always feel diffident in being subjected to an examination to qualify for a job. The same lot will take not more than 3 months to acquire high proficiency in English as part of their training. The British Council arranges for 3 months special English language course for trainees from developing countries visiting UK under the government of the UK training programmes. English is somewhat difficult for beginners for whom it is a foreign language, which rarely reflects their own life style. On the job in government, a candidate develops a wider horizon and understanding of the larger phenomenon and comes to add to his knowledge and vocabulary comparatively fast. Another factor contributing to language phobia in schools and colleges, especially those catering to the 90 % population is the high deficiency of service in the form of non-availability of qualified English teachers. When there is no level playing field for the privileged and the non-privileged, putting them through the same English Comprehension examination is unjust and unfair. On this count, the insistence of the UPSC on retaining the English Comprehension as a compulsory paper for the examination for the Civil Services is not justified at all. It is an unnecessary hurdle, which impedes the entry of the candidates from the 90 % of the population, and opens up an unfair advantage to the few privileged to get good grounding in English or education in private schools of high quality. Our civil servants have to serve the people of India and report only to the people of India (unlike the British times when they had to serve the British and also report to the British). The people whom they are employed to serve are comfortable with the Indian languages and easily put off by the English speaking civil servants, who only create an instant gap with the people. The people comprehend and express their problems in their own language. If the civil servants are able to interact with them in their own language, administration becomes successful and people friendly.

There is no dispute that in the contemporary times civil servants have to learn more than one language. English has acquired the status of the global communication language. Civil servants in India have to hone their English language skills to match the best in the country and even globally, for government has to interact globally. Use of internet has made it all the more necessary to do so. Civil service is a continuing education programme where the incumbent keeps learning new expressions and ideas on a daily basis. That is how it grows, it develops and maintains its dynamism. Arranging English language training programmes would cost less than what the government spends on state language training programmes.

Some people argue the difference of quality of the candidates from the 90 % and others. Let it be made abundantly clear that the difference is due to the quality of education and not because of the IQ of the two categories of candidates. It has nothing to do with English. While high priced private schools employ highly qualified teachers, others have to feel happy by whatever quality is employed in government run facilities. Even then, the disadvantaged candidates from the 90 % category of the population try to compensate their loss of opportunity of same quality education by developing additional skills or knowledge of other fields. Once they succeed in reducing the gap between them and others in language, they compete well. In fact, their service delivery has been rated better in comparison to the privileged class, who are either gone abroad for better prospects or tend to act as master and not as public servants.

The UPSC will only do disservice to the nation by blocking entry of candidates from the 90 % population of this country in the name of English Comprehension. It will amount to reducing a Public Service Commission to a club- the like of the Chennai club that disallowed the entry of a Judge of the Madras High Court only because he chose to wear his Dhoti. Well, the clubs can do so but constitutional authorities like the UPSC can’t do. It is another matter that the Judge refuses to hear the prayer of a rape victim or the family of the murdered man unless spoken in English invoking the provisions of the Article 348 of the Constitution. But, then, it is the reason for pending cases of heinous crimes. Had the judiciary chosen to hear the victim in his/her own language, a decision could have come fast. Even now it is not too late. If the Judge can choose to enter a club in his Dhoti in violation of the rules of the club and still assert his right to get entry unhindered by the club rules, he can also take recourse to the language of the victim and decide the case in a few days. Those asserting their rights ought to respect equally the rights of others. If the candidates comfortable with English Comprehension in civil services examination find the inclusion of the paper in the scheme alright, the objection of those uneasy with it deserve to be treated with equal consideration and the paper be not included in the examination. The UPSC need not make it a prestige issue, for its prestige lies in making fair recruitment to the services of the union of India. Such bars to the entry of the candidates, already deprived of the opportunity to equally high quality education, have dented that glorious reputation of the UPSC in the last few years, which needs to be improved.


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  1. #1 by 台灣大樂透 on September 21, 2014 - 11:02 am

    Great site, thanks for sharing !!

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