Of Dreams, Deterrence: Inside J&K’s Changing Competitive Exam

All photos used in this story are Representational in nature.

The inside story of how UPSCisation of state administrative exam is throwing new challenges for aspirants.  

By Asma Majid

THE skies had shed their load after raining hard for four consecutive days. And now the sun was casting hues across, making every car and passerby on the road to stop and capture the sublime moment with their eyes and cellphones.

Far from this cheery crowd, Haris—seated on the Dal Lake embankment, in one of the secluded corners where lay a mound of pebbles, perhaps for the construction work—looked sombre.

He looked at the mound with a grimace, got hold of a handful of pebbles and started throwing them into the calm lake waters, one after the other.

As the ripples shook his reflection on the water, he had a rattling reality check. He thought of his two-years of physical, mental and monetary efforts, eventually boiled down to nothing.

The Preliminary test of the Combined Competitive Exam (CCE) had turned out to be a disaster for him.

Haris had taken a thorough coaching and supplemented it by a hectic self-study schedule. He had almost alienated himself, sabotaged his social life just to fulfil his life-long dream of being an administrative officer.

But to his utmost disappointment, an unconventionally difficult exam had put his entire future at stake. And now, sitting by the reclusive corner of the lake, he pondered over how life had turned topsy-turvy after the decisive, yet deceptive exam.

A few sheets of stapled paper in black ink had brought about this saturnine silence to a jolly good fellow like Haris.

While coming out of the examination centre in the bustling Jammu city, Sumit felt no different from Haris. His sardonic expression explained it all.

It was for the second time that Sumit’s dream of cracking civil services would be left unfulfilled. But unlike Haris, it wasn’t his childhood dream.

In fact, Sumit’s cousin, a serving Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officer and a year and four older than him, had encouraged him to go for the exam considering his potential for the same.

This had ignited a desire in Sumit to see himself as someone who could actually make a change by stepping into the said field.

The last time, owing to an unconventional question paper from the Jammu & Kashmir Public Service Commission (JKPSC), when Sumit was unable to get through his preliminary examination, his cousin had assured, “You’ll crack it in the next attempt for sure. The first attempt is mostly a hit and trial.”

Prior to the examination, Sumit had high hopes about it, given his level of preparation and the constant guidance of his cousin.

But hardly did he know that while his preparation was in accordance with the demands of the JKPSC, the latter had raised its standard up a notch and more, touching the heights of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examination.

After the J&K Reorganisation Act came into effect on 31st October, 2019, post the annulment of the Article 370 in the same year, the first CCE was held by the JKPSC in the year 2021.

Much to the shock of aspirants, the question paper had shown an abrupt digression from the previous year papers. The level and standard had significantly gone up. The key observations included more reliance on the current affairs and an uneven distribution of questions from the various subjects that an aspirant is ought to prepare.

The bizarre thing though was the question paper demanding an exceptional knowledge of Science which ran contrary to the ‘General Science’ as mentioned in the syllabus.

Thus, while preparing their students for the upcoming year, the coaching centres and mentors thereby had kept the new standard set in by the JKPSC into consideration.

But considering the response of aspirants to the CCE of 2021, it was even floated that JKPSC had assured of not going out of the box while framing question papers in future. Whether what was floated in the name of JKPSC was true or not, the CCE 2022 was going to decide.

Thus, on the cloudy morning of 31st July, 2022, the many clouded minds of as many as 35000 aspirants were going to get the answer of the one question that had been haunting them for the past several months. The curtain was to be raised and this unveiling was decisive for all except few who were going to appear in the examination for the heck of it.

“As the clock struck 9:30 am and we were asked to open the seals of the question paper, my hands were trembling. As I took a glance at the entire paper, I was sure of not being able to qualify it,” exclaims Zarnish while coming out of the examination centre, with a flustered face and a stammering tone.

Shaking his head in utter disappointment, Shakir, another aspirant, makes no bones about the ‘change’ that has altered the exam.

“It was the toughest question paper ever,” he says. “I had consulted the previous year question papers of the last 15 years and they were nowhere close to this one. I felt like I was appearing in the UPSC examination and not the State PSC one.”

In response to the weightage of Science in the paper which was anything but ‘General’ as mentioned in the syllabus, Gurdeep, a Post Graduate in Plant Sciences, says, “I wonder if JKPSC is planning to produce administrators or scientists! At one point of time, I felt like I am taking test for some kind of a Science Olympiad! Being a student of Science stream, I was unable to answer most of the questions, and that intrigues me to know about what others might’ve done!”

After the Paper-I shift was over, the aspirants were looking forward to the Paper-II (which happens to be of qualifying nature only).

The Paper-II aka the CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) paper had never been much challenging and to qualify it was not so difficult a task considering the trend of the previous years’ examinations, including that of the year 2021.

While Paper-I had dispirited some of the aspirants, others were stimulated to fight back in the next paper which was to be held in the second sitting of the day.

But then, again, the Paper-II was quite unexpected and hence as hard a nut to crack as the Paper-I for a majority of students, with a difficulty level of easy to moderate.

The second shift was over and scores of students came out of their examination centres grumbling and grousing about the exceptionally difficult exam that had left a disagreeable taste in their mouth.

Talking about this significantly altering-pattern of the CCE conducted by JKPSC and its close proximity with the UPSC exam, an Economics expert in ‘Quintessence Classes for Civil Services’, one of the reputed civil services coaching institutes of the valley, Tehleel Ahmad refrains from commenting on the JKPSC adopting a new standard in the afore-mentioned scenario.

But he makes it a point to mention that students opt for state-level PSC examinations for a reason. “They [students] know that the standard is much more approachable here (state-PSC) as compared to UPSC,” he says.

“In states like Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the state PSC exam is always a level lower than the UPSC exam and a level higher than other state-level exams.”

However, commending JKPSC for taking its level of examination at par with the UPSC, Navdeep Singh—manager ‘Bajirau IAS/KAS Academy Jammu’ and a teacher of Indian Polity—believes that the factual and non-analytical nature of the JKPSC examinations in the past few years have rendered the J&K students incompetent to crack the UPSC-level examinations.

Singh welcomes the new standard ushered in by the JKPSC for its administrative examinations.

Vijay Kumar, a Bio-diversity, Environment and Ecology specialist at the Chanakya IAS Academy (Srinagar Wing), the leading institute in providing UPSC training to candidates all across the country, acquiesces to the fact that because the syllabi of UPSC and JKPSC are the same, students can expect a similar type of pattern but “raising the standard so much and so abruptly does not really go well with the students,” he believes.

In response to the excessive thrust of JKPSC on Science since 2021 examination, Kumar believes that such questions are consciously put there as part of a filtering technique, so that students are not able to solve them and the objective of preliminary examination is properly achieved.

Yet, he empathises with the aspirants, especially the ones who lack a Science background: “Now that JKPSC is conducting examination at par with the UPSC level, we need to train our students accordingly.”

Seconding Kumar, Ishtiyaq Dar, who happens to be a civil services coach as well as an aspirant himself, identifies with the plight of the students.

“We are not expecting a cakewalk here,” he says, “but if the level of our state-PSC examination has been raised so much, let JKPSC raise the status of the job that the examination eventually aims at as well. Also, while other state-PSCs of the country have an upper age limit of 35, 37 and even 40 years in some cases, JKPSC should also take care of the same in case of J&K where the upper age limit to appear in the said examination is only 32 years. Justice should prevail.”

Amid the debate over the changes, Peer Shujaat Amin, a serving KAS officer, believes that time has come to teach youngsters to keep up with the changing times and adapt themselves to the competitive era.

“We need to follow a proper way,” Amin says. “New systems and patterns should be ushered in gradually. Only then can they bring about a positive change. Abrupt changes are often fatal.”

Meanwhile, a brooding Haris sitting on the Dal embankment continued to throw pebbles in the murky waters. He still wasn’t able to come to terms with what had befallen him. All he could think of was his dream that had been dashed to the ground.

While creating ripples in the water, a holler from somewhere around startled him. He looked around to find an old man shouting, “Son, do save some pebbles for what they have been lain there for!”

Haris at once restored the left-out pebbles from his fist to the mound, got up, dusted himself off and walked away.

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