UPSC aspirants across the country are demanding a one-time relaxation in the upper age limit criteria for the upcoming UPSC Prelims exam, a move that'll roughly impact 40,000 aspirants. Business Today spoke to civil service candidates who could not take the exams last year due to Covid restrictions; it was their last chance at making the cut.
Aspirants say the UPSC did not make proper provisions for candidates who were down with COVID during the exam or lived in containment zones. They also claim that no provisions were made to accommodate aspirants who worked as essential service workers. Furthermore, these candidates allege UPSC was discriminatory with its ‘Withdrawal Window’ policy, which was applicable for all other candidates apart from last-attempt aspirants.
Lack of arrangements for COVID-positive candidates
UPSC aspirants told Business Today that, unlike other competitive exams, no provisions were made to accommodate exam takers who were down with the COVID-19 virus.
A civil services aspirant, who previously worked for the IT company Infosys, who was infected with the virus during the UPSC Mains told Business Today that he was restricted from sitting for the exams.
The aspirant said, “I got Covid during my Mains exam, I had appeared for five out of nine papers and then I was asked to not appear for the rest of the exams. Why was there no separate arrangement for those who were infected? ”
It is worth noting that for the medical entrance exam NEET, as well as for the engineering entrance exam IIT-JEE, provisions were made for exam takers to sit in separate rooms or appear for the test another day. The ICAI also allowed CA students to opt out of the exam and take it later.
Similar arrangements were also made by other civil services and professional entrance exams, said a UPSC aspirant. He said, “The Institute of Banking Personnel (IBPS), the Himachal Pradesh PCS exams, the SSC exams, the ICSI exams, Karnataka civil judges exam, all of them made provisions for exam takers who got Covid or had a temperature during the exam. How could UPSC miss this?”
When the former Infosys employee wrote to the authorities, they sent him a written reply saying the COVID-19 protocols they followed did not mandate separate arrangements for students who had contracted the virus.
The reply said, “The Civil Services Main (Written) Examination-2021, has been successfully conducted by the UPSC at 24 centers (cities/towns) on the scheduled dates during the period from 7th January 2022 to 16th January 2022 throughout the country following due COVID-19 protocols which did not mandate making any separate arrangement for COVID infected candidates.”
UPSC candidates engaged as Essential Service Workers
UPSC aspirants, who were essential workers working on the frontlines such as doctors and nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic, claim that they deserve another attempt to sit for the test because they were denied leave to take the exams.
A doctor who worked on the frontlines battling the pandemic said that she was put on mandatory duty and was denied leave.
“I was denied leave for my exam during my last attempt, I kept explaining that this would be my last attempt but my superiors assured me that it was an unprecedented situation, and I would get an extra attempt. I was robbed of my dream of being a civil servant. Is that how I get recognition for working 18 hours straight in PPE kits and risking my life every day for months straight,” the doctor exclaimed.
She further added, “I don’t blame my superiors, they were just doctors going through the pandemic. UPSC should have thought about all things before downright declining a fair chance to me and several other essential workers who had written or verbal orders against taking leaves.”
Inequity in the withdrawal window process
Some aspirants of the prestigious civil services exam claim that UPSC discriminated against them while rolling out the withdrawal window before the prelims.
All UPSC aspirants were given an option before the prelims exam to withdraw their candidature from the test because of COVID-19 hardships. If candidates opted for the withdrawal window, their attempts would not be counted.
But protesting aspirants of the UPSC exam claim that this withdrawal window was not an option for candidates who were appearing the exam on their last attempt (6th attempt or 32 years of age for general category candidates, 9th attempt or 35 years of age for OBC category, and 37 years of age for SC/ST category).
A UPSC aspirant said, “So before prelims, all candidates had the option to withdraw from the exam due to Covid hardships. Their attempt will not be counted. But, this was not an option for last-attempt candidates.”
He explained, “For example, this withdrawal window was null and void for me, a 32-year general category candidate. Why? Were there no covid hardships for me and others my age? I had cremated my father who passed away because of COVID-related complications days before the exam. Was that not hardship? How can UPSC discriminate between candidates like that?”
Exam centers in containment zones
Aspirants also claim that hundreds of candidates whose exam centers were in containment zones were also denied a fair chance because it was impossible logistically to move around in the restricted areas.
A UPSC aspirant said, “Let me explain how unprepared and unaware UPSC actually was while conducting the exams. When the pandemic was raging, we filed a petition in the Delhi High Court detailing how some of the exam centers were in the containment zones and how it was practically impossible to reach the exam center. When the court asked UPSC how many exam centers were in containment zones, they said we don’t know.”
The Delhi High Court had instructed the Delhi government and police to allow all UPSC candidates to travel within containment zones on exam days with valid admit cards.
“Many people are coming forward with missed last attempts due to this unpreparedness of UPSC. We just want a fair chance for all of us,” he said.
Precedence of relaxation in eligibility for civil services exam
Interestingly, relaxation in eligibility criteria has been provided by several other state-level civil services exams. Eighteen states including Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and others have provided a multi-year relaxation in eligibility criteria easing the age bar.
Moreover, a similar relaxation has also been provided for the SSC GD Exam by the Department of Personnel Training, which is also the relevant authority in the case of the UPSC civil services exam.
A UPSC aspirant, who is now studying to be a lawyer said, “It is not like UPSC has never given relaxation in age limit. They do it when they change the syllabus. Similar one-time relief was granted in 1990, 1992, and 2015. These temporary relaxations in UPSC Civil Services Exam were given on account of syllabus and pattern changes which normally happens periodically once in 15-20 years. But why can't they do this for a global pandemic?”
Support from prominent politicians
The protesting candidates say that they have the support of more than 100 Members of Parliament including an assurance from the likes of Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and other prominent MPs like Rahul Gandhi, Chirag Paswan, Sharad Pawar, Supriya Sule, Jayant Chaudhary, and others.
A 33-year-old UPSC aspirant who formerly worked as a scientist at the esteemed Indian Council of Medical Research told Business Today, “We have assurance and support over 100 MPs. We have met all these big names and they have written to the DoPT, but to no avail.”
The DoPT hurdle
The aspirants explain that the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) is the ministry that can provide them with some relief.
The former ICMR scientist said, “It is all stuck because of DoPT. When we or MPs voicing our issue write to DoPT's Minister of State Jitendra Sinha, he says that this age relaxation is not feasible in light of the Supreme Court’s orders.”
The Supreme Court cases in this context refer to two separate petitions by Arijit Shukla and Abhishek Anand Sinha, both UPSC aspirants who had petitioned in the court for one-time relaxation in the age bar for UPSC civil services exam since they did not get a fair chance to appear for the exam due to the pandemic.
The former scientist explained, “The judgment says that they could not help these two individuals because the relaxation would either be for all or for none. In fact, the Supreme Court had asked the government to take a lenient view of the situation and had directed the authorities to examine and reconsider the demand in light of the 112th report of the Standing Committee. ”
He further adds, “The 112th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended a one-time age and attempt relaxation. The chairperson of the committee was Sushil Kumar Modi, BJP MP from Bihar.”
The way forward
The UPSC aspirants say that they need a quick solution for their issue since the notification for UPSC 2023 would be out within a couple of weeks.
“We need clarity before February 2, that is when the notification for this year’s exam will be out. We will go to Supreme Court again, this time not as separate individuals like previous times, but as one group that will include all the roughly 40,000 aspirants, so that this time the court can’t reject the petition on the grounds of for all or none,” a protesting UPSC aspirant said.
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