In the midst of protests against the new format of the civil services examination, several key issues have gone unaddressed. An opportunity for meaningful debate about the exam has quickly turned into a slanging match.

The matter has assumed an unnecessarily adversarial tone, with English pitted against other Indian languages. But the issues are far more complex and far less binary than politicians believe. Here are some key questions that have got lost in the din.

Should the Civil Services Aptitude Test be scrapped altogether?
The answer is a clear no. The CSAT gauges logical reasoning, problem-solving skills, analytical abilities, basic numeracy and English proficiency up to class 10 level. To argue that an administrator can do without any of these skills is unrealistic. An administrator has to deal with huge amounts of quantitative and qualitative information and any deficiency in these skills would mean a sub-par performance on the job.

Does the CSAT discriminate against students doing the exam in Hindi or regional languages?
No, but it does employ very poor translation software. The Union Public Service Commission, which conducts the exam, must acquire competent translators or purchase translation software that is up to the mark. This should do the trick.

Is there a grain of truth in what the protestors are alleging?
At the heart of the uproar lies the allegation that the exam is biased towards those who take the exam in English. Since the revised format came into force in 2011, the number of students who take the exam in Hindi has steadily fallen. (However, to really judge whether this is significant, one would have to look not at the absolute numbers of successful candidates who do the exam in Hindi, but the percentage of such candidates out of all those who take the exam in Hindi. But data about the number of test takers in each language is not available).

There may be a kernel of truth to this claim. But the blame lies to a large extent with the coaching and publishing industry. There is simply not enough study material available in Hindi and other regional languages. It is this paucity of study material that hurts students from vernacular backgrounds in the long run.

Surely, pelting stones and burning vehicles is not acceptable behaviour?
Some protestors, by resorting to violence, have demonstrated their unsuitability for the job. It is safe to say that many students have spent hundreds of hours preparing for the exam in its current format. What about their efforts? Do they count for nothing? By taking to the streets and letting political players into the mix, the protestors have probably done more harm than good.

Does the civil services exam in its current format select the best and the brightest?
Opinions differ considerably. An IAS probationer who did not want to be named told this writer: "The civil service exams, in its existing format, put less emphasis on rote learning and that is a good thing. The less this examination focuses on retention of information, the better."

The civil services exam in its current format has three key components. The prelims, the mains and the interview. The first stage of the exam is the prelims, which has two parts, of which the second is the dreaded CSAT. As argued earlier, however, the CSAT is essential for ensuring that only candidates who possess minimum competencies and skill sets make it through to the far more difficult second round, the mains.

The Union Public Service Commission, with its recent revision in format for the mains, has reduced much of the burden on students. Earlier, a student had to master two subjects of their choice (neither of which he or she may have studied before). But now a student just has to choose just one subject of his or her choice. By emphasising general studies and critical thinking, the UPSC has levelled the playing field to a large degree.

How about allowing lateral entry?
The UPSC could also perhaps increase the number of vacancies in the civil services. It is a fact that we don't have enough administrators for the population. According to various media reports, Right to Information applications and 2011 census figures, India has slightly more than 1,600 government servants for every 100,000 residents, which many studies say is a low ratio.

If quality of candidates is an issue, then the UPSC could look into the lateral entry of specialists, and even pay them market wages, a system used in the developed world. India’s political establishment must separate policy functions from service delivery and stop interference in operational matters. Simultaneously, the political class must establish uniform standards and guidelines across the country.