Analysis of Civil Services (Mains) Examination Paper

UPSC Mains 2016 examination concluded on 9th Dec. The questions were largely based on current affairs, similar to the trend followed last year which demanded in depth understanding and analysis of current affairs topics. The pattern of questions reaffirms one of the guiding thoughts behind selecting candidates for UPSC– ‘well formed’ minds, rather than ‘well-filled’ minds. The right kind of preparation strategy and “Smart work” rather than “Hard work” will definitely be rewarded.

Here is an analysis of the sections and questions featured in the 2016 Mains examination, which aspirants can use to scrutinize their performance. This will also help aspirants understand the approach required to tackle such questions.


Sample Questions:

Essay: The 2014 Essay paper introduced essays in two sections – namely ‘Section A’, and ‘Section B’, with each essay totaling a maximum of 125 marks each. Generally, the topics that are chosen for Essays include topics that have recently appeared in the news.

For example, this time under ‘Section A’, “Water disputes between States in federal India” was featured. This was under national focus in the wake of the Cauvery issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. While it may appear to be one of the obvious reasons for the topic to be analyzed in the exam, it is important to point out that there were other water sharing disputes highlighted in the news – for example, the sharing of the water of the Mahadayi or Mandovi river between Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa.

On the other hand, topics such as “Need brings greed, if greed increases, it spoils breed” do not have a set checklist of points that need to be covered or be drawn out from current affairs. However, candidates must present their views on the topic, using historical references or developments in current affairs to support their views.


GS Paper I:

a) South China Sea has assumed great geopolitical significance in the present context. Comment.

The issue of the South China Sea was raised in newspapers throughout 2016. Again, this question appeared in the examination largely due to India’s legitimate interest in the South China Sea and the fact that recently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), based in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled that China’s claims of historical rights over the South China Sea (SCS) has no legal basis. The case against China was initiated by the Philippines. It is a straightforward question with a large ambit. The challenge here is to put down the most relevant points within the limited time available. It is the not the quantum of information but the quality with coherence and conciseness that counts.

b) Present an account of the Indus Water Treaty and examine its ecological, economic and political implications in the context of changing bilateral relations.

The issue around the Indus Water Treaty assumed importance when, in the wake of the Uri terror strike, there was a possibility of India revisiting the Indus Water Treaty. Many newspaper articles were featured on its viability and the possible consequences on India. Again, only a student who approached the topic from a holistic UPSC perspective of combining Current Affairs topics with the syllabus concepts can write a good answer. Just reading the newspapers would not be enough to write an in-depth analysis of the subject.

c) In what way micro-watershed Development projects help in water conservation in drought prone and semi-arid regions of India.

The issue of drought, especially in Maharashtra, has been in the news over the past year. In fact, , the Bombay High Court had suggested shifting Indian Premier League (IPL) matches, from Maharashtra to other states. This topic requires knowledge of the events and technical concepts, since it is a technology-based question.

d) Highlight the differences in the approach of Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for freedom.

The issue surrounding declassification of files on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has been in the limelight in recent years. In fact, many experts had suggested ‘rewriting’ history textbooks as they did not do justice to his contribution to the Indian National Movement.  Linking Current Affairs with history is the key to get good marks in this highly anticipated question.


GS Paper II:

a) Has the Indian governmental system responded adequately to the demands of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization started in 1991? What can the government do to be responsive to this important change?  

The year 2016 marked the 25th anniversary since Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG) reforms were initiated in 1991. It is also an integral part of the core syllabus. As always, an anniversary or milestone, forms an important part of the syllabus.

b) Discuss each adjective attached to the word ‘Republic’ in the ‘Preamble’. Are they defendable in the present circumstances?

This question is a perfect balance between a traditional topic and current affairs. Often, aspirants are unaware of the meaning of every word in the Preamble. However, questions such as these underscore the necessity of knowing the philosophy of the Preamble.  A core part of the syllabus is again highlighted in current affairs. An aspirant who prepared with the right mindset and strategy could have anticipated and practiced most of this year’s questions and scored very well. However, traditional ways of learning from the standard prescribed books clearly cannot work anymore in this new pattern that UPSC has adopted and consolidated.


GS Paper III:

a) The terms ‘Hot Pursuit’ and ‘Surgical Strikes’ are often used in connection with armed action against terrorist attacks. Discuss the strategic impact of such actions.

This question is directly connected with the ‘Surgical Strikes’ the Indian Army employed against terror camps across the LoC.  However, the question is technical in nature and a student who has not done the right kind of research into the strategic aspects of these terms would not be able to write a good answer with relevant points.

b) Use of internet and social media by non-state actors for subversive activities is a major security concern. How have these been misused in the recent past? Suggest effective guidelines to curb the above threat.

This question appears to be directly linked to the killing of militant leader, Burhan Wani who was extremely active and popular on social media. Social media has been used to spread propaganda by terror organizations such as ISIS, in an effort to win over the hearts and minds of youth in India. Issues concerning the threat posed by non-state actors using social media have been covered extensively in newspapers and television.

In conclusion

It is important to note that the GS Mains examination is not a test of syllabus topics alone, but a test of how students link the concepts to current affairs to substantiate their answers. Thorough study and revision of standard textbooks has to be backed by a systematic approach towards analyzing major issues in newspapers, with every issue being covered in-depth. This approach, along with rigorous revision and practice will help the student remember key points and present them well in the UPSC Mains examination.

All the Best!


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