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Issue No 37, 11 December -17 December 2021

Civil Services (Main) Exam 2021 General Studies Paper I

S B Singh

The UPSC Civil Services (Main) Examination is round the corner. In this article, an attempt is made to focus on the General Studies (GS) Paper I syllabus of the main exam. Without a smart strategy, it is impossible to maximize your performance in this examination, no matter how much hard work you have done or how much you have read.

In practice, the preparation for the main examination is not really so much about complete preparation; it is more about substantial preparation. If one takes the syllabus literally, it becomes a vast ocean difficult to traverse. What is therefore needed is to navigate the topics inherent in the syllabus with an application of mind and stay close to the most probable areas from where questions may be asked. At the same time, no part of the syllabus should be neglected as questions are bound to be asked from every area of the syllabus. However, the emphasis and number of questions will naturally differ from area to area in proportion to their importance in a particular paper. To cite an example, in GS paper one, there are three areas viz; History, Geography, and Society. These areas are explained by UPSC in terms of coverage of topics. Thus, History will cover modern India, post-modern India, art and culture, and world history. Again, what will be covered in modern India or, for that matter, in world history, has been clearly delineated in the syllabus of GS paper I. This makes the job easier, but one needs to decipher the syllabus further to prepare precisely. In what follows, an attempt has been made to decipher the syllabus.


 It constitutes a substantial part of the GS paper I syllabus. Comprising modern India, postmodern India, art and culture, and world history, it is a vast area to cover. At least seven to eight questions out of a total of twenty questions are asked from this part alone. In other words, it constitutes more than one-third of the entire syllabus and, therefore, must be accorded high priority.

Modern India:

 It requires a good understanding of events between 1857-1947. The following areas need to be prepared: Movements: Tribal, peasant, lower caste, and trade union movements. Their grievances, forms of protests, reaction and response to such movements by the colonial government, leadership styles of these movements, must be covered. Particular emphasis should be accorded to socio-religious movements, their character, and profiles of social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Annie Besant, Pandita Ramabai, etc.

Colonial policies: Policies on social reforms, administrative policies, agricultural policies, industrial policies, civil services, educational policies and press policies.

Makers of modern India: All crucial national movement leaders and their thoughts and philosophy must be prepared in this section. Besides, you need to know also about important governors-general and their contributions. For example, questions have already been asked in past years on Dalhousie and Curzon. Important ones to cover are Ripon, Minto, Irwin, Wavell, and Mountbatten.

National movement: causes, character, consequences of 1857 revolt, formation of congress, moderates vs. extremists, revolutionary terrorism, Gandhian phase: non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience movement, quit India movement, transfer of power to India, partition.

(Books : 1. Bipan Chandra: India's Struggle for Indepenence 2. A R Desai: Social Background of Indian Nationalism 3. R C Pradhan: Raj to Swaraj)

Postmodern India: In this section, one or two questions are usually asked. One should know the challenges and developments that took place following independence. For example, land reforms, green revolution, integration of Indian States, linguistic reorganization, wars with China and Pakistan, India's stand on an international crisis such as Korean crisis, Suez crisis, etc., socialism in the economy and foreign policy, institution and nation-building process. (Books: 1. Bipan Chandra: India Since Independence 2. Paul R Brass: Politics in India Since Independence 3. NCERT: Politics in India Since Independence)

Art and culture: The scope of this syllabus has been enlarged in terms of the range of questions being set. Just a conventional reading of traditional art form, therefore, is not going to be adequate. One must conceptualize the evolution of Indian tradition since ancient times.

This can be done by a close reading of cultural aspects described in history textbooks. (Books: 1. A. L. Basham: The Wonder that was India 2. Stephen Hay: Sources of Indian Tradition 3. NCERT: An Introduction to Indian Art 4. SAA Rizvi: The Wonder that was India, Vol. II)

World History: Though the prescribed syllabus of this section is wide, only one question is being asked from this part in the last few years. Therefore, one can be selective in choosing some world history topics and hope to get one question at least. The two world wars, Russian, French and Chinese revolutions, colonial struggles, and post-colonial consolidation, are topics one should cover. (Books: 1. NCERT: World History 2. L Mukherjee: A History of Europe 3. L Mukherjee: A History of the world. 4. Arjun Dev: History of the World)


Next to history, geography constitutes a significant part of the syllabus. It includes physical geography, economic and social geography. Emphasis is given on dynamic aspects such as agriculture, climate change, industries, forests, floods, desertification, air, water pollution, etc. Therefore, a basic reading of all NCERT books on geography is essential. Moreover, one must follow newspapers regularly to read well-informed articles on dynamic aspects like floods, heatwaves, cyclones, etc. For this year, floods in Chennai are bound to attract a question on the topic. Similarly, the frequency and intensity of cyclones have increased both in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Factors causing them, mitigation measures, etc., can be asked. Most important is the topic of air pollution. This year, entire North India has remained enveloped in a highly polluted atmosphere. In particular, Delhi and the NCR region turned into a gas chamber, forcing schools, government offices, construction activities, etc. to shut down. Both natural and man-made factors are causing it. So, one question on this topic is most likely this year. Water stress is another area that is important to prepare. India is a highly water-stressed country. Climate change is aggravating it further. Good knowledge of this issue, therefore, is desirable. Given India's participation at COP26 held in Glasgow, UK, India's stand on phasing down coal and forest need to be examined as it has provoked reactions worldwide. Why has India not committed itself to a complete phase-out of coal? This needs to be well understood in the backdrop of India’s coaldependent compulsions in the coming decades. Similarly, India's refusal to join a hundredplus coalition of nations to completely stop deforestation by 2030 must be defended by putting forward good logic and sound argument. The geographical phenomenon, known as "Heat Domes," which produced severe heat conditions in the USA, Europe, and Australia this year, deserves adequate attention. (Books: 1. NCERT books on Geography 11th and 12th standards 2. Goh Cheh Leong: Certificate Physical and Economic Geography).


In this part, the focus areas are the diversity of Indian society, issues relating to poverty, population, women empowerment, urbanization, secularism and communalism, and globalization. Among these topics, globalization is one topic on which one question always comes. Unfortunately, the majority of aspirants neglect this part of the syllabus. Without adequate knowledge of different areas prescribed in the syllabus on society, specific answers cannot be framed. Therefore, what is needed is to take up issues like women, poverty, the population from govt sources, i.e., reports of relevant ministries, and take note of various schemes and programs intended to address these issues. Newspapers also cover social topics by area experts, and regular reading from newspapers can also help.

From this year's exam point of view, the recently published survey report of National Family Health Survey- 5 (NFHS 5), is an interesting document which reveals a lot about population trends, fertility rates, nutrition etc. You cannot proceed to the exam hall without understanding the report and its implications for Indian society. Also, the pandemic continues to impact children's health and education. The same is true of women also. Trafficking of children during the pandemic has registered a rise. Thousands of them have been rendered orphans. These are real social issues India is currently confronting. You must engage with such topics also. (Books: 1. NCERT: Indian Society 2. Vinita Pandey: Indian Society and Culture).

HOW TO ANTICIPATE QUESTIONS: The area wise topics indicated above can be best prepared when you can find suitable authentic sources and frame UPSC type of questions. As regards sources, one should rely on original sources like books, newspapers, government reports. Avoid compiled materials flooding online and coaching markets because, without a thorough, conceptual understanding of the issues, you cannot frame a good answer based on compiled materials. Reading original sources is much better as it helps you understand the topic in all its dimensions. As for preparing questions, take a clue from last years' questions. Once you have framed common questions, make a temporary structure of their answers. Then, try writing the solutions based on that structure. It will bring refinement in your answer writing skills. Remember, unless you practice answer writing in advance, your answers will remain raw. So, never aim to write your answers first time in the exam hall only. Practice them beforehand.

(S B Singh is an academician and IAS mentor. He can be reached at sb_singh2003@

Views expressed are personal