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India Needs Systemic Exam Reforms – News18

India Needs Systemic Exam Reforms – News18


Metastasised Malignancy

It’s time to confront the core issue: how deep and widespread is the corruption plaguing the examination system? Recent reports have focused on cases from the past five, seven, or ten years. My meta-study based on research of more than 500 publicly reported cases, however, delves deeper, encompassing the period from 1991 to 2024. The findings are alarming.

One, Bihar, the epicentre: Bihar first experienced examination malpractice in 1967 during Mahamaya Prasad Sinha’s tenure as chief minister. My earliest memories of question-paper leaks, organised cheating, and ghost-writing in school exams dates back to 1969 when I took the Class VII State Board exam. While there was a brief reprieve from these malpractices during the tenures of Chief Ministers Kedar Pandey and Abdul Gafoor (1972-1975), the state has since become notorious for all forms of examination irregularities. Unsurprisingly, Bihar is now the epicentre of such malpractices, affecting both academic and recruitment exams.

Two, integrity compromised of a full-proof recruitment exam: In 1981 when I cracked the prestigious State Bank of India (Probationary Officers) Exam, to become the youngest among 420 probationary officers recruited in the country that year, the SBI PO exam was full-proof with no known cases of cheating or malpractices. Even today it remains one of the better-managed exams but every now and then allegations surface about irregularities in the exams. And surely, malpractices have crept in a big way in the clerical cadre recruitment in SBI and other public sector banks

Three, corruption in railway recruitment: My first encounter with large-scale exam cheating, including question leaks, organised syndicates, impersonation, cronyism, and nepotism in recruitment examinations, occurred during my time as a young railway officer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, corruption in railway recruitment and promotion exams, whether administered by divisions, workshops, zones, or Railway Recruitment Boards (RRBs), has only escalated.

Numerous attempts by Indian Railways to curb these practices, including the mass dismissal of all RRB chairpersons in 2009, have proven ineffective. Even a plethora of CBI investigations, charge sheets, and convictions has failed to deter these crimes. The CBI, along with state police forces, has frequently exposed recruitment scams in recent years: 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2021, and 2024. Early this year in a 2010 case, after fourteen years, justice was delivered with the Special CBI Judge Mumbai convicting then RRB Mumbai Chairman along with seven others to five-year rigorous imprisonment and a fine totalling Rs seven lakh in a case of recruitment scam of ‘assistant station masters’ and ‘assistant loco pilots”. But justice delayed is always justice denied. In another latest development, the CBI has charge-sheeted 78 persons including a former railway minister, his family members, railway officials and candidates in connection with the Jobs for Land Scam.

Four, investigations lead nowhere: The oldest exam paper leak I uncovered occurred in 1982, involving multiple breaches in the CBSE All India Senior School Certificate Examination. The accused, Hazari Lal Khanna, the vice principal of a Delhi-based school, was acquitted due to lack of evidence by all – the Metropolitan Magistrate (1983), the Additional Sessions Judge (1984), and ultimately the Delhi High Court (1985).

While Hazari Lal may have been innocent, this case highlights a critical flaw in the system: even when apprehended, securing convictions against individuals who jeopardise the futures of millions of young Indians can be incredibly challenging.

Five, detected cases are tip of the iceberg: My extensive research, which uncovered over 500 publicly reported cases of question leaks, organised cheating rings, and other malpractices, leads me to believe that we are only witnessing the tip of the iceberg. The malaise runs so deep that for every exposed case, there are likely 20-25 more that remain hidden.

Six, all must share the blame: My findings implicate every political party that has governed India and its states since 1991. This systemic issue spans across all states and Union Territories, including the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Goa, and Pondicherry, compromising the integrity of both academic and recruitment examinations. My research encompasses the eras of six Prime Ministers—P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi—revealing a persistent and deeply entrenched problem. The oldest rigged exam I uncovered was the Uttar Pradesh State Medical Entrance Test (1991), while the most audacious was the brazen theft of question papers for the All India Medical Exams in Patna (2000).

Interestingly, while irregularities occur in both centrally administered and state-conducted examinations, the perpetrators are invariably located within the states. Furthermore, state-level exam irregularities are considerably more widespread and damaging. It’s also noteworthy that during the period of my analysis, the entire political spectrum—Congress, BJP, SP, BSP, RJD, JDU, CPI-M, TMC, AAP, BJD, JDS, NCP, Shiv Sena, TDP, YSRCP, BRS, DMK, AIADMK, LDF, and UDF—has held power in various states, highlighting that this issue transcends party lines.

Seven, the gold standard: A crucial caveat must be made here: the UPSC, which annually conducts numerous exams (including the prestigious Indian Civil Services Examination) involving millions of students, stands as a beacon of integrity. However, it’s chilling to contemplate how long the UPSC can maintain its unblemished record given the pervasive corruption plaguing the nation’s examination system.

Eight, state-level exams – A deeper malaise: While irregularities in national-level exams garner significant media attention, the situation is far more dire in state-conducted examinations. My research indicates that the cancer of malpractice has metastasised to every single state.

Nine, academic exams under siege: Corruption has permeated all levels of academic assessments. School-leaving examinations (Class X and XII), conducted by state boards, the CBSE, the ICSE, and even international schools, are marred by malpractices. The situation is equally alarming in colleges and universities—both public and private, including deemed universities—where exam irregularities are rampant. From Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Telangana, the integrity of academic examinations across the nation has been severely compromised.

Ten, totally compromised entrance exams: While petty corruption, cheating, and impersonation have always plagued entrance examinations, the emergence of organised exam mafias, sophisticated “paper-solver” gangs, institutional collusion, and the influx of vast sums of money have transformed these malpractices into a large-scale, organised criminal enterprise, particularly since the 1990s.

For brevity’s sake, I will highlight a few illustrative cases, many of which have faded from public memory:

First, engineering entrance exams: The first cancellation of the IIT entrance exam I recall was at a centre in Gaya, Bihar, in 1976. However, the first nationwide cancellation of the IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) occurred in 1997 following the leak of all three question papers (physics, chemistry, and mathematics). Since then, compromising the integrity of the IIT-JEE has become tragically commonplace.

Recent examples include 2010 (paper leak), 2011 (incorrect questions), 2012 (fake admission racket leading IITs to abandon online counselling), 2020 (impersonation, with the Assam JEE topper arrested for having someone else take the exam on his behalf), 2021 (organised leak, case transferred to the CBI), and 2024 (alleged cases of impersonation, cheating, and various malpractices).

Professor Rajeev Kumar of IIT Kharagpur, a courageous whistle-blower who filed 60 Right to Information (RTI) applications between 2006 and 2012, played a pivotal role in exposing and driving reforms within the IIT-JEE system. Despite being hailed as an “unsung hero” by the Supreme Court in 2011, he was hounded and ultimately dismissed by IIT Kharagpur for allegedly “damaging the institute’s reputation.”

While the IIT-JEE might be marginally better, the situation with other engineering entrance exams is equally grim. In 2011, despite a widespread leak of questions for the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) in Uttar Pradesh, the exam was not cancelled, even after a three-member committee headed by IIT-Kanpur Professor Phalguni Mehta was formed to investigate the matter. The situation is even more appalling when considering admissions under the management/NRI quota (15 per cent) in private engineering colleges and admissions in minority institutions (50 per cent reservation). In one instance, in 2010, Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court penalised 18 private engineering colleges for illegal and fraudulent admissions under the NRI quota. Sadly, the problem has only intensified since then. Irregularities, malpractices, fraud, corruption, and collusion continue to plague engineering admissions in India.

Second, medical entrance exams: India is currently grappling with alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 examination, following similar allegations of question leaks during the 2023 exam. Regrettably, with too many aspirants chasing too few available seats, the medical entrance tests have consistently served as a breeding ground for corruption, collusion, and malpractices.

Two early examples from my investigation illustrate this deeply rooted problem: in the late 1980s, admissions to postgraduate medical programs in Uttar Pradesh were granted based on fabricated court orders issued in non-existent cases (UP Junior Doctors v Dr B. Sheetal Nandwani AIR 1991 SC 909). Similarly, in 1990-91 and 1991-1992, admissions to two medical colleges in Bihar for the MBBS program were secured by many through the forgery of documents related to the 15 per cent all-India quota (Manoj Kumar etc. versus Bihar Govt. & others, Patna High Court, April 1993).

While one might hope these were isolated incidents, the truth is far more disconcerting. Medical entrance exams, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and across government, private, and minority institutions, are demonstrably corrupt.

To illustrate the nationwide scope of this problem, I will focus on a few prominent cases involving all-India entrance examinations: AIIMS (2002), CBSE Medical and Dental Entrance Exam (2003), All India Post Graduate Medical Entrance Test (2004), All India Medical PG Entrance Test (2006), NEET-UG (2013, 2015, 2020, 2023, and 2024).

In one notable instance, the 2006 All India Post Graduate Medical Entrance Test, conducted by AIIMS, revealed that 37 of the top 100 ranked candidates were from Chennai. A subsequent CBI investigation resulted in charge sheets being filed against 65 individuals, including numerous doctors from Chennai, Madurai, and Pondicherry. To date, I have been unable to find any record of convictions in this case.

In 2015, a Supreme Court bench of RK Agrawal and Amitava Ray, while cancelling AIPMT said- “We are conscious …every examination conducted by a human agency is likely to suffer from some shortcomings, but deliberate inroads…of the magnitude and the nature, as exhibited, in present case, demonstrate deep-seated and pervasive impact, which ought not to be glossed over…If such examination is saved, merit would be a casualty generating a sense of frustration in the genuine students…”

The CBSE opposed the exam cancellation as it involved the future of 6,34,000 aspirants, but the Supreme Court bench was categorical – even a single entry through “illegal” means would “vitiate” the test’s “sanctity”. This is precisely my point in this article.

Third, MBA entrance exams: The Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Calcutta and Bengaluru (IIM-A, IIM-B and IIM-C) hold a prestigious position in India, having produced countless leaders across various fields over decades. To enter IIMs, aspirants must clear the highly competitive Common Admission Test (CAT). Shockingly, in 2003, for the first time in its 44-year history, the integrity of the CAT exam was compromised to such an extent that it necessitated a nationwide cancellation and retest. A one-man committee, headed by former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) V.K. Shunglu, was formed but failed to curb the irregularities. Following another instance of malpractice and mark tampering in 2012, a three-member committee headed by IIM-A Director Ajay Pande was constituted. In 2014, a writ petition filed in the Chennai High Court challenged irregularities in the 2013 CAT exam, underscoring the persistent nature of these issues.

The aforementioned irregularities in engineering, medical, and MBA entrance exams represent merely the tip of the iceberg. Similar instances of paper leaks, cheating, and malpractices have plagued exams for admission to National Law Universities, the Chartered Accountancy program, and countless other fields. Moreover, for every reported case of malpractice in a centrally administered exam, there are likely at least ten such occurrences in state-level examinations. And for every publicly reported case of irregularity, only God knows how many remain undetected.

Besides these irregularities, two more types of exam frauds are becoming commonplace today: getting admission fraudulently without appearing in the exam and admission through marks manipulation where a candidate who originally fails, gets marks tampered and secures admission.

It is getting scarier by the day.

Mother of All Scams

The corruption plaguing academic exams is undeniably destroying the futures of millions. However, recruitment exams have emerged as a breeding ground for scams of even greater magnitude, impacting livelihoods and eroding public trust. My nationwide analysis (1991-2024) reveals over 300 instances of serious irregularities in recruitment examinations. Each major state has witnessed between 20 and 25 such cases, with no state (with rare exceptions apart) recording fewer than 10. While eastern, northern, central, and western India account for the majority of cases, southern states are not far behind.

Karnataka serves as a prime example. The state has grappled with massive irregularities in the recruitment of Public Service Commission officers (1998, 1999, 2004, 2008, 2011), police sub-inspectors (2019, 2022), junior and assistant engineers (2021), and assistant professors (2021), among others.

Enumerating similar instances from all states, big and small, would be an arduous task. Suffice it to say that countless careers, potentially numbering in the millions, if not tens of millions have been unjustly destroyed.

The taint of corruption has marred the recruitment process for virtually every position imaginable: peons, clerks, teachers at all levels, college and university professors, postal workers, military personnel, revenue officials (talatis and patwaris), administrative officers, police officers (from Deputy Superintendents of Police to constables), and local government staff in panchayats and municipalities.

The list is seemingly endless, growing with each passing day.

Causes Galore

India is in the throes of an existential crisis. With our examination system mired in corruption, the dream of becoming a developed nation will remain elusive. We must address the root causes of this crisis:

  1. Massive unemployment: With young people constituting 65 per cent of the population, burgeoning unemployment is a ticking time bomb. The Azim Premji University report, State of Working India (2023), reveals a staggering 42 per cent unemployment rate among young graduates.
  2. Aspiration versus opportunities: While the number of employment seekers has skyrocketed, organised sector employment (government, private sector, NGOs) is either growing very slowly or is contracting, creating a fertile ground for exploitation and malpractice.
  3. Societal Pressure for Science Courses: The societal emphasis on science streams is arguably the single biggest driver of scams in medical and engineering entrance exams.
  4. Broken education system: When cut-off marks for admission in good colleges is close to 100 per cent, getting there by hook or crook matters.
  5. Coaching centre menace: In an era of hyper-competition, it is hey-day for mushrooming coaching centres.
  6. Collusion: The widespread nexus between corrupt officials, politicians, administrative staff, law enforcement, and educational institutions creates an environment where exam mafias, “question-solver” gangs, and impersonators thrive.

Consequences

Talking of consequences, I begin with two golden quotes. Confucius once said famously, “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.” And Martin Luther King Jr. famously added, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

The cancer engulfing the education and examination system in India makes mockery of the above-mentioned dictums. The most immediate and devastating consequence of the current crisis engulfing the nation is the shattered dreams of millions of deserving and hardworking young people who are denied access to their chosen fields of study or employment. However, the potential long-term repercussions are even more alarming. India’s much-touted demographic dividend, its greatest asset, is in imminent danger of becoming its biggest liability.

Way Forward

India urgently requires decisive, concerted action to address this crisis. It is time for a national consensus, a unified commitment to the “zero tolerance for all examination malpractices.”

Both the ruling party and the Opposition, at the national and state levels, must collaborate to eradicate this menace. Existing laws need comprehensive revisions, encompassing all forms of examination malpractice and mandating a minimum sentence of life imprisonment for those involved in organised cheating rings. Most importantly, laws must be enforced rigorously, without fear or favour.

Furthermore, it is crucial to dismantle the deeply entrenched nexus between corrupt officials, politicians, and those who profit from these scams. The adoption of technology, including artificial intelligence, in examination processes must be expedited. Bharat needs to implement next-generation education reforms, moving away from a system that produces unemployable graduates. We need educators who are dedicated to teaching, not enabling cheating.

Concluded

Click here for the Part I link.

The author is Multidisciplinary Thought Leader with Action Bias, India Based International Impact Consultant, and key watcher of changing national scenario. He works as President Advisory Services of Consulting Company BARSYL. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect News18’s views.



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