The latest recruit

Print edition : August 03, 2002

The arrest of the former Chairman of the Maharashtra Public Service Commission, who later became a member of the Union Public Service Commission, in the wake of allegations of large-scale corrupt practices, raises a host of questions and issues.

THREE months after news broke of Punjab Public Service Commission chairman Ravinderpal Singh Sidhu's operations (Frontline, May 24), Maharashtra has joined the list of States where government jobs are believed to have been auctioned off to the highest bidder. On July 13, the State's Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested Sidhu's former counterpart in Maharashtra, Shashikant D. Karnik, on charges of forgery and criminal conspiracy. The ACB believes that Karnik and a group of key Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) officials rigged marks to enable cash-rich candidates to join the State police and bureaucracy. What is truly frightening about the Karnik affair, however, is that he had succeeded in securing elevation to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), which conducts some of India's most important government recruitments.

Shashikant D. Karnik.-

Karnik's arrest came six weeks after the ACB began investigating allegations that tests conducted in 1999 to recruit office assistants, police sub-inspectors and sales-tax inspectors had been fraudulent. The tests had been held during the tenure of Karnik's predecessor S.B. Shinde, but were re-opened in the wake of protests by students. The new tests did not end the protests, and rumours that several hundred jobs had been auctioned off proliferated. However, it was only in the wake of the Sidhu scandal that the ACB began to take a hard look at the allegations. "Until then," says a senior official, "we thought such a large-scale fraud would just be impossible to pull off, given the numbers of people involved in recruitment. We thought it would be too much for examiners, staff and computer operators all to have been bought off."

ACB investigators first focussed on Deputy Superintendent of Police Baban Kadam. Kadam was alleged to have acted as a tout for Karnik, offering candidates jobs if they could meet his price. On the night of July 1, the ACB raided the policeman's bungalow on Gorai Beach. There, investigators say they found key documents relating to the 1999 recruitments, which made it clear that the original answer-sheets were tampered with to ensure that select candidates gained the minimum qualifying marks. The same day, the ACB obtained judicial permission to seal the house where Karnik had been staying in before moving to New Delhi on his UPSC assignment. Karnik delayed his return to Mumbai by several days, claiming to be busy conducting UPSC interviews. However, he repeatedly protested his innocence to the press.

Since his arrest, however, Karnik has developed the mysterious heart ailment that seems to afflict white-collar criminal suspects. Public prosecutor R.V. Kini told a Mumbai court on July 21 that he had been feigning illness to avoid interrogation. If this is indeed the case, Karnik's course of action is perhaps wise. ACB officials say that they have found strong evidence that the former MPSC chief possessed wealth beyond his known income of Rs.23,000 a month. Gold and diamond jewellery worth Rs.13 lakhs was recovered from the two Mumbai apartments he owned, one of which he purchased jointly with his West Asia-based daughter from a senior Indian Police Service officer for Rs.1.40 crores. Karnik claimed that the jewellery belonged to his wife. The second flat is worth Rs.36 lakhs by conservative estimates. The ACB has also been examining bank lockers and accounts held by Karnik and his family.

Karnik's alleged mode of operation was simple. A small group of MPSC officials and members decide qualifying marks from test to test. Soon after the 1999 tests, Karnik and his close aides found it easy to learn what qualifying marks the committee had fixed. Then they set out re-writing answer-sheets to ensure that the 398 candidates who had paid for their jobs got through. The MPSC scans answer-sheets on to its computers to prevent tampering. At precisely the time of the recruitment, however, the computer system suffered a mysterious breakdown. Although computer engineers assured the MPSC that the original data was intact, it was decided that the original documents, which, by now, were no longer in all cases the original answer-sheets that candidates had submitted, would be scanned again.

Just who thought up the scam is unclear, but the ACB's investigations suggest a conspiracy that involved several key players from within the MPSC. Fixed deposits worth Rs.24 lakhs and Rs.9 lakhs in cash were recovered from the MPSC's controller of examinations in Nashik, S.D. Sarode. ACB Joint Commissioner Anil Dhere told journalists that a June 28 raid also led to six plots that belonged to Sarode at Pandav Lene, Atgaon, Anandwadi and Igatpuri. Since Sarode has been working for the MPSC for over two decades, it is possible that the business had been going on for at least a part of that period. Other persons who have been arrested include MPSC computer operator Farooq Ghadge, two clerks at the Maharashtra Secretariat, Sunil Patil and Eknath Bendre, and a secretary, Avinash Sanas, assigned to the office of the Maharashtra Social Welfare Minister.

Not all the conspirators, however, were officials. The key business of liaising with potential customers was left to outside agents. Consider, for example, the case of Manisha Nichat. Personally close to Sarode, Nichat spent much of her time in the MPSC offices, claiming to be a social worker committed to helping candidates. Both she and Sarode would arrive at the MPSC office by 7 a.m., two and a half hours before it opened, and often stayed late. Many in the building assumed that she worked for the MPSC, given the easy access she had to all parts of the building. In fact, Nichat worked for Sarode, scanning lists of those who had failed to gain the qualifying marks for potential recruitment, and organising the necessary tampering with their answer-sheets. ACB investigators discovered hall tickets and lists of candidates from her home.

So far the ACB has focussed on the 1999 scandal, but there is little doubt that it needs to look deeper, to discover what had been going on through the bulk of Karnik's tenure and even earlier. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who sources say ordered that the investigation be given priority after Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi pointed to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's anti-corruption actions as an example to be emulated, has promised a thorough review of the MPSC's functioning. So far, however, there has been no comprehensive official review of all appointments made during Karnik's tenure. Nor has any effort been made to identify what was going on through Sarode's 20-year term in the MPSC. The UPSC, in turn, has maintained a stoic silence on the Karnik affair. Sources in the ACB say that the UPSC has not asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to inquire into Karnik's operations in Delhi.

SUCH an investigation seems necessary if public confidence is to be restored in recruitments to government jobs. Candidates are believed to have paid from Rs.1 lakh to Rs.2 lakhs for jobs - sums that seem almost pitiful when compared to the Rs.40 lakhs and Rs.50 lakhs that were allegedly demanded by Sidhu's associates. Yet, in one key sense, Karnik succeeded where Sidhu did not. While former Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal repeatedly wrote to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee asking for Sidhu's elevation to the UPSC, a demand he described as "personally and politically important," the enterprise failed. Karnik was quietly elevated to the higher body.

The MPSC fraud also highlights the need for a more rigorous and transparent selection procedure for service in the State and Union Public Service Commissions. Karnik had faced allegations of malpractice and corruption during his tenure as the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University. As a result, a petition had been moved in the Bombay High Court in July 1999, challenging his appointment to the MPSC. A Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice S.H. Kapadia restricted themselves to asking that the Cabinet of the then Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance government confirm his appointment, which it duly did. There was simply no institutional mechanism to investigate the allegations on which the petition was founded, or to force the government to state its reasons for choosing a controversial figure for the job.

Such lack of transparency may already have cost the UPSC some of its credibility. It is clear that Karnik's appointment in the UPSC was made without any real consideration of the persistent rumours of wrong-doing in the MPSC, even though these dated back to 1999. It has been widely assumed that the UPSC's internal system of checks and balances, notably the involvement of a wide pool of outside examiners and a rigorous secrecy procedure governing question papers and results, make it impossible to rig results. However, the twin scandals in Punjab and Maharashtra have made it clear that even the best of systems can be subverted. Given that the UPSC deals with recruitments to services such as the Indian Administrative Service, and also conducts the Combined Defence Services examinations, the consequences of such subversion would be horrific.

Notwithstanding his arrest, Karnik remains a member of the UPSC; his removal will have to await action by the Union government, which will have to initiate processes to override the considerable constitutional protection that the body is provided with. ACB Director-General S.S. Puri says that his organisation is seeking to question all the candidates whose answer-sheets were tampered with - a process that could lead to some further insight on just how Karnik's operation went. However, securing real justice in the affair will need more than the former MPSC Chairman's criminal prosecution. It will need a comprehensive review of how recruitments to government jobs, State and Central, are conducted - and, even more important, who is chosen to carry out the process.

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