Amol Dhanraj Shinde, 25, of Latur district in Maharashtra, was one of the youngsters booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with the security breach in Parliament on December 13, 2023. He was outside the Parliament complex protesting against the Central government when his accomplices jumped into the Lok Sabha chamber from the visitors’ gallery during Zero Hour and released a yellow-coloured gas from canisters while shouting slogans. Their demand was that the government give them jobs. Amol has completed class XII and has taken eight competitive examinations over three years, including those for the post of police driver and peon.
Amol represents the lakhs of jobless youngsters in the country. Adding to their frustration is corruption in the recruitment process. Question paper leaks have plagued almost every test the Eknath Shinde government in Maharashtra has conducted. Parallels have been drawn to the 2013 Vyapam scam involving admissions and recruitment in Madhya Pradesh, then led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
The most recent scam relates to the Talathi (clerk in the revenue department at the panchayat level) examinations held in different phases from August 17 to September 14, 2023. The test was outsourced to private agencies, and nine lakh of the 11 lakh people who applied for it took the test at cyber centres across the State. On August 17, acting on a tip-off about malpractices at an examination centre in Nashik district’s Mhasrul area, the police apprehended Ganesh Gusinge of Parsoda village in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar district even as he was passing on instructions through electronic devices to his cousin Sangita Ramsing Gusinge who was taking the test. The police recovered a walkie-talkie set, a tab, two mobiles, micro audio devices, and other equipment from him.
Ganesh, it turns out, is an accused in the Pimpri Chinchwad police recruitment paper leak scam of 2019. He was booked in 2021 for the same but had been absconding since then.
According to Sitaram Kolhe, Assistant Commissioner of Police (Crime), Nashik, Ganesh used modern gadgets to get his accomplice in the exam hall to send a photograph of the question paper minutes after the paper was distributed. The accomplice carried a button camera, a master card hidden in the soles of the shoes, and a micro hearing device.
In the Talathi examination case, as soon as Sangita got the paper, she switched on her camera that was connected via Bluetooth and SIM card to a tab situated within 100 metres of the examination centre. Ganesh used a team of people with micro audio devices to pass on answers to candidates who had struck deals with him. The police have arrested over 100 people in the scam so far.
Cash for question papers
According to the police, the rate per candidate depended on the exam. A Talathi candidate had to shell out anything from Rs.3 lakh to Rs.5 lakh, while for the police constable exam it was Rs.5 lakh to Rs.7 lakh. For an excise inspector exam, it goes up to Rs.15 lakh. Rahul Kawthekar, president of the Spardha Pariksha Samanvay Samiti (SPSS), an organisation of students appearing for competitive exams in Maharashtra, estimates the crime syndicate’s yearly turnover at Rs.125 crore. The organisation was officially registered in 2022 but has been fighting the menace of cheating since 2018.
On January 11, the police investigation into the Talathi exam case brought out a shocking detail: Devising Jarwal, a candidate, got 201 out of 200 marks in this exam! There is no evidence that Devising cheated, but he is an accused in the 2018 police recruitment question paper leak scam. Despite his criminal record as an accused, he is now working as an assistant intelligence officer in the Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar rural police intelligence department. He secured a job through direct service recruitment in 2019; his character certificate, which would have brought out his criminal antecedents, was found to be fake in the investigations that followed the Talathi case. A Nashik court summoned him in the question paper leak case 14 times, but he failed to appear. The next hearing in the 2018 police recruitment scam is scheduled for May 15, 2024.
In 2022, the SPSS filed a complaint against malpractices in the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA) examination in which Ganesh Gusinge was the topper. The MHADA, too, filed a complaint in Mumbai’s Kherwadi Police Station, Bandra East, Mumbai, against 62 people, including Ganesh. The Kherwadi Police called him for interrogation but let him off.
“According to the police, a Talathi exam candidate had to shell out anything from Rs.3 lakh to Rs.5 lakh, while for the police constable exam it was Rs.5 lakh to Rs.7 lakh.”
Raju Nagare is another person arrested in the Talathi exam case. The police got hold of him rather fortuitously. They were on the lookout for antisocial elements when they found four youths moving around in a suspicious manner in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar’s industrial area. Three of them fled, but Raju fell into the police net. They recovered two mobiles, a Bluetooth device with a memory card, SIM cards, and photographs of the question paper. This is not the first time that Raju has been arrested in a paper leak scam. In 2016-17, he appeared as a dummy candidate for another person using a digitally altered photograph. He was arrested but got bail within a year.
Kawthekar of the SPSS told Frontline that some senior officers are probably involved in the scams. “People like Ganesh, Raju, and Devising must have the backing of powerful people in the system, otherwise no one would dare to do such things again and again.” The SPSS has demanded the constitution of a special investigation team (SIT) under the supervision of the Bombay High Court.
With pressure mounting on the government, on December 14 it announced a four-member committee to make recommendations on preventing paper leaks and enacting laws on the issue. The committee comprises Dr Kishor Raje Nimbalkar, former chairperson of the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC); Suresh Kakani and Dr Shahaji Salunkhe, both former IAS officers; and Suvarna Kharat, secretary of the MPSC. It has to submit its report by March 14.
But not all are satisfied with the decision. Dhananjay Shinde, an AAP leader and a petitioner in the High Court, said: “By that time, appointment letters would have been given to those who had been selected after the recent exams. This is an injustice to lakhs of honest students. We are demanding that exams be conducted again and a SIT constituted under the High Court’s supervision.”
The results of the Talathi exams, declared in the first week of January, underscored the SPSS’ allegations. Rashmi Dodku Meshram, a candidate who wrote the exam at the Chandrapur centre, got 214 marks out of 200. The revenue department attributes it to “the normalisation of the marking process”. The authorities explain it as a process of equalising the marks of candidates taking into consideration the difficulty level of question papers across different centres and different schedules. Technically, it takes the mean and standard deviation of marks of candidates in the examination considering all schedules. Rashmi also took the forest department exam in September 2023. The SPSS said she received 54 marks out of 120 marks in that exam, in which the difficulty level is that of class X. “If a candidate writing both tests receives 54 out of 120 marks in the paper where the difficulty level is of 10th standard and 214 marks out of 200 in the test where the difficulty level is of graduation, then one can easily know that the exam is rigged,” said Kawthekar.
Overall, 48 candidates scored more than 200 marks in the Talathi exams. “We have doubts about 16 of the 48 candidates. We have given a written complaint to the revenue department about it,” he said.
- Corruption in the recruitment process has led to question paper leaks in almost every test conducted by the Maharashtra government. The most recent scam relates to the Talathi examinations held from August 17 to September 14, 2023.
- The Spardha Pariksha Samanvay Samiti (SPSS), an organisation of students appearing for competitive exams in Maharashtra, has demanded the constitution of a special investigation team (SIT) under the supervision of the Bombay High Court.
- The government announced a four-member panel to make recommendations on preventing paper leaks and enacting laws on the issue. The SPSS has been demanding a foolproof system by empowering the Maharashtra Public Service Commission to conduct all the exams.
Vijay Wadettiwar, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, has called for a cancellation of the Talathi exams. But Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who also holds the Home portfolio, said that if Wadettiwar had concrete evidence of irregularities, he should submit it to the government. “We will think about cancelling the exams if there is proof,” said Fadnavis.
However, with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated with the RSS, also demanding clarification over the Talathi exams, the government is caught in a bind. “If the government fails to give proper clarification, the ABVP will stage a protest against the State government,” said its Vidarbha region secretary, Payal Kinake, in a press release.
The BJP was in power in the State when two major paper leak scams took place in 2018. The information technology department, which was tasked with conducting the ‘C’ class revenue officers’ exam and the Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET), started a MahaPariksha Portal to coordinate the process. However, in July 2019, the then Ahmednagar District Collector Rahul Dwivedi found some irregularities in the exam for ‘C’ class revenue officers. Apparently, 236 of the shortlisted candidates had not even appeared for the exam. On the basis of his report, the Uddhav Thackeray government that succeeded the Fadnavis government ordered an investigation, which is still pending. The SPSS has moved the Bombay High Court in this case too.
Mark the figures
Apparently, some 15,000 fake candidates appeared for the TET. Some of them had been working as teachers. Acting on the SPSS’ FIRs, the Pune cyber police arrested more than 100 people. All of them are out on bail.
During the investigation, it was found that some senior officers in the education department were involved in the scam. Sushil Khodwekar, Deputy Secretary in the education department, was arrested for not acting against Tukaram Supe, an official, despite proof of his involvement in paper leak in the TET. Khodwekar was also accused of getting a blacklisted company, GA software, to conduct the exam. Conferred an IAS later, Khodwekar is now back in service.
Other paper leak scams that have occurred since then include exams for employment in the health department in 2021, Mumbai police driver and constable test in 2022-23, and the forest department test in 2023. And the scams continue despite multiple FIRs and arrests of individuals.
Disappointment paints a bleak picture
Many jobseekers are disappointed with the situation. Pooja Aun Andhale, 26, a graduate from Beed, has been appearing for competitive examinations for the past four years. “I appeared for the Talathi exams also. If criminals and cheaters are going to get government jobs, then what should a common girl like me do,” she asked.
Pooja’s parents are asking her to quit appearing for the exams and settle in life. “I can understand them. We do not have the money to attempt exams endlessly. When they see the news of exam papers getting leaked every time, they keep telling me that this is not for poor people,” she said.
Rahul Khandagale, a Scheduled Caste student from Nashik, has been staying in Pune for five years to attempt the tests for posts in the MHADA, the public works department, and a few others. He told Frontline that he and his friends had half a mind to try cheating. “Every time we return from the exam, we hear that the paper was leaked. Who will have faith in the system in such a situation?” asked Rahul.
Ashutosh Shirke, a career counsellor from Mumbai, said there were fewer middle-class students attempting competitive examinations these days. “Generally, students with middle-class backgrounds used to come to us for guidance regarding competitive exams. In the last two to three years, I am seeing fewer of them. They give several reasons such as paper leaks and a messed-up examination system,” he said.
Shirke also said that students in rural areas were appearing in large numbers for government job tests. “But whenever I go out for camps in Marathwada or Vidarbha, I get to hear that they are trying their luck here because they do not have any other job option. This paints a bleak picture of the State.”
“If criminals and cheaters are going to get government jobs, then what should a common girl like me do.”Pooja Aun AndhaleA graduate from Beed
Experts blame the examination system for the mess. The MPSC has not been conducting tests for Grade 3 and 4 jobs. After being sworn in as Chief Minister in June 2022, Eknath Shinde announced that his government would fill 75,000 vacancies in different departments. The government has outsourced the recruitment process to Tata Consultancy Services and the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection. In many cases, these agencies require the support of local computer centres to conduct the examinations. Many a time the cartels use these exam centres to manipulate the system. The SPSS has been demanding a foolproof system by empowering the MPSC to conduct all the exams.
There are strict laws against paper leaks in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. In these States, the punishment for the guilty is 10 years in jail and a five-year ban. The SPSS has been demanding a similar law in Maharashtra. As of now, all such cases are registered under Sections 420 (cheating), 120B (criminal conspiracy), or 34 (joint culpability) of the Indian Penal Code.
Rot runs deep
Following the paper leak scam in 2017, the then Chief Minister, Fadnavis, hired the consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to audit the recruitment system. The PwC found that the MahaPariksha Portal formed under his watch had failed to follow due process. It had outsourced the work to US-based UST Global and Mumbai-based Arceus Infotech Private Limited.
The PwC audit report came in handy for the Maha Vikas Aghadi government that followed to scrap the MahaPariksha Portal.
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A highly placed source in Shinde’s team told Frontline that the biggest challenge for his government, according to a survey conducted by the Chief Minister’s Office, was the growing unemployment in the State. This is what led him to announce the recruitment for 75,000 jobs. According to State government data, the number of vacancies in government departments is more than 2.5 lakh.
The Chief Minister has since then organised several functions to distribute recruitment letters to candidates for jobs in various departments. Despite these grandiose functions, there is little comfort for lakhs of youngsters like Amol Shinde as the rot runs deep.