Vyapam scandal

Scam country

Print edition : August 07, 2015

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. His name has come up during investigations, but the BJP insists he is innocent. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

Governor Ram Naresh Yadav. His son was an accused and died in mysterious circumstances. The Raj Bhavan has come up during investigations as a source of recommendations for candidates. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

Image 1: A chart recovered by the STF from Nitin Mohindra's hard disk. Leaked by the whistle-blower Prashant Pandey, it shows candidates recommended by the Chief Minister. The roll numbers against the Chief Minister's candidates have been scrubbed out in most places. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Image 2: The last three names (No. 15 Varsha Singh Tomar, No. 16 Jitendra Singh Rajput, No. 17 Priyanka) in the chart, recovered by the STF and leaked by Prashant Pandey, show that they were recommended by the Chief Minister. No. 2, Vandana Garg, and No. 6, Preeti Choudhary, were also shown as the Chief Minister's candidates. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Image 3: This document was allegedly fudged and produced in court by the STF. The three names that appeared last in Image 2 are here listed as Nos 25, 26 and 27 and shown as recommended by Uma Bharati. The change in serial numbers notwithstanding, the roll numbers and the order of the names are unchanged. Likewise, Vandana Garg at No.6 is recommended by some M/S and Preeti Choudhary at No. 16 is shown as Rajbhavan's candidate. Such fudging happened in 64 places. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Sangh Parivar stands exposed in the VYAPAM scam in Madhya Pradesh, probably India’s biggest corruption scandal going by the extent to which it has undermined the institutions that hold civic life together.

WITH more than 50 mysterious deaths, almost 2,500 people as accused, and more than 1,900 arrests, the Madhya Pradesh Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal (VYAPAM) scam that unfolded over the last eight years has turned out to be one of the biggest cases of organised corruption in independent India. Investigations threw up innumerable fraudulent admissions in State medical colleges and wrongful recruitments into various State government departments. Hundreds of crores of rupees exchanged hands as the professional entrance examination system turned into a mechanism for the sale of seats to candidates who could afford to pay. The Special Task Force (STF), which was until recently in charge of the investigation, said in one of its depositions in the Madhya Pradesh High Court that anything between Rs.80 lakh and Rs.1.5 crore was taken from interested candidates by middlemen for an MBBS seat in a state-run medical college. The figure was higher in the case of a postgraduate seat.

The involvement of political bigwigs in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and of persons in the Governor’s office, bureaucrats, high-level businessmen, doctors, contractors, and countless middlemen has opened a can of worms. The political legitimacy of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government is in question. As opposition parties demand the Chief Minister’s resignation, it is important to understand the nature of the scam and the ramifications it would have for ordinary citizens.

How it began

VYAPAM, also known as the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB), is a self-financed autonomous body founded in 1970. It is in charge of recruitments in 40 Departments of the State and conducts a dozen-odd examinations such as the pre-medical and pre-engineering tests.

Initially, VYAPAM was responsible for conducting only the pre-medical tests in Madhya Pradesh. In 1982, the pre-engineering board was merged with VYAPAM. The MPPEB Act of 2007 made VYAPAM the sole agency for conducting entrance examinations for professional courses in the State and for recruiting non-gazetted personnel for the State government. The BJP was in power.

This unprecedented and unsustainable centralisation of services made VYAPAM vulnerable to nepotistic practices. Minor incidents of favouritism in appointments and fraudulent admissions began to be reported from 2007. As the number of wrongful admissions increased, those who had themselves paid to get seats or jobs, and their families, turned into middlemen for recruiting and admitting interested candidates. Gradually, the process was institutionalised with the help of powerful beneficiaries of the system, including officials of VYAPAM and the medical colleges, politicians, medical coaching institutes, and power brokers. “In areas like Bhind, Gwalior and Indore, people would directly ask a student who he/she had approached to get the medical seat. The scam had become so big that it was hardly hidden from the public. One would see scores of people openly turning up at the home of Dr Jagdish Sagar [the main accused in the scam], seeking admission. PMT [pre-medical test conducted by VYAPAM] had become a joke. The State government turned a blind eye to all this,” Anand Rai, one of the whistle-blowers, told Frontline.

As the profits rose, more and more power brokers close to influential politicians put their fingers in the VYAPAM pie, making it a complicated, multilayered illegal process in which many powerful people were involved. Officials and middlemen partnered with small-time inter-State gangs who specialised in the examination business. The STF investigations show that there were managing teams at every level; for instance, there was a marketing team that looked out for interested candidates and a systems team that manipulated the roll numbers of candidates. As a result, there was a scam of unprecedented proportions.

A natural corollary of the VYAPAM scam was the DMAT scam. The Dental and Medical Test (DMAT) conducted by the Association of Private Dental and Medical Colleges of Madhya Pradesh (APDMC) is a separate test for admissions to private medical colleges. Private medical colleges are required to reserve 42 per cent of their seats for PMT candidates, while 58 per cent of their seats are for candidates who clear the DMAT. In the years over which the VYAPAM scam was unfolding, private medical colleges mushroomed. The Chief Minister plans to allot land to another 30 private colleges in future. Whistle-blowers who exposed the VYAPAM scam told Frontline that they had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Supreme Court on the strength of evidence they had to show that the DMAT was a dummy examination to sell seats for a price without any consideration of merit.

“The whole examination is a sham. The test is conducted but only those who can buy seats at a whopping price have been allotted medical seats. This money is irrespective of what one pays as tuition fees,” said Paras Saklecha, a former independent legislator and one of the whistle-blowers.

Several high-profile Ministers, judges, bureaucrats, and politicians have been reported to have benefited from the DMAT irregularities. On July 10, the Madhya Pradesh High Court noted the malpractices and instructed the APDMC to install scanners at examination centres to prevent subsequent fudging of OMR (optical mark recognition) sheets. The APDMC cancelled this year’s examination scheduled on July 12.

Both these scams became so massive that they spun out of control. With so many people involved at every stage, and in every region of the State, a few inevitably felt short-changed and eventually passed on information to the whistle-blowers.

Munnabhai style

The fraudulent admissions through pre-medical tests were managed in four ways. First, the PMT examination paper was leaked to middlemen, who then took it to a team of hired “paper solvers” from various States. After the answers were worked out, these were voice-recorded and given to candidates appearing for the examination. This system was called “Munnabhai style” after the popular movie Munnabhai M.B.B.S.

Second, impersonators were hired to write the test for some candidates. The STF released admit cards that carried the details of the candidate but the photograph of the impersonator who wrote the test. The STF registered 300 such cases.

Third, a complicated process known as the “engine-bogey system” was used in which roll numbers of candidates were manipulated to ensure that in the examination hall a “specialised solver” sat between two candidates who had paid. The solver’s job would be to help them copy the answers. All three would of course pass the examination. While the two actual candidates would then take admission in reputed government medical colleges, the solver would opt for a private medical college seat under the PMT quota only to subsequently surrender his seat so that the private college could sell it under the management quota and charge a premium. So the solver was paid for two services: for helping the PMT candidates and for giving up his seat in a private college. This was the most lucrative method, and the STF registered 1,200 cases in which it was used.

Fourth, the OMR sheets used in the PMT were fudged after the examination was over. The examinee was told to fill only 10 per cent of the sheet. The right answers were filled up in the given circles only later. This was the most expensive method a candidate could opt for as it involved the minimum risk. The STF found 50 such cases, and most of them involved students who were children of powerful people of the State.

The system of entrance examinations was undermined so thoroughly that genuinely meritorious candidates lost hope of qualifying on merit. Regional newspapers reported how families sold off land, mortgaged property, or took expensive loans to buy seats or jobs for their children. “Half of them did not feel the need to study as the scam became a culture. The others studied but did not know of any other means to secure a seat in a medical college. Most graduates just saw the bribe as an initial investment for a better future,” said Vijay Kumar, a Bhopal-based activist of the All India Forum for Right to Education.

BJP’s involvement

Independent legislators such as Pratap Grewal and Paras Saklecha raised the issue many times in the State Assembly, as did the media. But the BJP government in the State remained silent and skirted the issue. The State police registered 55 cases against impersonators between 2008 and 2012, but the State government brushed these off as minor incidents. The scam assumed significant proportions only in July 2013 when 20 impersonators were arrested in an Indore hotel. They confessed to the Indore Crime Branch that they had been promised Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 for their services and named Dr Jagdish Sagar as one of the kingpins of the scam. After Sagar was arrested, several such gangs surfaced; their leaders have been arrested.

In August 2013, the State government was compelled to constitute an STF to investigate the case. The scope of the investigations magnified when the arrested kingpins named Laxmikant Sharma as the person who facilitated all the VYAPAM arrangements. Laxmikant Sharma was then the State Higher Education Minister and a close aide of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The government’s neglect of the issue so far was now seen as a deliberate ploy to shield Ministers and party members.

Many more names now started to spill out, and not a few of these were seen as close associates of the Chief Minister. It was also found that VYAPAM was involved in many other recruitment scams like in the appointment of contract teachers and forest and police officers.

RSS’ involvement

Sudhir Sharma, a close associate and a childhood friend of the Chief Minister, emerged as one of the primary accused in the scam. A long-time RSS worker, a former teacher in a branch of the RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Mandir, and a former officer on special duty (OSD) to Laxmikant Sharma, Sudhir Sharma had become a mining baron in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s regime. His name cropped up during investigations into unfair recruitments.

It was found that he had recommended Pankaj Trivedi, a lecturer in Indore without any substantive credentials, as the Chief Examination Controller in VYAPAM, the STF said in its deposition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court in Jabalpur. Trivedi, who controlled the modus operandi of the PMT scam, handpicked his team of officials. He hired Nitin Mohindra and Ajay Sen as systems analysts, who fudged data and manipulated roll numbers, and C.K. Mishra as an officer in VYAPAM, who later became the channel between VYAPAM and private middlemen and businessmen. The nexus had the blessings of the Higher Education Minister, according to the STF.

Several businessmen associated with the RSS, like the owner of Indore’s Aurobindo Medical College, Vinod Bhandari, were named in the scam. Bureaucrats seen as close to the BJP, such as O.P. Shukla, OSD to Laxmikant Sharma, Ravikant Dwivedi, Revenue commissioner, and R.K. Shivhare, IPS, were booked on different charges in the scam. STF documents, in possession of Frontline, show that Sudhir Sharma funded all Madhya Pardesh-related trips of senior RSS leaders Suresh Soni and Prabhat Jha and Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan.

One Mihir Kumar, an employee in the Weights and Measures Department, told the STF that he had been hired on the recommendation of former RSS Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan. Another RSS leader, Anil Dave, who was also named in RTI activist Shehla Masood’s murder, and Sudhanshu Trivedi, the chief spokesperson of the BJP and a cousin of Pankaj Trivedi, also appear to be involved in the scam. These names appear in the documents collected from Sudhir Sharma’s house.

Governor’s staff

STF investigations showed that many officials of the Governor’s House were also involved. Governor Ram Naresh Yadav himself was accused by the STF of taking Rs.3 lakh each from five candidates for the 2012 Forest Guard examination, a charge the High Court later quashed on the grounds that the STF could not investigate an incumbent Governor on the basis of just a first information report (FIR). His son, Shailesh Yadav, who died in March this year, reportedly because of a brain haemorrhage, was accused of receiving Rs.30 lakh from 10 candidates from Bhind to facilitate their appointment as contract teachers. However, none of them was appointed as they did not have the minimum qualification. The Governor’s OSD, Dhanraj Yadav, who is out on bail now, has also been booked by the STF in a few cases for receiving cash in exchange of appointments. The spreadsheets recovered from Nitin Mohindra’s hard disk shows “'Rajbhawan”, or the Governor’s House, as recommending candidates for various examinations. Political observers in Madhya Pradesh say that the Governor’s involvement explains why he still holds office despite being a Congress nominee. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has also been openly speaking against Ram Naresh Yadav’s involvement in the scam.

Chief Minister’s culpability

Notwithstanding the extensive raids that the STF has conducted, it has been accused by the opposition of shielding Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who headed the Medical Education Department from 2008 to 2012. “A scam of this proportion was unfolding right under his nose, in fact in his own department. How is it possible that Chouhan was unaware of it? His close associates have been arrested. His OSD, Prem Prasad, has also been named,” K.K. Mishra, chief spokesperson of the Madhya Pradesh Congress, told Frontline. A document made public by Prashant Pandey, who had been hired by the STF to decode Nitin Mohindra’s external hard disk, lists out 64 candidates recommended by the Chief Minister. The original sheet that Pandey produced is now with the High Court, deposited by the Congress leader Digvijaya Singh. However, the document that the STF submitted in court had the Chief Minister’s name replaced with that of Uma Bharati in 17 places, and in the other instance with names of other Ministers or Raj Bhavan. Little wonder that Uma Bharati, a BJP leader and former Chief Minister, has said that she fears for her life, especially in the context of so many of the accused being found dead. Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uma Bharati have been political rivals for a long time.

On May 30, Yogendra Uprit, an accused in the scam, was arrested. What he divulged to the STF further implicates the Chief Minister. “He said that the DMAT has been a complete sham since its very inception, with all its seats being sold to bidders in high places capable of paying high prices. He divulged that from 2006 onward, every successive Health Minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has taken Rs.10 crore from the APDMC to desist from exposing the scam,” the news website “thewire.in” reported.

The Chief Minister has been accused of covering up important facts. Saklecha said: “MP Police had made arrests before 2013, but the Chief Minister stated in the Assembly that no irregularities were found and no officials were found to be involved. He also said that no fake examiners were found in 2011. At each and every stage, he lied in the Assembly. Who was he trying to protect? Several other names of people close to him have come up, but the STF refused to investigate them.”

Political ramifications

Shivraj Singh Chouhan acknowledged irregularities in appointments only after the scam became public in 2013. He told the Assembly that out of 1.47 lakh appointments made since 2007, 1,000 were found to be illegal (subsequently, his government brought down this number to a little over 200), and said all these appointments had been nullified. Whistle-blowers and independent political observers claim that the number of fraudulent admissions is way beyond 1,000 and have pegged the scam’s worth at nothing less than Rs.9,000 crore.

The scam caught national attention when a series of people involved in it died in mysterious circumstances. Most of these deaths happened around the time when the STF speeded up the investigation to meet the July 15 deadline. The Supreme Court had instructed the STF to file all charge sheets relating to the scam by this date.

These deaths and the document that Prashant Pandey made public jolted the Chief Minister’s confidence. Sudhir Sharma’s closeness to him and his wife, Sadhna Singh, has also caught attention. A document showing SMS exchanges between Sudhir Sharma and Sadhna Singh surfaced during the STF’s investigations, in which Sadhna Singh appeared to recommend a few candidates. However, the STF has not yet produced it in court. As the pressure to resign mounted on Shivraj Singh Chouhan, names of RSS leaders also surfaced in connection with the scam. Ironically, as the reputations of more and more BJP and RSS leaders come under a cloud, Shivraj Singh Chouhan seems to be spared of any action against him within the party, at least for the time being.

The VYAPAM scam is the third in a series of controversies that have plagued the BJP in the last two months. Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje were at the receiving end of the earlier controversies. Both of them are known to have opposed Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial bid, as has Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The latter’s most important rival in the State BJP, Kailash Vijayvargiya, was recently inducted in BJP president Amit Shah’s team of party general secretaries. Political observers in Madhya Pradesh believe that the move could be an indirect warning to Shivraj Singh Chouhan to fall in line.

The VYAPAM scam exposes the ways in which state mechanisms can be subverted to serve the powerful. It also exposes the duplicity of the Sangh Parivar, which has donned the role of moral police ever since the BJP came to power last year. As of now, out of the estimated 1,900 arrests made, most are of individual students who benefited from the system, small-time middlemen, and small-time crooks who were linked to the scam.

Only a handful of powerful people have been arrested, which raises questions over the STF’s conduct. In view of the enormity of the scam, the Supreme Court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry. A CBI team, constituting 40 members, is investigating the case now, but it remains to be seen whether the CBI inquiry lives up to expectations in its handling of a case that is by far the biggest scam in India in terms of its impact on common people.

More importantly, the PMT scam’s civic impact on a State like Madhya Pradesh, known for its poor health indicators, will prove to be disastrous. Infamous for its malnourishment levels that are worse than those of sub-Saharan Africa, Madhya Pradesh has only 400 doctors to run its 8,000-odd state-run hospitals.

Almost 3,000 seats for medical officers are lying vacant. The patient-doctor ratio in the State is five times lower than the national average, which is abysmally low at 0.7 doctors for 1,000 patients. The VYAPAM scandal has not only further bankrupted the State’s health machinery, but has also hollowed out each and every civic agency of the state machinery by its fraudulent appointments.

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