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Exam Paper Leak: A Haunting Nightmare for Youths

Every recruitment exam paper leak leads to the usual rigmarole—investigations, arrests, political blame game, debates on corruption and potential reforms. Nothing concrete happens

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Students and members of various student unions protest inside the UGC headquarters over NET exam, condemning History paper leak on October 12, 2023 Photo: Getty Images
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On a weekend evening, Mohammad Abid, 33, was on his way back home, after working long hours as a painter. The blaring horns and the general evening chaos of Bilara, a city in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, made the telephonic conversation impossible. He called back after reaching home, where he lives with his wife and six-year-old child. His voice conveyed mixed emotions—anger, frustration, hopelessness, and hope.

It was the dream of his late father, a government servant, that Abid became a school teacher. It is Abid’s dream, too—a dream that has robbed 10 years of his youth, a dream that, until recently, seemed elusive despite his B.Ed degree. To work as a mason, or a painter, or a newspaper vendor wasn’t his choice. There were responsibilities and money had to be earned. But the pay was meagre and not regular. Hence, to turn the most cherished dream into a reality was imperative. It took some time—four attempts, to be precise.

In 2021, over 16 lakh candidates appeared for the Rajasthan Eligibility Exam for Teachers (REET) conducted for 31,000 posts. Abid was one of them. Despite the watertight arrangements and heavy police deployment at the exam centres, allegations of paper leak surfaced as soon as the exam was over. After an uproar in the Assembly and protests by angry students, the government cancelled the REET Level 2 exam, shattering the dream of Abid and others.

After an official inquiry, investigations and arrests by the Rajasthan Police and Enforcement Directorate, and a long wait, the exam was reconducted, which Abid cleared. But due to a newly introduced technicality, the recruitment process was stalled. After many protests in Jaipur for almost a year, on March 5 this year, the legal roadblock was cleared. But now the impending General Elections are threatening to derail the recruitment process. Abid will have to wait. Again. Like others. As per estimates, in the last five years, more than 38 lakh candidates in Rajasthan, eyeing 5,250 posts, have suffered due to exam paper leaks.

When asked if he ever thought about giving up, Abid said: “No. I am almost a teacher now. I will teach Urdu to young children. A teacher’s job would earn me respect in society, and a fixed monthly income. Also, it was, after all, my father’s dream.”

Some dreams, however, turn into nightmares. In Uttar Pradesh’s Firozabad, Varsha, 22, died by suicide recently. A bright student, she was preparing for the UP Police Constable Recruitment Exam, which was conducted in February. But it was cancelled after paper leak allegations surfaced. The suicide note mentioned her disappointment over not securing a government job—a job that would have helped her shoulder family responsibilities.

Videos of a human Tsunami at the Kanpur railway station that went viral a day before the exam were just a trailer—nearly 48 lakh aspirants appeared for the exam conducted for 60,244 posts. After the paper leak, there was chaos and confusion. Thousands gathered in the state capital Lucknow and angry slogans like “Ek hi nara, ek hi naam, re-exam-re-exam” reverberated in the Eco Park ground.

“We had been waiting for this exam for the past 5-6 years. When it finally happened, the paper leaked. It was apparently available for Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh hours before the exam. Just think about the plight of students from poor backgrounds who do not have any backup plan or Plan B. What will they do now?” asked an aspirant from Moradabad.

Over the years, paper leaks, re-examinations, cancellations and incidents of mass-level cheating have broken many young hearts. Every paper leak leads to the usual rigmarole—investigations, arrests, political blame game, debates on corruption and potential reforms. Nothing concrete happens. As per an investigative media report, over the past five years, 1.4 crore job seekers in 15 states bore the brunt of paper leaks. This is not even the pan-India data.

The issue is so grave that it is now finding a mention in poll campaigns, Parliament and promises and guarantees made by political parties. On February 6, the Lok Sabha passed the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024, which seeks to prevent paper leaks and malpractices in government recruitment examinations and provides for punishment, including imprisonment of up to ten years and a fine of up to Rs 1 crore. But is it too little too late?

Take the case of Madhya Pradesh—a hub of the Vyapam scam, an entrance examination, admission and recruitment scam that led to the mysterious deaths of many whistleblowers in recent years. But the instances of exam cancellations and paper leaks have continued unabated. Like a pattern.

Lakhs of youths in the state are still recovering from the scars of last year’s Patwari exam conducted to recruit village accountants. A total of 12 lakh students filled out forms for the exam that was conducted for the first time after 2017. Nine lakh appeared in the exam; the posts were just 9,000. “They changed the syllabus just three months before the exam, which was very tough. Despite reports of paper leak, the administration went ahead and even declared the results,” informs Rajesh Srivastava, 31. He hails from Satna, and has been preparing for this exam since 2016.

“It was unusual that the names of top-10 candidates were not announced. After protests, when the names were announced, it was shocking to discover that seven out of 10 candidates were from the same college and even had the same signatures. When the media interviewed them, they did not even know the name of the state CM or the state capital! After an uproar, a committee was set up, only because it was the election year,” said Raunak Saxena, 30.

The investigation was never made public, and the recruitment process was completed recently. Srivastava and Saxana did not make it despite being confident and hopeful. As there is no clarity, Srivastava has gone back to Satna where he takes coaching classes to make a living, and Saxena is back to doing odd private jobs.

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“Lakhs of poor students come from small towns and villages to Indore and Bhopal to prepare for recruitment exams. It’s interesting that in MP, exams are announced and conducted only when the elections are approaching. And then there are so many inconsistencies, ranging from postponement to cancellation to paper leak,” says Rajhe Jat, the national core committee member of the National Educated Youth Union (NEYU), an outfit that fights for the rights of students.

Most students don’t make it because of administrative mismanagement and go back to villages and towns or migrate for work. “Please note that there are 40 lakh registered unemployed youth in the state. When we question the authorities, they respond with threats and FIRs,” he adds.

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The common link between all these exam scams across the country is—the big fish always get away almost everywhere, says Chittaranjan Pandey, who lives in Ranchi, Jharkhand. He, along with lakhs of others, appeared for the Jharkhand Staff Selection Commission exam last year which was conducted after a gap of nine years. When Pandey stepped out after writing the exam, he was confident. But after some time, he came to know that the exam was cancelled as some students were in possession of the question paper even before the exam.

“The manner in which the exam was conducted was also a joke. There is an option to pick exam centres, but so many girls had to travel to remote areas where there were no accommodation or transport facilities,” he says. These remote areas are where there is an urgent need of manpower. “So many posts are vacant. These recruitment exams should be conducted regularly and in a fair manner, especially in states like Jharkhand where joblessness is a big issue,” says Pandey.

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Another region that is grappling with unemployment—that stands at a staggering 18.3 per cent in the age group of 15-29 years—is Jammu and Kashmir. But even here, many recruitment exams have derailed in the recent past.

In March 2023, 97,000 candidates appeared for the written examination for 1,200 vacancies in the police department. But following allegations of irregularities and paper leak, the entire recruitment process was scrapped. In the same year, several other exams came under scanner. A blacklisted private agency engaged by the administration to conduct recruitment exams for government jobs led to a massive online campaign.

“The number of students completing their graduation and post-graduation, including those who return after studying in prestigious colleges and universities in other states in the hope of finding jobs closer home, is high. Shouldn’t the government have a roadmap to employ these students?” asks Nasir Khuehami, the national convener of a student outfit named J&K students’ Association.

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There is zero accountability; sometimes the government ends up conducting one exam thrice due to irregularities, he says. “Many who prepare for these exams also have to earn a living. Imagine their plight when exams get cancelled or there are instances of paper leaks. Because of this, many young people in the Valley are slipping into depression,” he adds.

The northeastern region, too, is struggling in terms of employment—Arunachal Pradesh has the second-highest unemployment rate among the northeastern states.

Incidentally, Itanagar was rocked by protests last year and security personnel had to be deployed after violence erupted during the bandh called over the alleged Arunachal Pradesh Public Service Commission (APPSC) paper leak.

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“It became a huge issue. The CBI was called for an investigation. Students were genuinely angry. There are not many private job options here, so these government jobs are very important. Instances of leaks or cancellations worsen the already grave situation. The frustration level is high. After last year’s fiasco, youths here do not have any hope from the government,” says an Itanagar-based journalist.

What impact do these irregularities have on first-timers? “It’s disappointing,” says Sindhuja Reddy, 33, who is from Telangana, and for the past three years has been preparing for the Group I and II TSPSC (Telangana State Public Service Commission) exams. Last year, the probe into the TSPSC paper leak allegations found that 15 question papers of different examinations held since the year before were stored in a pen drive of the accused. Protests followed.

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“Ashok Nagar is the adda here. People from nearby towns and villages—most from agricultural backgrounds—come and live here. All the coaching classes and hostels are packed throughout the year. People come with a lot of hope and work very hard. The least the government can bring to the table is transparency. But it seems like the states are not bothered. The Centre must take charge,” says Reddy.

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