Pervasive Plague of Paper Leaks

Examination paper leaks represent a systemic decay that undermines the principles of fairness and meritocracy, signalling a crisis of trust in the institutions entrusted with shaping the future of millions. Each leak not only compromises the potential of the demographic dividend but also erodes the essence of the ‘Great Indian Dream’
By Robin Keshaw
  • Over the past five years, 41 documented cases of paper leaks have disrupted the aspirations of 14 million applicants vying for around 104,000 positions
  • Rajasthan tops the list with more than 38 lakh applicants getting affected by paper leak followed by Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra
  • The Vyapam scam, an acronym for Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal of Madhya Pradesh shook the nation when it came to light in 2013
  • While the scamsters have always found loopholes to mint money, it’s surprising to see the surge in demand for such illegal means from the applicants

RAJASTHAN Forest Guard, Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, Gujarat Subordinate Services Selection Board, Uttar Pradesh Police Constable, Telangana Public Service Commission, Bihar Staff Selection Committee – by now one would have guessed the common thread in these. They all were marred by the exam paper leak in recent times. These paper leaks are not just instances of vicious attempts by the perpetrators to play with destinies of millions of students, but a systemic erosion of the socio-cultural conscience of our nation. 

As per a report by Indian Express, “in the last 5 years, documented instances of 41 paper leaks have derailed the lives of 1.4 crore applicants, applying for a little over 1.04 lakh posts”. While Rajasthan tops the list with more than 38 lakh applicants getting affected, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra are next in line and account for 70 lakh applicants. These numbers, however significant they appear, are still the tip of the iceberg which represents the deep-rooted malaise in our society. The issue is not just limited to government exams but also secondary, senior secondary, pre-engineering and pre-medical, university entrance and university examinations. And it is not just about the paper leak, but a systemic collusion of politicians, government officials, exam mafia, aspirants and their families. 

Personal perspective view of hands wearing gloves and searching for the files into cabinet drawer. Retro style illustration. Clipping mask used.

The recent cases of paper leaks have broadly seen two types of infractions – one where the papers are leaked by the officials involved during the paper-setting process, the second where the paper is leaked in its journey from the printing press to the collection centre to the final exam centre

THE GAME AND THE GAMERS

Many might have forgotten Ranjit Don alias Dr Kumar Suman Singh. His claim to (in)fame was the Combined Admission Test (CAT 2003) paper leak which had rocked the country and questioned the credibility of the much hallowed Indian Institute of Managements (IIMs). He was the kingpin of an exam mafia allegedly responsible for many exam paper leaks including CBSE medical entrance exam, bank PO exam and others. He had submitted fake certificates for his matriculation exam as well as the MBBS seat at Darbhanga Medical College. He had contested as an independent candidate in 2004 Lok Sabha elections and was able to secure 60,000 votes. He was later given Vidhan Sabha ticket from Lok Janshakti Party, current ally of Bhartiya Janta Party in Bihar, but he couldn’t manage to win. 

The Vyapam scam, an acronym for Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal which translates to the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB), shook the nation when it came to light in 2013. Irregularities were discovered in the Pre-Medical Test (PMT) conducted by Vyapam after twenty individuals were apprehended for attempting to take the pre-medical examination on behalf of the actual candidates in Indore. The arrests stemmed from information provided by whistleblower Dr Anand Rai. 

In 2009, Rai, an activist and doctor from Indore, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) with the MP High Court, alleging misconduct in recruitments and admissions. His revelations in 2013 led to a series of arrests, and subsequent investigations identified Dr Jagdish Sagar as the alleged ringleader of the operation. It was later uncovered that the scam had been ongoing for several years, involving multiple exams and recruitments. The Special Task Force and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted the investigations, which revealed the involvement of politicians, bureaucrats, MPPEB officials, racketeers, middlemen, candidates, and their parents.

 The Vyapam scandal resulted in the arrest of over 2000 individuals, including Laxmikant Sharma, the former education minister of the state. The scam was marked by violence and tragedy, with at least 156 mysterious deaths. Witnesses, whistleblowers, and investigative reporters who exposed these unsettling truths have died under suspicious circumstances. Dr Rai, for his part, faced repercussions for challenging the government; he was dismissed from his government job, a stark testament to the cost of speaking out.

EXAM SCAMS ACROSS STATES

These and many other such scams point to few common elements – involvement of politicians cutting across party lines, perpetrators including government officials and ‘insiders’ who have the worm’s eye-view of the entire process, exam mafia which anchors the entire process and the end beneficiaries who are willing to dish out heavy sum of money to get a coveted seat or post. The modus operandi for such scams also range from paper leaks to impersonators to fudging of results but the DNA is common across states and types of examinations. For example, the class 10 exam papers of the Bihar Board have been leaked six times in the past. In West Bengal, the State Board exam papers have been leaked at least 10 times in the last seven years. In Tamil Nadu, both class 10 and 12 exam papers were leaked in 2022, and there are more instances like these.

Rajasthan has had many question paper leaks over the last few years. Between 2015 and 2023, there were over 14 cases of question paper leaks for various competitive exams in the state. Gujarat has also experienced 14 such incidents of question paper leaks in the last seven years. Some of the incidents of paper leak from Gujarat include GPSC chief officer (2014), Talati examination (2015), Talati Surendranagar and Gandhinagar examinations (2016), Teachers Aptitude Test (2018), Mukhya Sevika (2018), etc. Uttar Pradesh also saw at least eight incidents of question paper leaks between 2017 and 2022, some of which include Inspectors Online Recruitment Test (2017), Teacher Eligibility Test (UPTET) (2021), Preliminary Eligibility Test (2021), B.Ed Joint Entrance Examination (2021), NEET-UG Exam (2021) and the Class 12 board examination (2022).

MASTERING THE MANOEUVRE

The methodology of executing these exam scams have seen many changes. Ranjit Don and his accomplices employed an ‘ingenious’ practice to help the aspirants. In the pre-online form era, the agencies involved in conducting the exams used to provide exam roll numbers to candidates based on the date of the receipt of their envelopes. The gang would send 5-7 forms in one envelope, with them being marked as either “Engine” or “Bogie”.  ‘Engine’ meant the scholars and ‘Bogie’ was used for the actual candidates. The roll numbers were allotted to these forms in sequential manner. In this way, all 5 to 7 candidates had roll numbers of the same examination centre, the same examination hall and they were sitting one after another. Out of 7 candidates, three of them were exam solvers and they knew the answers to all the questions. They passed the right answers to the four actual candidates and they easily passed the examination.

Government jobs have always been the holy grail in India. The tenure and the job security makes it very lucrative for the youth and their families as a government job elevates the social and financial status of the family

The recent cases of paper leaks have broadly seen two types of infractions – one where the papers are leaked by the officials involved during the paper-setting process, the second where the paper is leaked in its journey from the printing press to the collection centre to the final exam centre. In the Rajasthan University paper leak scam, the Special Operations Group (SOG) of Rajasthan police had arrested the deputy registrar of Rajasthan University (RU), MC Gupta. He was also a part of the RU’s examination secrecy cell and had asked the cell’s clerk Nand Lal Saini to provide details about teachers who were designated for setting up the M.Com (final) question paper of the university, thereby violating Rajasthan Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act 1992. In the same year, senior IAS officer from Bihar, Sudhir Kumar was arrested in the paper leak scam in clerical-grade recruitment examination. Kumar was the chairperson of Bihar Staff Selection Commission at the time of his arrest and has spent 3 years in jail for his alleged crime. 

A TALE OF INSIDER COLLUSION

The case of paper leak in Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) where 16 lakh candidates appeared for the 3,600 posts of government teachers is another example of collusion. In this case, two constables had copies of the paper of REET which they had acquired for their wives, both of whom were appearing in the exam. They were in touch with the district coordinator of examinations in Jaipur, Pradeep Parashar. Ram Kripal Meena, the owner of a private school, had been hired by him as deputy district coordinator and entrusted with the security of the papers. Meena was aware about the procedural loophole in the reserved question paper. He knew that while the question papers from the main lot are counted before distribution at the exam centres, the reserved papers are rarely counted. Two days before the examination, Meena allegedly took out a copy of the paper from a sack of reserved papers, freshly arrived from Ajmer, while unloading the papers at the education department offices. According to the police, Meena gave the paper to a lecturer at a government college, who then circulated it.

The Uttar Pradesh constable recruitment exam saw a similar pattern, where an Ahmedabad based firm was responsible for the printing of the papers while a transport firm, TCI was entrusted with sending them to UP for the exam. The exam was scheduled on 17th and 18th February in UP. The arrested accused Shivam Giri, Rohit Pandey – were employees of TCI while Abhishek was an ex-employee. On 2nd February, Shivam reached out to Abhishek, dropping a hint about the impending arrival of the UP Police constable exam question papers. Shubham sent photos of the boxes containing the question papers, each having two codes of paper.

They took help of one Shubham Mandal, who specialises in breaking sealed boxes. All of them met near the TCI’s warehouse in Ahmedabad’s on the intervening night of 5th February. Once inside the warehouse, Rohit, Shivam, and Mandal found an area concealed from the watchful gaze of the establishment’s CCTV surveillance. They broke the boxes with Shubham’s help, took out the papers, clicked pictures and placed them back inside the boxes. The same operation was repeated several times and different sets of question papers were copied. Ravi Attri, the alleged mastermind and Vikram Pahal, a Delhi police constable took it from there and sold the question papers to hundreds of aspirants. 

BLACK BLOTCH

While the scamsters have always found loopholes to mint money, it’s surprising to see the surge in demand for such illegal means from the applicants. Access to educational opportunities have unlocked new potentials for the growing youth population in India. Take the case of NEET – there were 16 lakh applicants in 2021. In 2024, the number of applicants were 24 lakhs, a 50% surge. The number of seats have increased from 41,000 to 48,000 in the corresponding period. Creation of opportunities have not kept pace with the growing aspirations of the youth. The surge in the exam scams points to the growing hunger for the yields without the labour involved. 

Government jobs have always been the holy grail in India. The tenure and the job security makes it very lucrative for the youth and their families as a government job elevates the social and financial status of the family. In many pockets of the country, a government job is directly linked to the increased dowry demand from the groom’s family. The entire social apparatus has made government jobs highly desirable. In 2018, 3,700 PhD holders applied for 62 peon posts in the Uttar Pradesh Police Department, out of over 93,000 candidates. The chances of success are abysmally low which then pushes the candidates to opt for unfair and illegal means. 

Protestors raising fists high above heads. Concept of protest, human rights, fighting.

Experts blame the monolithic government machinery and underlying corruption for the proliferation of exam scams and paper leaks. Due to lack of standard protocols and stringent security measures, the chances of pilferages and infractions become very high

On the other hand, experts also blame the monolithic government machinery and underlying corruption for the proliferation of exam scams and paper leaks. Due to lack of standard protocols and stringent security measures, the chances of pilferages and infractions become very high. Experts also point to the fact that many of the staff selection bodies, education boards and universities have political appointees, which assists the pursuit of easy money and thus attracting scamsters in the process. Technological advances haven’t been suitably utilised to make the exams robust and error free. Take the case of Common Admission Test (CAT) by IIMs – after the infamous paper leak by Ranjit Don, the IIMs have utilised Computer Based Tests (CBTs) successfully to not allow the repeat of 2003. Many government agencies are yet to catch up on that front. 

QUEST FOR FAIRNESS

The surge in the exam scams in recent times hasn’t gone unnoticed by political and executive class. It was a huge political issue in the Rajasthan assembly elections in 2023, where PM Modi himself targeted the former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his government. Recently, Rahul Gandhi tweeted after the Uttar Pradesh constable exam fiasco – “Paper leak has become a curse not just for the youth of Uttar Pradesh but for the entire nation. There have been more than 70 instances of paper leak in the last 7 years and it has killed the dreams and aspirations of more than 2 crore students. He claimed and added that this is “wasting precious years of building for the future putting a financial and mental burden on the families of students. There is a need to ensure accountability at all levels by ending the criminal nexus of a negligent government, corrupt officials, ‘cheating mafia’ and private printing presses.” Congress has included stringent laws against the paper leaks and scams in its manifesto. 

Recently, Parliament also cleared the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024 which aims “to bring greater transparency, fairness and credibility to the public examination systems and to reassure the youth that their sincere and genuine efforts will be fairly rewarded and their future is safe.” It also provides for “a model draft for States to adopt at their discretion”. Few states like Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had enacted acts in the past to prevent the malpractices in the state level public examinations. Many states have passed such acts in the recent past in the wake of growing anger among the aspirants. 

While the stricter laws will act as a major deterrence in commission of such crimes, the proof of the pudding will lie in the enforcement of such laws. The wider public and the legal and educational experts will keep a close watch on the enforcement agencies. However, there is a dire need of institutional overhaul to make exams more reliable and secure. The exams conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) have never been on the wrong side of the news for such leaks and scams. It is a notable example of the role of robust institutional processes. 

Technology can play a big role in this. Many educational boards have started the use of blockchain technology on an experimental basis for their report cards. The same technology can be used to make paper setting and paper delivery processes more secure and efficient. 

India is supposed to ride high on its demographic dividend. Cases of exam paper leaks crush the dreams of millions of our youth and make demographic dividend look like a distant dream. The associated mental and emotional trauma is far complex and extensive to be measured or reported. It’s high time that we as a society get a grip of this issue and not let millions of destinies be jeopardised. 

Robin Keshaw

The author is a graduate in Computer Science from BITS, Pilani. He worked for a California-based software firm, Vmware, before joining the Teach For India fellowship programme in 2013. He is presently helping to settle a migrant community, focusing on their education needs. He can be contacted at rkeshaw@gmail.com

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