If it was not surreally shocking, it would be funny. News from Bihar that two of its intermediate (pre-university course) toppers interviewed in a TV show could not answer basic questions – including so much as naming the subject one had studied – has left the state government red-faced after recent claims that its board examinations were conducted with foolproof security. A fall in the share of candidates who passed does suggest sincere efforts by the government. However, authorities have filed police complaints against a college and four toppers and ordered a special probe into alleged academic irregularities following the revelations.
We can take rich guesses as to what might have transpired because cheating invigilators and officials at various levels are in abundance in many parts of India, particularly the Hindi belt. From mass copying to question paper leaks to imposters writing examinations to experts dictating answers by mobile phones to students inside halls, accounts of cheating are legion. Some involve corrupt school/college authorities. Last year, people were outraged over a picture in a village not far from Patna where friends and family members of a school climbed a school wall to pass on “answer chits.” Have we perfected some logistical system of cheating that parallels Mumbai’s famous dabbawalas who serve food to office workers?
The Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh showed chilling murders linked to entrance examinations for government jobs. In UP in the early 1990s, a BJP government passed an anti-copying law, which was undone by its rivals after its defeat and then re-introduced in a political see-saw. Gujarat has had a law against cheating in high school examinations since 1972, under which the guilty can be jailed for up to two years. But the woes remain.
The problem is widespread in India, and those in the know of things inform that a potent combination of malpractices in examinations and using caste certificates – real or otherwise – can make candidates gainfully employed for decades in the labyrinthine world of the sarkar . We might take consolation in the fact that China, which India likes to emulates in economic growth, last year passed a new law under which students trying to copy in examinations will face a jail term of up to seven years.
It is time to put an end to pervasive cheating in the education system. What the TV expose did might well be a wake-up call for a tougher system of examination and invigilation in which new technology hitherto used by cheats can be used by authorities. Closed circuit TVs, random checks, surprise interviews and high-level re-evaluations may be considered among options to stem the rot. Education is a state subject under the Constitution but that should not deter the Centre from stepping in to see if it can use some carrot-and-stick method to rein in governments that do not take their jobs as purveyors of education seriously.