It is one of India's biggest-ever corruption scandals, one that has only seen the plot thicken with every mysterious death of witnesses and racketeers linked to the test-rigging scam. Even by standards in India, where corruption abounds, the scale of the fraud in Madhya Pradesh is staggering.
Thousands of people got jobs or medical degrees from systematic rigging of exams that generated an estimated $1 billion in bribes. More than 40 people connected to the fraud have died over the past decade when the scam is believed to have started. More than 2,000 people have been arrested, including the state’s education minister. And suspicion that the deaths maybe part of a cover-up has shaken chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s grip over power.
Yet, on the streets of its capital Bhopal, there is hardly any sign of unease.
For a visitor, the best ambassadors of a city are perhaps its cab drivers – a ready resource on its culture, attractions and the goings-on. So, on our way out of the airport, when I asked my taxi driver about the scandal that has put his city on world headlines, he appeared neither angry nor concerned. His words conveyed plain disinterest.
“Is mein naya kya hai sir? Hamare mulk mein yeh pehli baar nahi ho raha hai na. Kuch aur isse bada kand ho jayega tab log isko bhool jayenge (What’s new about it, sir? This is not the first scandal in our country. People will move on from this on to the next big scandal),” says Santosh Singh.
This is not my first visit to Bhopal, yet the city has seemed new to me every time I have travelled here, especially on way to town from the airport past the big lake that has a huge statue of Raja Bhoj, the philosopher-king of medieval India.
Bhopal is split by two big lakes, contrasting the city’s starkly different landscape. In the north is the old city, a fascinating mosaic of mosques and crowded bazaars that reminds of the Islamic rule that built much of Bhopal in the 19th century. Not far from here is a reminder of a more recent, tragic history – the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Here, Jamal Sheikh is a small-time grocer, who is well aware of the Vyapam scandal but has little opinion to offer on the strong of strange deaths.
“The reason why people are probably unmoved is that we are immune to corruption in this country, so much so that even when cover-ups happen we don’t care,” he says.
“People also think it’s not important which party is in power because the alternatives are no better.”
It’s a sentiment no different from that on the south of the two lakes, the more modern part of Bhopal with wider roads, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants.
At the DB Mall in MP (Maharana Pratap, not Madhya Pradesh) Nagar, close to the Hindustan Times office, a group of young students crowds around a roadside tea stall.
Ask them about the scandal and they reply almost in unison. “The sale of jobs and college seats happen everywhere. This one got out of hand because of the deaths,” says Vikas Saini who said he was studying to be a chartered accountant.
Soon, a small crowd gathers around us but the conversation around the scandal and the deaths soon thrown up the same sense of resignation about the “futility of trying to fight corruption in India”.
“If you ask if people feel scared about the deaths, I don’t think so, because a small percentage of the population is involved in this,” explains Saini.
“But yes people are uneasy that this scam means we can no longer trust our doctors. Maybe patients will now first check their doctor’s degree before starting the treatment.”
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