The Indian Institutes of Technology are quietly verifying identities of first year students across the 16 premier engineering schools after two candidates secured seats without clearing the admission test, using digitally doctored admit cards of successful aspirants.
Both fake candidates were nabbed and have accepted their attempted fraud. But the IITs fear other unqualified students may have sneaked into their coveted undergraduate programmes using manipulated admit cards, Professor GB Reddy, organising chairman of the 2012 IIT Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) confirmed to HT.
“Because of the number of students involved, you can’t be completely sure that others haven’t slipped in using this technique,” Reddy said. “We don’t want to leave anything to chance.”
About 10,000 students were admitted to the IITs and the Indian School of Mines (ISM) Dhanbad based on their scores in the JEE 2012.
This is the first time the IITs have detected this kind of admissions fraud -- after students have secured seats through the online counseling the institutes conduct after the JEE results are announced -- and the impersonation carries shades of the plot of 2009 blockbuster 3 Idiots.
Previous fraud cases have involved impersonation in the JEE and were detected at that stage. But the 2012 cases point to a novel strategy to perpetrate fraud, which IIT officials believe includes candidates who clear the JEE and then possibly sell their admit cards – the primary document used by the institutes to verify the identity of candidates.
The Institutes have kept their discovery of the fraud and their follow up action – including an FIR filed against one of the fraud students -- a closely guarded secret, even from the human resource development (HRD) ministry.
The Joint Admission Board (JAB) of the IITs – the highest admissions-related body of the institutes – has decided that a JEE 2012 team will randomly scrutinize first year students when they appear for their first semester internal examinations, Reddy said.
These examinations – and the identity check -- have started at different IITs. Students appearing for the internal tests are being checked against photos in admit cards issued by the IITs for the JEE. But students aren’t being told the reasons.
The IITs caught the fraud students -- a boy who claimed admission to IIT Bhubaneswar and a girl who even joined ISM Dhanbad – when they physically came to their campuses after selecting seats through the online counseling.
“There was a mismatch between their digital thumb imprints and those of the candidates who cleared the JEE,” Reddy said.
Thumb imprints are recorded when candidates appear for the JEE. Though admission officials are expected to match these imprints with the imprints of students when they actually come to claim their seats after clearing the entrance test, IIT administrators admit that they aren’t convinced about the rigour followed in this process.
"The truth is that we only really rely on thumb imprints if we suspect anything wrong after looking at admit cards," an IIT Director said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Both the fraud candidates caught by the IITs had scanned the admit cards of other, successful, JEE takers, and digitally altered photos on them.
“We believe that they hoped to then formally apply for a legal ‘name change,’ switching to their actual names, to complete the fraud,” an IIT Madras administrator aware of the case said.
The IIT Bhubaneswar boy ran away from the campus with his bags after he was confronted about the fingerprint mismatch.
His suspicious behaviour prompted a full-fledged investigation by the IITs, in which they confirmed that the photo on the admit card he produced for admissions did not match the one the Institutes had on the admit card they issued.
But the ISM Dhanbad girl challenged the IITs when they questioned her identity, and only accepted her fraud after the institutes filed an FIR against her and the police began their investigation.
The girl withdrew her admission from ISM Dhanbad as a part of a deal agreed to by the IITs in exchange for the institutes withdrawing the FIR.
The IITs have frequently over the past years caught candidates impersonating others in the JEE, including even the son of former IIT Kharagpur Director Shishir Dube.
Instances of more routine cheating during the entrance test are also common but the candidates are usually caught and barred from the test, making those extremely risky routes to adopt in defrauding the IIT admissions system.
But the strategy employed by the fraud students this year points to new tactics that officials described as “more worrying” than what they usually see, because it involves students – and not just the exam taker – adopting a fake identity for four years.
The attempts by the fraud students resemble the role played by Bollywood star Aamir Khan in 3 Idiots.
Khan’s character, a brilliant but poor boy, impersonates the academically weak son of a rich businessman at an engineering college modeled on the IITs for a win-win deal – Khan gets to study, and the rich boy gets a prestigious degree.
About 4.5 lakh students appear for the IIT-JEE each year, competing for 10,000 seats at the 16 IITs and ISM Dhanbad. The chance at success in the IIT entrance examination – one in every 45 applicants – is lower than that at Ivy League universities and even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on which the IITs are modelled.
The IITs are viewed as gateways to successful careers across India.
But student aspirations – often bordering on desperation – coupled with the intense competition for seats, have also created fertile ground for newer and newer kinds of admissions fraud.