Explained: Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act - Hindustan Times
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Explained: Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act

Jun 24, 2024 05:48 PM IST

Different states already have legislation to check unfair practices but the same do not seem to have had any impact in putting an end to paper leaks.

Examinations and the Indian education system have become synonymous.

Patna, Bihar, India -June .18, 2024: Aspirants standing in queue for entering an examination centre to appear in the UGC NET exams at A.N. College in Patna, Bihar, India, Tuesday,18, 2024.(Photo by Santosh Kumar/ Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Patna, Bihar, India -June .18, 2024: Aspirants standing in queue for entering an examination centre to appear in the UGC NET exams at A.N. College in Patna, Bihar, India, Tuesday,18, 2024.(Photo by Santosh Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

Public examinations determine the fate of youth in our country, be it a college entrance exam or securing a job of their dreams. Against this backdrop, the recent public examination paper leaks and cancellations have raised several questions about the Government’s ability, as well as the political will, to conduct these large-scale examinations.

On June 22, the Union government finally entrusted the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the alleged irregularities in the NEET UG exam of 2024. The National Testing Agency (NTA) chief was replaced as a government-constituted committee began to probe the alleged leaks responsible for the cancellation and rescheduling of several NTA-conducted examinations.

Amid this, the government also notified the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act 2024 on June 21.

The new Central legislation is being hailed as the panacea to rid the public examination system of all ills. The legislation aims to prevent unfair means in public examinations. The enactment identifies 15 acts of unfair conduct, which include paper leaks, the creation of fake websites and fake examinations for monetary gain.

Importantly, the legislation excludes students/candidates from the purview of the act. Candidates will continue to be governed by the administrative procedures which come into play in case they use any unfair means, hence, protecting them from criminal prosecution.

The act also introduces the concept of organised crime in public paper examinations. It defines organised crime as an unlawful activity committed by a person or a group of persons indulging in unfair means in collusion and conspiracy to pursue or promote a shared interest for wrongful gain in respect of public examination. It provides harsh penalties for organised crime with a minimum penalty of 1 crore and imprisonment ranging from five to 10 years. For other crimes, it awards a minimum fine of 10 lakhs and imprisonment ranging from three to five years.

The legislation has a wide scope, it presently applies to UPSC, Staff Selection Commission, Railway Recruitment Boards, Institute of Banking Personnel Selection, Ministries or Departments of the Central Government and their attached subordinate offices for recruitment of staff, National Testing Agency and any other authority as may be notified by the Central Government.

It also elevates the persons conducting the examination to the status of ‘public servants. This makes them not only accountable but also ensures that the various provisions of other statutes providing for offences against public servants like obstructing a public servant from discharging his duties are applicable.

Regarding the investigation, the Act states that no officer below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police shall investigate. However, the act is silent on the need for a specialised technical body to investigate the matter. In today’s day and age when technology is advancing at a rapid rate and being used actively to infiltrate the public exam domains, the investigating committee also needs to be technologically advanced.

The Act suggests that taking this as a model, different states may enact their own legislation. However, it provides no time framework for the same. Furthermore, many states like Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana already have legislation to investigate unfair practices.

The Act also does not look into the consequences of a paper leak. For instance, in case of a paper leak, the Act provides no time frame for when the exam will be rescheduled.

Furthermore, the mere presence of legislation is not a deterrent unless it is implemented with seriousness. As noted earlier, different states already have legislation to check unfair practices but the same do not seem to have had any impact in putting an end to paper leaks. For instance, Uttar Pradesh experienced nine paper leaks from 2017 to 2024 despite having a law that it had passed in 1998 itself.

One of the reasons for the leaks is the desperation of the youth who see these public examinations as the only source of a better life. Improved governance should ideally provide multiple opportunities for the youth to improve their quality of life. The desperation also becomes an opportunity for exploitation by the unscrupulous elements.

Parijata Bharadwaj, a lawyer and researcher based in New Delhi, co-founded the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that offered legal services to adivasis in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal.

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