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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Question papers leaked, answer sheets tampered: The business of cheating is down, but not out in UP

A peek inside the parallel board-examination economy in Kaushambi, the nerve centre of the cheating trade, which is feeling the heat after a crackdown by the Uttar Pradesh govt.

education Updated: Mar 14, 2018 18:32 IST
Snigdha Poonam and Kenneth John
Snigdha Poonam and Kenneth John
Hindustan Times
Kaushambi has nearly 1,000 schools of which nearly half operate only at the time of board exams.
Kaushambi has nearly 1,000 schools of which nearly half operate only at the time of board exams.(Sheeraz Rizwi/HT Photo)

When a whole town turns into a market, then everyone — good people, bad people — acts out of greed,” said Brijbhushan Maurya, a school teacher who has been trying to justify his own participation in a local economy built on cheating in examinations.

Between 2011 and 2016, Maurya provided his services as a “solver” and a “narrator” to thousands of students who flooded into his town, Kaushambi, from all over north India for four weeks every year to cheat their way through board exams. Maurya doesn’t refer to his former clients as students, though, since some of them may never have stepped into a classroom before turning up in this part of eastern Uttar Pradesh. He has a more practical term for them: sailani (tourists).

“I used to be sent from the school where I taught to an examination centre for classroom duty. Once the question papers were opened, I solved them, made copies of the pages, and handed them over to the management to be circulated through various classrooms, where the teachers who were in charge of conducting the exam read out the answers to the whole class.” When he was not solving papers (“I only solved sociology”), Maurya made himself useful by reading out answers handed out to him, either by standing in the middle of the classroom or positioning himself outside a window. “You read, children wrote.” Based on the range of his services, Maurya made anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000 over an exam season; he saw the payoff as a necessary addition to his monthly salary of Rs 6,000. “At times, kids asked you to help them individually in copying the answers, for Rs 100 or Rs 200. One felt greedy.”

Maurya no longer works in the cheating industry. In 2016, he left his teaching job to open a shop where he sells construction material. “It had been getting tougher and tougher to pull off the process, with online enrolments and coded answer sheets.”

In 2016, the number of examinees who had left UP board exams midway was 645,024. Maurya considers himself fortunate to have quit before the “market” came crashing down. In anticipation of this year’s high school and intermediate examinations, Uttar Pradesh’s education department imposed a series of anti-cheating measures: CCTV cameras in every examination room, deployment of armed police, and formation of Special Task Force units, among others.

By February 11, the fourth day of the exam schedule, 1,044,619 students — nearly 15% of all those who had registered — had dropped out. “The teachers are crying in every street corner. The risks of helping to cheat are so high that no teacher wants to take the tension,” said Maurya. In Kaushambi, the centre of the state’s exam-cheating industry, only 88 schools were appointed as exam centres this year and 44 of them were tagged as “hypersensitive”. Local administration was allowed to impose Section 144 (unlawful assembly) to ensure “free and fair” exams.

A vast economy

As the “tourists” fled UP, they left thousands of people employed in the state’s vast economy of exam fraud without a backup plan. In Kaushambi, said Mohammad Farrukh, owner of a roadside restaurant, the informal gains from exam cheating outweighed the district’s official annual revenue. “From paan wallahs to PCO owners, everyone was dependent on the income from cheating.” They can no longer depend on this annual jackpot. “The poor villagers have been the biggest losers,” said Farrukh. “Think about their situation. Every household here used to rent rooms to the students who came here to cheat in exams. If they didn’t have an extra room, they used to clean out their cattle enclosure and accommodate students, charging them Rs 2,000 for a month.”

Farrukh’s own business was dependent on the exam footfalls. “I can’t think of one state from where the students didn’t arrive here. If 10,000-20,000 boys suddenly arrive in a town, someone will have to feed them, no? In shaadi season, you prepare to feed a baraat for three days. In exam season, you had to prepare to feed thousands of people for 30 days at a stretch. Dhabas mushroomed in every street of Kaushambi.” In peak exam season, Farrukh’s dhaba used to make Rs 40,000 a day. “Four thousand kids used to line up outside. Four-five people were making rotis without any break.” This year, his dhaba hasn’t earned more than Rs 3,000 a day. “There was a paper yesterday, but hardly anyone came to eat. Some people are still coming in to cheat but from nearby districts, and they are only making day trips,” he said.

In the town’s local market — two rows of tiny shops across a narrow road — shopkeepers are mourning their losses. “People used to come from everywhere: Ghaziabad to Nepal. Banda, Kanpur, Itawa, Faizabad, Gonda,” said Mahendra Kumar, who sells groceries. “I used to offer my shop space for them to stay, for Rs 50 to Rs 200 per person. Everyone did. If there are 10 boys, they paid Rs 1,000 a month, if 12 people, then Rs 1,500 a month. Now the story is over.”

No one is more affected by the state government’s tightening of examination rules than school owners. One of UP’s “most backward” districts, Kaushambi has nearly 1,000 schools of which nearly half operate only at the time of board exams. Many of them exist merely as half-built rooms furnished with a dusty blackboard and a few broken benches in the middle of a farmland. Some exist entirely on paper. Even among the schools that boast proper infrastructure and teaching staff, few hold regular classes or maintain daily attendance. So why do so many people in the area open schools?

“You have to go back to 1986 when private schools began to be authenticated by UP board,” said Ashok Kumar Mishra, principal of an old state-aided school in Kaushambi. “Over the following years, the rules for granting licences to private schools became more and more lax. People were given licence and told, ‘now go, build a school’. They thought, ‘wow this is a great business’. In the 1990s, even schools that had never seen any students were hosting board exams. That’s how the cheating industry began.”

People climb walls of a school to help students cheat in Vaishali, Bihar. The image became symbolic of the cheating menace that plagues large parts of the country.
People climb walls of a school to help students cheat in Vaishali, Bihar. The image became symbolic of the cheating menace that plagues large parts of the country. ( HT File Photo )

The business model

The business model was something like this: these barely functional schools convinced students inside and outside UP to register on their rolls and avail themselves of cheating services by either showing up at the time of exams or using an imposter. The process included various levels of fraud, from fake ID cards to multiple enrolments.

“Fixers came up,” said Ranvijay Nishad, a school teacher and social worker. The school manager formed a group of 8-10 local unemployed youth and paid them to travel to different cities or states to find children and tell them, ‘give us money, and we will make you pass’. The rate could be Rs 1 lakh for 100 admissions. A student paid Rs 20,000 for the entire set of services.”

Nothing was off-bounds in UP’s cheating business by the late 1990s. “You could be a boy and appear in the exam as a girl,” said Nishad. “Even dead people passed exams with flying colours,” said Mishra. The complicity of teachers was central to the fraud. “And why wouldn’t they cooperate? They are so poorly paid. A labourer earns Rs 175 for eight hours of work under the national rural employment guarantee scheme; a teacher is paid Rs 36 for four hours of exam duty.” Solving papers became their ticket to fair wages. “Schools used to frequently call me to solve the science paper. They offered Rs 1 lakh for a month’s work, but I stayed out,” said Nishad.

“When you saw the answers sheets, you immediately knew what was going on. Everyone from a centre had made the same mistakes or answered questions in the same series. There would often be three kinds of handwriting in one paper,” said Mishra.

“That’s how Kaushambi came to be called nakal ki mandi (the cheating market),” he added. “Local circumstances here were ideal for cheating. When there is enough crop, only then will the farmer go to the market to sell it. The money used to reach the highest levels.”

Once the system was put firmly in place, cheating was no longer an option but a compulsion. “On the day of an exam, teachers went from room to room saying, ‘if you pay you can cheat in the paper, or just keep sitting here.’ If you didn’t pay, they didn’t give you the answer sheet until an hour was left to finish writing. In the next paper then, the students came in with money,” said Mohammad Shami, who did as he was told at the time of his intermediate exam in 2016.

“I have cheated in exams myself. An agent came to my school before the exam season and told me to pay a certain amount to a certain person if I wanted to pass — Rs 20,000 if someone else appeared in exam for you, Rs 6,000 if you wrote answers based on dictations. I paid Rs 6,000. I handed over the cash to a man standing outside the exam centre. In the classroom, the teacher dictated the answers, I wrote down exactly that.”

Currently unemployed, Shami says he is now preparing to write the exam to enter the UP police.

“An army of unemployed youngsters has thus been built,” said Mishra. “We have given them certificates and shown them dreams. Once they become graduates, they don’t want to go back to farming or work as manual labourers.”

Of the nearly 5 million students appearing in board exams this year, a large majority may have unprepared to solve the papers. While fewer complaints of cheating are being recorded by the UP police this year — the exam season concludes on March 14 — the business isn’t shutting down yet. Question papers are still being leaked, answer sheets tampered with, and imposters recruited. As many as 62 people were arrested in west UP’s Atrauli on February 15 for sitting in a house across an exam centre and solving a question paper for Class 12 board examinees. The tipoff came from three students who had failed to pay Rs 3,000 to the school manager for replacement of their answer sheets and had been threatened with consequences.

Many people inside the state’s messy school education system see the new government’s “crackdown” as a cosmetic effort to curb cheating. The change must begin with fixing the schools, they insist. On February 19, in the middle of the 2018 exam schedule, the state education department ordered the examination centres to install voice recorders in classrooms, in addition to CCTV cameras. “Because of CCTV cameras, teachers are no longer dictating answers form the centre of the classrooms but through the windows, therefore the idea of voice recorders,” explained Ashok Kumar Mishra, who received the official letter.

“I don’t have a problem with following the order, but where in the local market can I find a voice recorder? No shop has heard of the device because no one has ever asked for it. And if people can find their way around CCTV cameras, how long will voice recorders deter them?”

First Published: Mar 14, 2018 07:48 IST

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