Government

Exclusive: Under Fadnavis's Watch, a Vyapam-Like Scam Flourished in Maharashtra

From proxies taking exams to a mismatch in the photographs submitted by candidates, The Wire's investigation reveals a well-oiled scam in the recruitment process for Class ‘C’ and Class ‘D’ posts in various departments in 2019.

Mumbai: While processing the papers of 236 shortlisted candidates for the class ‘C’ revenue officers’ position in Ahmednagar district in western Maharashtra in November last year, the district’s collector, Rahul Dwivedi, found something amiss.

Candidates who were among the toppers in the exam conducted by the ‘MahaPariksha Portal’ had no clue about the post they were soon going to join; they did not even know elementary details like when and where these exams were conducted. Some, when confronted by the collector, had even revealed that their application forms and hall tickets had been signed by their relatives. On digging deeper, Dwivedi realised some of them had not appeared for these exams. Instead, proxies had been propped up in the place of the original candidate, and had helped them bag a coveted post in the revenue department.

Over the next few months, Dwivedi meticulously went through the documents submitted by the aspiring candidates and cross-checked these with evidence that was reluctantly made available after much persuasion by the officials handling the ‘MahaPariksha Portal’. What emerged was a well-oiled scam. On May 22, this year, the district collector put together a damning 12-page report, which, perhaps, for the first time concretely converted the suspicion thousands of aspirants had of foul play into a well- documented report with hard evidence.

The scam the Ahmednagar collector unearthed does not appear to be restricted to only those 236 candidates but may be spread across the state. The Wire has spoken to several candidates in the process of investigating allegations of rampant exam fraud. The pattern and extent that has emerged here are comparable to that seen at the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, more commonly known as the Vyapam scam.

Between July 2 and July 26, 2019, these exams were held in 34 out of Maharashtra’s 36 districts (Mumbai and Palghar being the exceptions). The exams were conducted not just for the revenue officers’ post but 11 out of 20 departments in which Class ‘C’ and Class ‘D’ posts were to be filled in 2019. However, unlike Dwivedi, who had stalled the recruitment process in his district, other district administrations have overlooked complaints despite damning evidence and completed the recruitment process.

Last week, during a periodic administrative transfer, Dwivedi was moved out from his post. But strangely, he has not been assigned a new post, even weeks later. And it appears his efforts won’t bear any fruit. Soon after his transfer, the department has begun re-examining the file Dwivedi stalled and recruitment is likely to resume soon.

Interestingly, the managing director of MahaIT, Ajeet Patil, was also moved out on the same day as Dwivedi and has also not been assigned a new post.

After abruptly replacing the earlier MahaOnline portal, the erstwhile Devendra Fadnavis-led government had started the MahaPariksha Portal in 2017. The MahaPariksha Portal, handled by the Maharashtra Information Technology Corporation Limited or ‘MahaIT’, handled recruitment to several state government posts. The company, a nodal agency of the government of Maharashtra, was set up to “bolster efficient and effective implementation of Information and Communication Technology initiatives and to establish a robust e-Governance ecosystem framework”.

The entire responsibility, say officials, was handed over to Kaustubh Dhavse, Fadnavis’s man Friday. Dhavse, who had worked with HP, Frost & Sullivan and other companies till Fadnavis pulled him into government in 2014, was given the status of a joint secretary (he was an officer on special duty to the CM and is now chief policy advisor to Fadnavis, who is the leader of the opposition) and was also put in charge of the “war room”.

At MahaIT, corporate filings show that Dhavse was a nominee director “pursuant to Government resolution no. 1716/Pra.Kra.286/Ka.39” from shortly after its inception to December 2019, when the BJP government fell.

Most directors of MahaIT have been IAS officers and among them, Dhavse was the only non-government entity.

Kaustubh Dhavse. Photo: Twitter/@kdhavse

MahaIT had issued a tender in 2017 and a US-based IT company ‘UST Global’ and an Indian company ‘Arceus Infotech Private Limited’ had jointly bagged the contract. They were to handle the entire examination process: right from the application process, to setting up papers, identifying exam centres, setting up time tables, and finally conducting these exams online. UST Global handled the major part of the work.

These exams are part of the administrative services governed by the Ministry of General Administration (GAD). Among other portfolios, Fadnavis had handled the GAD and had directly monitored the MahaBharti (mega recruitment) drive in the state. This portfolio is now with the present chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.

As many as 25,000 positions were to be filled in the drive announced in 2019 – a crucial time for the BJP considering both general and state elections were carried out within a gap of a few months that year. A whopping 35 lakh aspirants – primarily graduates and those who passed class 10 – had applied for these positions. In 2017, the year when MahaIT had first conducted the exam, around 50 thousand candidates had applied and another three lakh candidates filled up application forms in 2018.

A senior official at MahaIT said the number of applications was “unprecedented” for two reasons—one because 25,000 seats were declared in one go and second, since these positions were primarily for grade C and D posts, the number of applicants with requisite educational qualifications were high.

According to the government resolution (GR) issued by the General Administration Department (Information Technology) of Maharashtra government on September 17, 2017, the cost per application was fixed at Rs 250 per candidate. However, at the time of conducting the exams per department, this cost per application was escalated and candidates were charged between Rs 350 and 500. There is no clarity as to why candidates were overcharged even though an upper cap was clearly laid in the GR.

A senior MahaIT official shared that of the total amount, only Rs 56 was to go to their department and the rest was to be paid to UST Global and consortium. Over and above this, Re 1 per question per paper was charged. These question papers, with either 100 or 200 questions, were drawn from a large pool of questions.

A senior official at MahaIT said that the department has conducted 31 different exams in collaboration with UST Global since 2017. Besides the 35 lakh candidates of 2019, three lakh applications were made in 2018 and another 50,000 in 2017.

“MahaIt has to still recover Rs 7 lakh from different departments for exams conducted in 2018 and over Rs 16 crores from 2019,” the official said.

Among these 25,000 posts advertised in 2019, as many as 11,000 positions were filled between July 2019 and May this year, a senior MahaIT official has confirmed. Exams for the rest were stalled following complaints from the aspirants. UST Global’s spokesperson, in the company’s response to The Wire, said, “UST does not collect money for any exam, and the turn key service is paid by Maha IT, on successful completion of exam and result processing, as per contractual terms.” The company did not clarify the terms laid down in the contract though.

What did the Ahmednagar collector find?

The collector, in a letter dated May 22, states that between January 3 and January 7 this year, when his office was verifying the documents of the shortlisted 236 candidates, he became suspicious about the credibility of many of them. On inquiring, he states in his letter, he did not get satisfactory responses. Following this, the collector sought the CCTV footage of all 236 candidates from the MahaIT department and UST Global. The project manager of MahaIT, however, did not provide them all, stating that the videos were saved at different places and were voluminous. The department, instead, agreed to provide information related to specifically those candidates that the collector claimed were dubious. CCTV footage and other information of about 14 candidates were shared.

The collector’s letter has tabulated the response given by UST Global and his findings for the 14 candidates. Curiously, UST Global, which had conducted these exams and was privy to all documents and information about individual candidates did not find anything amiss until a probe was launched. The collector meanwhile made sharp observations in his report.

Take, for instance, a candidate who scored 184 out of 200 in an exam for a revenue officer’s post. UST Global, in its response, has stated that the footage for this particular candidate was not available. The candidate’s registration photo and hall ticket photos were submitted to the collector’s office. While UST Global did not find any problem in his submission, the collector-appointed committee’s findings show that the signatures and photos didn’t match.

By their admission, UST Global officials have stated that in at least two instances, dummy candidates appeared for the exam. While one candidate scored 182 marks, another missed the cut off by a meagre four marks by scoring 170.

For several other candidates, UST Global has claimed that since the candidate can be seen attempting the exam in the CCTV footage, “no major observations” can be made. The committee’s findings, however, have pointed to a lack of consistency in documents submitted, missing signatures in the hall ticket, different photos submitted at the time of exams, and later for document verification.

In one peculiar incident, a female candidate who scored 178 marks, had earlier filled her form as a “male candidate” and later submitted a bond claiming there was a mistake at the time of filling her form. The committee’s findings also point to varying signatures and different residential address proofs. “The candidate was not able to share the date and timing of the exam,” the committee has remarked.

The Wire contacted Dwivedi to find out how the vacant seats would be filled and what had happened after his report was submitted to the state government. Dwivedi, in response, said: “I have done my work. All that I had to say is mentioned in the report and it is with the concerned department. It is for them to decide now.”

The Wire also reached out to one of the senior officials at the MahaIT department to get their version. In a detailed conversation on the condition of anonymity, the officer claimed that the collector had erred in his assessment of the matter. “Our department has from time to time communicated to the collector that if he has issues with the candidature of a few candidates, he should sift through them and select the credible ones. Stalling an entire process is unfair,” he said. The official also claimed that the exams were foolproof and could not be meddled with. But when confronted with individual cases, he agreed there was indeed scope for “some error”.

The Wire sent a questionnaire to UST Global inquiring about the allegations made by the collector and also if the organisation has set up any mechanism to plug these issues. In response, the company’s spokesperson said, “As a ‘Turn Key Agency’, UST and consortium has conducted exams for recruitment as per instructions and contractual terms of Maha IT which is the nodal agency for recruitment for Govt of Maharashtra and specific information about vacancies and application may be available with MahaIT.” The spokesperson also claimed that the company is not aware of any report or action initiated by the Ahmednagar collectorate.

Devendra Fadnavis. Photo: PTI

What is happening in other districts?

Ahmednagar is only the tip of the iceberg. Almost every district administration and state department conducting these exams and filling positions have received at least a dozen complaints, each raising identical problems.

A 29-year-old candidate, Nilesh Gaikwad, a B Tech graduate from Buldhana district, has been at the forefront of investigating and unearthing myriad incongruities in the exam and selection process. He scored 172 marks for a revenue officer’s post in Ratnagiri district, falling just two short of the cut off. He says, these are not merely technical glitches but “a well-thought out recruitment scam”. Gaikwad and a few others have identified at least 5,000 aspirants of different competitive exams and have formed a collective under the banner named ‘MPSC Samanvay Samiti’. This group, Gaikwad says, is mostly made up by students who have grievances and have over the past months gathered corroborative proof of discrepancies.

A specimen of damning proofs

Five toppers of the state board exams scored 194 marks out of 200—unusually high marks. Experts claim that scoring such high marks is practically impossible since the candidate has to answer 200 questions in 120 minutes and the question set is usually very difficult. These toppers, however, got the exact six questions wrong and interestingly, had also marked the same “wrong options” for those six questions. The Wire is in possession of their answer sheets. Besides their responses, what is more intriguing is these three toppers had appeared for the exams on the same day, at the same time and the same centre in Tirora at Gondia district.

The investigation also threw up the names of some candidates who have been permanently barred by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) but have still appeared for exams conducted by the MahaPariksha portal. One of the prerequisites for MahaPariksha is that “the candidate shall not be barred by any other competitive exam”. How were these candidates allowed to take these exams even when they were permanently barred by other exam platforms, more importantly by the MPSC?

One of the toppers in the state board exam and took the exam at a centre in Nashik, has already been barred by the MPSC. Similarly, another candidate who appeared for the revenue officer’s post in Ahmednagar district and scored 184 marks, also appears in MPSC’s “permanently barred” list. The Ahmednagar collector too has raised questions about this candidate’s credibility. Details of these candidates have been sourced by The Wire. When they were contacted, they either refused to speak or said that the claims were false.

There are multiple examples of siblings, father, and children cracking the exam; in a few cases with identical marks too. These exams were carried out over several days, spread across exam centres in 34 districts. The examination rules clearly state that a candidate can appear for these exams only once. However, there are multiple instances where the same candidate appeared multiple times at different centres. In one case, such a candidate even made it to the shortlist. A closer look into the database suggests that most of these suspicious candidates hail from three districts – Aurangabad, Jalna and Dhule.

Though The Wire is in possession of supporting documents of these candidates, their identities have been withheld since no final decision has been taken on their candidature yet.

One candidate who has been preparing for close to a decade only to miss the cut-off by a whisker each time noted a strange phenomenon: A disproportionate number of candidates from the Vimukta Jati (or Denotified Tribe) ‘A’ category were both selected and blacklisted in MahaPariksha and MPSC exams. Over the past months, this candidate has meticulously gone through several hundred documents and corroborated it with multiple sources. In the state board exam for clerical posts, among the first 100 candidates, as many as 28 candidates belong to the VJ (A) category. While 3% of candidates have qualified as per the state’s reservation provision, the rest qualified under the “open category”.

This aggrieved candidate has written to the state board last month seeking an inquiry. The board authorities wrote back to him claiming that his letter has been forwarded to the MahaIT department.

While several aspirants have been agitating and complaining of malpractices in the examination process, very few want to be identified. Several aspirants that The Wire spoke to alleged coercion, and even threats to their life. Some even shared audio recordings of calls made to them from time to time by unknown persons asking them to back off.

Representative image of an exam. Credit: PTI

Several aspirants have been agitating and complaining of malpractices in the examination process but very few want to be identified. Representative image. Photo: PTI

CAG report

In the past, MahaIT and UST Global have worked together in at least four different projects, including the MahaPariksha portal. While collector Dwivedi’s report is the only public document raising questions about their credibility, in the past the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had identified specific discrepancies in the tendering process, saying preferential treatment was given to UST Global in the implementation of the Integrated University Management System. In an audit carried out by the CAG for the financial year 2017-18, it was found that UST Global was selected over one other company participating in the bidding process due to a “clubbing of technical and commercial score”.

The technical evaluation of the companies had to be carried out as per the terms laid down in the Request for Proposal (RFP). However, the CAG report has found that although another company, Karvy Data Management Service Limited was also technically qualified, and their rates were 17.66 % below the rates quoted by US Global, the latter was awarded the work.

Karvy Data Management Service Limited had placed its financial bid at Rs. 96.42 crore and UST Global at Rs. 117.10 crore.

The report further states that MahaIT had finalised the rates for scanning and digitisation, one of the integral parts of the exam process, “without the due process of commercial competitive bidding”. The report had clearly indicated that rules were bent to accommodate UST Global even at the cost of incurring a financial loss. The non-evaluation of the commercial bid independently had resulted in an extra financial burden of Rs 17.68 crore, the report indicates.

Political intervention

In 2018 alone, 55 protests were organised across the state, says Rahul Kawthekar, an aspirant from Beed. From organising protests to meeting several political delegates, Kawthekar says he has done it all. Several political leaders, including the Congress’s Satej Patil, Nationalist Congress Party’s Supriya Sule and Prahar Janshakti Party’s Bacchu Kadu had sought the scrapping of MahaPariksha before the elections. They had also demanded action against the erring officials and a thorough investigation into the matter.

Last week, when the NCP’s MLA Rohit Pawar posted on social media that his party is looking into the “error” that has cropped up while conducting the revenue officers’ exams, several aspirants sharply replied saying he was playing down a full-fledged scam. Some even shared copies of mark sheets of dubious candidates and demanded an inquiry into the matter.

Kawthekar says he had met Patil earlier this year along with several officials from MahaIT. “A student delegate had met the minister and government officials who were involved in conducting these exams. We presented our case, showed them the evidence but nothing came out of the meeting. MahaPariksha was eventually scrapped but no action was taken either against the erring candidates or the officials involved in the case. In fact, the same officials are now working in the MahaIT department,” he alleged.

With inputs from Anuj Srivas.