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Jaipur: “My father wanted me to become a government officer. I tried my best all these years, exhausting all his savings on coaching classes for my competitive exam. But I never knew that the government and luck would go against me,” said 26-year-old Gopal Saraswat.
Saraswat, who appeared for examinations meant to fill Rajasthan sub-inspector (SI) and Rajasthan junior engineer (JEN) posts, just got to know of the paper leak.
He appeared for three exams in the past few years, including for the post of librarian which was cancelled due to a paper leak. On the other hand, the demand for the cancellation of the other two remains strong.
A controversy erupted after reports emerged of irregularities and paper leaks in JEN exams conducted in November 2020, and of SI and Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) exams conducted in September 2021.
Seventeen people, including the principal of a private school, were arrested in Bikaner and Jaipur over their alleged involvement in the cheating for the SI exam.
However, a major backlash against the government was witnessed with REET’s fiasco even after the state government had made elaborate security arrangements.
REET exam row
Conducted in over 4,000 centres on September 26, REET 2021 saw more than 16.5 lakh candidates apply for 31,000 posts in government schools. It is a mandatory exam for becoming a teacher in government schools. The state government provided travel facilities for the REET aspirants, including free buses and other public transport.
Chief minister Ashok Gehlot himself conducted a high-profile meeting and warned government employees of dismissing from service if they were found complicit in cheating, or malpractices. Special arrangements were made to keep a check on cheating, as various reports emerged from across the state from September 26.
“Firstly, what was the need to conduct such a big examination in one go. It could have been done in parts or in a phased manner as it happens with other exams. It would have made things easy,” said retired IAS officer and former secretary of Rajasthan Public Service Commission Rajendra Bhanawat.
Fearing for their future, aspirants across the state were distressed after news of the paper leak emerged. Hundreds of aspirants staged a protest for three days at the Shaheed Smarak in Jaipur and asked the government to re-conduct the examinations.
A call for a protest to be held on September 30 was given by the social activist and president of Rajasthan Ekikrat Berozgaar Mahasangh, Upen Yadav. However, he was arrested on that morning outside his house as he made his way to the protest site. He was released at around 5 pm.
Meanwhile, BJP MP Kirodi Meena was quick to take over the protests and asked leaders of other parties and MLAs to join. He sat with aspirants for three days before the exam was postponed on October 3 to a later day.
Meena said, “We will protest again in the future along with all BJP MLAs.” This development came after a meeting was held at BJP state headquarters on October 2, in the presence of state BJP chief Satish Poonia, Meena and other leaders.
“BJP hijacked my protest after I went to jail. I never called any political leader since it was a student protest,” Yadav told The Wire.
Before the exam, a series of important arrests were also made by the police to prevent cheating in exams.
To prevent cheating in the REET exam, the government shut down Internet in India’s largest state by area, which is home to over 68 million people. This had caused disruption in online classes for students while also affecting those working from home. The REET aspirants also faced problems in reaching their exam centres and many faced issues regarding digital payments.
According to a February 2021 report published by digital advocacy firm Internet Freedom Foundation, with 72 documented internet shutdowns since 2012, Rajasthan has witnessed the second-highest number of internet shutdowns in India after Jammu and Kashmir. The report also accused the state government of violating internet shutdown laws.
Government’s efforts in vain
Aspirants in Rajasthan have been suffering for too long because of exams being cancelled, following irregularities. Nearly three big exams have been called off in the last few years, including for the posts of junior engineer, jail warder and librarian. While jail warder posts saw six lakh applicants for as few as 925 posts, the latter saw 87,459 applicants for 700 posts.
Despite necessary arrangements, reports of various instances of cheating emerged in the REET exam. In one such case, the police busted a racket attempting to cheat using a Bluetooth and mobile phone fitted in ‘chappals’. The ‘cheating chappals’ were procured for Rs 30,000 and were sold to aspirants for more than Rs 5 lakh. Police have arrested a few people, but the main accused Tuljaram Jat is absconding. Such cases were reported in Bikaner, Pratapgarh, Ajmer and Sikar.
However, the major embarrassment for the government came when the paper was leaked even before the internet was suspended.
According to several reports by Dainik Bhaskar, nearly one-and-a-half hours prior to the commencement of the exam, at 10 am, a constable named Devendra from Gangapur city in the Sawaimadhopur district had received the question paper on his phone. Batti Lal Meena alias Vikas Meena, who had got the paper, sent the solved question paper to a person named Ashish, on WhatsApp.
Both of Ashish’s sisters were to appear for the exam. However, Ashish couldn’t forward it to them due to the internet suspension. Then he called police constable Devendra, whose wife was to take the exam as well, to meet. Devendra took a photo of the paper from Ashish’s phone and informed head constable Yudhveer, whose wife was also an applicant. Both constables were suspended later.
The state suspended 20 government employees, including one Rajasthan Administrative Service (RAS) officer, two Rajasthan Police Service (RPS) officers, one district education officer (DEO), 12 teachers, and three police personnel.
“That REET is an exam is a total fraud. The state government is responsible for it because the chief minister and chief secretary were monitoring everything. Nothing was in control of the Secondary Board of Education which was conducting the exam,” senior BJP leader and former minister Arun Chaturvedi told The Wire.
During the exam, police also arrested several dummy candidates and gangs who facilitated cheating in different districts, according to officials. Most of the suspended employees are from the Sawaimadhopur district. Despite a dozen arrests, the police could not explain how the paper was leaked.
“It does not speak well of the government’s measures. There were some lacunae which the government has not been able to plug over the years. The complete system is failing, and there is a need to improve it,” said Jaipur-based senior journalist Anil Sharma. “Over the years, in all big examinations in Rajasthan, the government has failed in its responsibility.”
Political links of the mastermind
Numerous reports suggest that Batti Lal Meena alias Vikas Meena is the mastermind behind the REET cheating scam, but the police have not been able to nab him yet. Meena’s pictures with both BJP and Congress politicians, including the education minister and state Congress chief Govind Singh Dotasara, are doing rounds on social media.
Talking to reporters on October 2, Dotasara said, “Whether it is Batti Lal or anyone, we are ready to probe everything transparently. But first, they (BJP) should give us some proof of the paper leak or irregularities or cheating. They are just diverting students who neither studied well nor done the exam well.”
While in a press conference on September 3, Special Operations Group additional director general Ashok Rathod said, “We will expose the whole paper leak racket that has seen the arrest of a total of 10 people. Battilal’s brother Rajesh has been arrested from Madhya Pradesh and raids are being conducted to nab him too.”
According to Batti Lal Meena’s Facebook page, he is a resident of Sawaimadhopur district and identifies himself as a Congress leader. He campaigned for Congress candidates in local elections and often took part in National Students Union of India (NSUI) programmes. His pictures with various public figures include Om Birla and Kirodi Meena of the BJP to Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Srinivas B.V. He is also photographed with state NSUI chief Abhishek Poonia and Rajasthan Public Service Commission (RPSC) chairman Bhupendra Yadav.
MP Kirodi, who was pictured with Meena, told The Wire, “I don’t know him. Even I am demanding his arrest. He might have taken the photo with me in the crowd.”
According to sources, he paid visits to Dotasara’s office, along with state Congress secretary Desh Raj Meena, whose brother Kulraj Meena is posted as sub-divisional magistrate at Laxmangarh, the hometown of the education minister.
The BJP has demanded the arrest of mastermind Batti Lal Meena, a CBI inquiry and the resignation of Dotasara. It further stated that chief minister Ashok Gehlot should sack Dotasara if he fails to resign.
BJP leaders Vasundhra Raje, Gajendra Singh Singh Shekhawat, Satish Poonia, among others slammed the government over the issue and accused it of corruption. Various hashtags such as #GehlotWeak_PaperLeak, #भ्रष्ट_शिक्षामंत्री_डोटासरा, #REET_JEN_SI_परीक्षा_रद्द_करो among others trended on Twitter.
A petition was filed by a REET candidate before the Rajasthan high court requesting a Central to probe into the matter and cancel the exam. It also accused the Rajasthan government of alleged involvement. The petitioner Bhagchand Sharma is from Jaipur and is unemployed. However, he has MSc, BEd degrees along with others.
Speaking to news agency ANI on Monday, October 4, chief minister Ashok Gehlot said, “The state government managed the entire REET process very well. The news of the paper being circulated… whether the Congress or the BJP is in power, action will be taken in the REET matter.”
RAS exam controversy
The Congress government in the state was also embroiled in the controversy of the RAS exams, when education minister Dotasara was accused of favouritism during the 2016 and 2018 exams.
Dotasara’s daughter-in-law’s brother Gaurav and sister Prabha scored 80 out of 100 marks in the interview round of RAS 2018. However, in the written examination, Gaurav and Prabha secured only 49.75% and 47.44% respectively. Their scores raised suspicion, since only six applicants among the top 16 had secured 80 or more, including topper Mukta Rao, who secured 77 marks.
Dotasara’s daughter-in-law Pratibha herself cleared the RAS 2016 with 50.25% in the written exam and 80 in the interview. His son Avinash had also cleared the exam in the same year with 86 marks in the interview.
“It isn’t a coincidence for sure that all the three relatives of the education minister got 80 marks in the interview. REET also comes under him,” said Arun Chaturvedi.
These allegations emerged in the backdrop of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) busting a RAS bribing scandal.
Apart from this, three, including the principal of a government institution, were also arrested for irregularities.
Accusations against Rajasthan PSC
The arrests and allegations relating to the RAS exam shed the spotlight on the RPSC, which conducts most of the government exams in the state. The board members of RPSC interview candidates during RAS exams.
Appointments of individuals with a political background are a common feature at the RPSC, with former bureaucrats, their relatives and political leaders making it to the board. Apart from the chairman, there are seven members on the board.
Currently, the chairman of the RPSC board is Bhupendra Yadav, who was appointed soon after taking voluntary retirement as the director general of police (DGP). The other members on the panel include Sangeeta Arya, Manju Sharma, Jaswant Singh Rathi, Shiv Singh Rathore, Rajkumari Gurjar, Babulal Katara and Ramu Ram Raika.
Sangeeta Arya is the wife of chief secretary Niranjan Arya, and she unsuccessfully contested the 2013 assembly elections from the Sojat seat on a Congress ticket. Manju Sharma is a lecturer and the wife of poet and former Aam Admi Party leader Kumar Vishwas. Rajkumari Gurjar had served as the state vice president of the BJP Mahila Morcha and is the daughter of former MLA Umrao Singh Gurjar.
The name of Rajkumari Gurjar and her husband, former IPS Bheru Singh Gurjar, had surfaced in an RPSC bribery case in July this year. While Jaswant Singh Rathi is a senior journalist, Shiv Singh Rathore, Babulal Katara and Ramu Ram Raika are academicians.
Retired IAS officer and former secretary of Rajasthan Public Service Commission Rajendra Bhanawat told The Wire, “We have seen this in the past too, that most members aren’t appointed to the RPSC because of their merit or calibre, but due to their political affiliations. If you appoint people of calibre and merit in RPSC, the overall quality of selection and interview will certainly go up.”
Rajasthan ranked second in the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s report on crime in India 2020, in which 664 cases were filed in the state under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Rajasthan was also ranked the most corrupt state by the India Corruption Survey conducted by Transparency International India.
All the activists, journalists, politicians and experts that The Wire spoke to for this story, reiterated that this can’t happen without the involvement of someone from within the system; the exam could have been conducted in a phased manner and a strict law against cheating should be introduced.
Rising unemployment in the state
According to a report published by India Spend in 2019, an aspirant spends an average of three years and three months preparing for competitive exams. However, according to their qualitative findings, this number hugely underrepresents the time usually invested by those vying for government jobs. The average annual expenditure of an individual preparing for a competitive exam in Jaipur is Rs 1,95,130 with 57% of them belonging to the lower-income group (monthly family income less than Rs 20,0000).
Government jobs have always been sought-after, but given the loopholes in the system, the future of lakhs of aspirants is at stake. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)’s monthly data, Rajasthan’s rate of unemployment spiked to 53.5% during the lockdown period from May 2020 to October 2020. Their latest report suggests that Rajasthan has the second-highest unemployment rate in India, at 26.7%.
“It is a crime against the youth of the country that you can’t even hold a single exam without either any flaws or problems. What could be more traumatic for hundreds of aspirants than exams being cancelled time and again,” said Bhanawat.
The high number of youth applying for low-grade jobs in the government departments represents Indians’ obsession with government jobs, on one hand, and India’s incapability to produce enough opportunities for its qualified youth, on the other.
Referring to the 25 million people that applied for low-grade jobs in the Indian Railways, former RBI governor Raghu Rajan said in an interview to NDTV in 2019, “This is a reflection of the fact that we have a real job problem. Despite 7% growth, it is not producing jobs.”
However, for a large number of students in Rajasthan who aim to become Indian Administrative Service officers, the job of a government teacher or librarian comes as a backup option, which provides financial stability, and also because the teaching jobs give them time for self-study, unlike others.
Twenty-one-year-old REET applicant Karan Singh said, “My ultimate goal is to become an IAS officer. Teaching is not my life. Being a government teacher, I can prepare properly by even earning some money.”
It is also the same story of Gopal Saraswat, who after his father’s death had decided to become a government officer by first getting “any grade government job”. But the future of Karan, Giri and lakhs of other aspirants are left in a lurch as the government is struggling to hold at least one exam smoothly without any controversy.
Devendra Pratap Singh Shekhawat is a journalist based in Rajasthan.