In an ongoing investigation into a cash-for-admissions racket, the enrolments of 1,080 students in a pre-medical course in Madhya Pradesh state in central India between 2009 and 2013 have been cancelled. The scam, initially exposed in 2013, and two recent high-profile deaths linked to it have sent shock waves across the country.
There have been more than 2,000 arrests so far. Five hundred people are still on the run and media have reported that there have been at least 40 deaths of people either accused in the case or who have benefitted from it.
Millions of rupees are believed to have changed hands in what some have described as India’s biggest-ever rigging case.
The Indian public has been stunned by the brazen manner in which the corruption in higher education – which has also involved entrance exams and admissions in other fields including banking, forestry and policing – has been carried out.
The large-scale rigging of university places happened with the compliance of officials at the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, or MPPEB.
The board – also known by its popular Hindi acronym Vyapam – is responsible for conducting all entrance and recruitment tests in the state. The entrance exams are used to select people into government jobs, as well as into higher education institutions.
Parents of students who used unfair means to enter higher education, have admitted to paying hefty bribes to ‘proxy’ students, or officials of the MPPEB, to help their children crack the pre-medical test as well as other recruitment exams.
High profile deaths
As investigating agencies grapple with the sheer magnitude of the organised racket, now dubbed the ‘Vyapam scam’, two recent high-profile deaths of people related to the case have created a bloody trail and an atmosphere of fear in the state.
Akshay Singh, a television journalist with the India Today group, died on 4 July under mysterious circumstances hours after interviewing the parents of medical student Namrata Damor. A suspect in the Vyapam scam, Damor was found dead three years ago. It is now believed that Damor was murdered and did not commit suicide as a state police report previously claimed.
The next day, on 5 July, Dr Arun Sharma – dean of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Medical College in Jabalpur – was found dead in a hotel room in New Delhi.
Sharma was part of the investigating team of the Medical Council of India, or MCI, which was looking into the pre-medical test scam. Just a year before, Sharma’s predecessor died due to extensive burn injuries, under equally mysterious circumstances. He too was investigating the pre-medical test fraud.
The Madhya Pradesh Special Task Force, set up by the state’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to investigate the scam, admitted to the state high court that at least 23 deaths in the last few years of people either accused or beneficiaries in the scam, was “unnatural”.
Meanwhile, at least 40 students of the College of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry in Mhow have quit their courses midway. It is claimed that they feared being exposed, and that many of them withdrew all their certificates from the college.
These developments followed close on the heels of last month’s death of Narendra Tomar, a former student at the college who was one of the accused in the Vyapam scam. Tomar had been jailed, and his death while in prison remains unsolved.
The Supreme Court of India has now stepped in and ordered that all issues relating to the case as well as unnatural deaths in its wake be referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation or CBI. It has asked the CBI to let it know by the end of this month if the court should monitor the probe.
The state government had been stalling a CBI enquiry, insisting that the state task force was able to probe the matter effectively.
The Vyapam scam was allegedly run by Dr Jagdish Sagar and accomplices, many of them from the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board. Sagar was arrested along with executive exam controller Pankaj Trivedi and systems analyst Nitin Mahindra of MPPEB, in 2013.
The scam’s modus operandi reportedly worked in three ways.
- One was to get impersonators who had already written the pre-medical test, to write it on behalf of beneficiary students.
- Another was to rejig seating arrangements so that beneficiary students would be seated next to star performers and be able to copy answers.
- Also, some students were allowed to leave blank answer sheets, which corrupt officials at the exam centre later filled in with the correct answers.
Top state politicians and bureaucrats, and many others, are suspected of involvement in the racket.
Former state education minister, Laxmikant Sharma, was arrested in connection with the case and suspicion has also allegedly fallen on present state Governor Ram Naresh Yadav whose son, Shailesh Yadav – also suspected to be part of the scam – was found dead early last month.
Cases of irregularities in MPPEB exams have been reported sporadically since 2000. But this was not considered as part of a larger scam until 2009, when major complaints about the pre-medical test surfaced. Two whistle blowers helped to uncover the magnitude of the fraud.
Subsequently a special committee was set up by the Madhya Pradesh government to investigate irregularities. The committee submitted a report in 2011. Based on its findings, the Special Task Force was set up in 2012 by the state government.
However, details of the scam only broke into the public domain in 2013, when police arrested 20 impersonators in the pre-medical test entrance exams.
It appears that the massive scam will take considerably more time to unravel. Despite the crackdown, there appears to be no way of ensuring that students who may have gained admission to medical colleges fraudulently, are not already working as medical doctors.
Medical exam fraud is ‘biggest education scam’
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