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  • 14 Jul, 2024

Millions of students at risk: India's elite exam hit by corruption scandal

Millions of students at risk: India's elite exam hit by corruption scandal

More than three million candidates sat the exams for India's top medical science colleges. Their futures are now uncertain due to leaked documents, arrests and increasing calls for investigations.

NEW DELHI, India - Amid mounting evidence of corruption and leaks, India's premier exam for admission to medical schools and research programs is under unprecedented scrutiny, putting the futures of more than 3 million students in limbo.

The National Testing Agency (NTA), an autonomous body under the Indian Ministry of Education responsible for conducting the exams nationwide, has been at the center of a controversy over the integrity of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), the national exam for doctors. Students sat the exam last month. The results on June 4 revealed rigging of grades and a huge increase in overachievers, leading to a spate of arrests across the country on suspicion of leaks and fraud worth millions of dollars.

Since then, several students have appealed to the Supreme Court and state high courts, staged protests in scorching heat, and organized campaigns on social media platforms demanding an independent investigation and rehearing. Around 2.4 million candidates sat the NEET exam, competing for 100,000 spots in medical schools.  On June 19, Narendra Modi's newly formed coalition government also canceled the National Eligibility Test (NET), which screens candidates for publicly funded research fellowships, a day after one million students had written the exam. India's Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said on Thursday that this was after reports that the questions had been leaked on the "dark web" and spread on Telegram.

But the minister did not say how the exam was compromised. "The leaking of the questions is a systemic failing of the NTA. A reform committee will be set up and I will ensure that action is taken," he said. "We will not compromise on transparency. The health of students is our number one priority."

Meanwhile, opposition leaders and legal experts have criticized the Modi government for failing to tackle corruption in the country's elite exam, which decides who will become doctors and scientists. "The IRS literally has only one job (to conduct audits), which it has failed miserably at," says Rishi Shukla, a Lucknow-based legal scholar who has assisted in several cases against the IRS.

"The careers and lives of millions of students are at risk. These audit discrepancies point to large-scale corruption."

 Impossible figures and "vain dreams"

As India focuses on the results of the June 4 general election, the NEET results have surprised students and teachers alike. 67 students secured perfect 720 out of 720 marks, compared with just two last year. Two years ago, the top scorer got 715 points, but this year the candidate who got that score was ranked 225th.

At least two students got 719 and 718 points out of 720, which is a statistically impossible result in the NEET marking system (+4 for a correct answer, -1 for an incorrect answer), further raising doubts about the claims of several students that the results were rigged.

In response, the NTA defended itself by claiming that several students received "grace points", which are given at the discretion of the examiner if the candidate lost time during the exam due to factors beyond their control.

"The loss of examination time was confirmed and the candidates concerned were given grace points. Therefore, the candidates' marks could have been 718 or 719," the NTA wrote to X. However, the agency has not revealed the conditions for awarding the extra points.

Finally, she told the Supreme Court hearing that the authorities will cancel the delayed points and conduct a re-examination for the 1,563 students who received those points.

"There have been problems with the NTA's implementation since the NEET exam began this year," said Shukla, a jurist who has written to the Supreme Court and the NTA seeking an impartial investigation under court supervision.

"The agency was set up in 2013 with an aim to centralise auditing and prevent paper leaks and lower-level corruption. But now they have lost face." 

NEET tests students in physics, biology and chemistry with 180 questions and the exam is held at over 4,500 centres across the country, where students answer multiple-choice questions by filling in circles corresponding to different answers. While in 2023, 304 students achieved 700  or more marks, this year the number has risen to 2,100. Placement in the highly competitive NEET is key to gaining admission to medical colleges in India.

In a press statement, the NTA said the high scores were due to a wider candidate pool, which will grow by almost 300,000 from 2023. But apart from questions about the integrity of the exam, this year's unusually high results have raised another challenge. Previously, an average of 550 marks guaranteed admission to state medical colleges, which account for a total of 56,000 spots.

Not anymore. The rest are private schools, where tuition fees are exponentially higher than state universities. 

For aspirants like 19-year-old Pratibha, this reality means the end of a dream. She said she doesn't trust the IRS's promised retests for high-performing students.

"This retest is a window dressing because the government is clearly protecting corrupt people," she said from her home in Odisha state on India's east coast, asking not to use her last name for fear of punitive action.

"I spent my teenage years working towards this dream of wearing a white coat," Pratibha said, breaking down in tears over the phone. "Now it all seems like a waste of time. I have good grades but no rank. My family doesn't have the money to send me to a private school."

What is the value of the NEET document?

India's Education Minister Pradhan vehemently denied any possibility of a NEET paper leak last week. But police in the eastern state of Bihar, where Pradhan's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governs as part of a coalition government, claim to have obtained a confession disclosing the leak of the paper.

A senior police official in Patna, Bihar's capital, confirmed to Al Jazeera that one of the men arrested for the alleged leak confessed to accessing the paper on the eve of the NEET exam and receiving around $36,000 for it. Under Indian law, confessions to police are not admissible as evidence in court.

Reacting to the Bihar police findings, Pradhan said on Thursday night that his ministry was in touch with the police and was waiting for a detailed report. But he rejected calls for a reconsideration of NEET, unlike NET. "Some errors will be confined to certain regions. The culprits, including tax officials, will not be spared," he said. "An isolated incident (the Bihar leak) should not affect lakhs of students who took their exams seriously. One lakh is an Indian unit of measurement, so one lakh equals one lakh."

But the arrests in Bihar are not "isolated incidents."

In the western state of Gujarat, home to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and also ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, police have revealed details of a scam in recent days in which at least 30 students from far-flung parts of India showed up at the centre.  They reportedly paid between $12,000 and $50,000 to pass the exam. Tutoring centres, teachers and exam centre supervisors were commissioned for this purpose. Five people have been arrested so far as part of this investigation.

On June 20, as New Delhi was hit by a heatwave, Varun Choudhury, national president of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the opposition Congress party, rallied protesting students and arrived at Education Minister Pradhan's residence. They were quickly taken away by police. 

Chodhury told Al Jazeera that protesters had thrown counterfeit notes outside Pradhan's residence in New Delhi, saying, "We are ready to fund this corrupt minister but only because we have to secure the future of our students." There is no evidence that the government minister committed any wrongdoing in the conduct of the exams.

"This is probably the first time that a thief has confessed to the robbery while saying that the owner is fine," he said, referring to the confession alleged by police. "The NTA has failed to conduct audits and is at the epicenter of these leaks. We demand a ban on the NTA and [Pradhan's] resignation."

"The government is playing with the future of over three million students," he said. "Now there is deep distrust between students and the exams." Is this the fear we want to instill in future doctors and scientists?"

After hearing the batch of appeals, the Supreme Court also criticised the NTA, saying, "Even 0.001% negligence needs to be thoroughly investigated."

The court, however, did not ask for a postponement of the allotment of medical study places under NEET, scheduled for July 1. The next hearing in the case will be on July 8.

One Nation, One Test?

Meanwhile, many opposition leaders have criticised NEET for replacing a series of exams conducted by state governments with a single national test, and have taken aim at the Modi government's handling of medical examinations.

MK Stalin, chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, said, "Tamil Nadu was the first state to say NEET is a scam and now the whole country is saying so too." "We will one day put an end to this situation. It is our responsibility. Social, economic and political circumstances should not be an obstacle to education." 

Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of neighbouring Kerala state, also accused the Union government of "gross inefficiency" that is undermining the credibility of state exams. "This repeated incompetence is unacceptable. It is making students guess and wasting public money," he wrote on X. 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday harshly criticised Modi, saying, "It is said that Modi ended the war between Russia and Ukraine." But for some reason, Narendra Modi has been unable and unwilling to stop the paper leak in India.

Ahead of the 2024 elections, Bharatiya Janata Party advertisements suggested that Modi had halted the war between Russia and Ukraine to ensure the escape of Indian students trapped in  war zones, a claim that the country's foreign ministry itself  rejected.

Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, called for a court-supervised investigation. "Those guilty must receive the severest punishment," he wrote in an email to X. 

The NEET-NET controversy comes amid growing doubts about India's competitive exam industry.

Every year, thousands of student flock to tutoring centers that have mushroomed in cities such as Kota in the western state of Rajasthan, claiming to know the magic tricks needed to get students into top engineering or medical schools. But the dingy classrooms and high-pressure atmosphere of these coaching centres bring dreams of success as well as nightmares. The ever-rising suicide statistics in cities like Kota have even inspired a Netflix series and several feature films.

Just a week before the NEET exam, another student was found hanging in his room in the dusty city of Kota. "Sorry dad, I couldn't make it this year either," read a note found next to his body. The student had missed out on college admission in his last two attempts and was due to take the test for the third time. His suicide was the 10th in Kota since January this year.

"We have turned our education system into a pressure cooker that has been exploding for some time. Such centralised exam mismanagement can cause irreparable trauma to students," said the dean of a prestigious government medical college in Rajasthan state. He spoke on condition of anonymity to "save" his job.