In India’s richest state, exam scams kill escape from farm crisis

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In January this year, the 40-year-old woke at 6am in his remote village in India’s western state of Maharashtra and quietly walked to his 2-hectare (5-acre) farm – on which the millet crop was about to be harvested – to end his life.

Just as he was about to swallow a bottle of pesticide, his grandfather shouted at him, making Kale pause. The old man then rushed towards Kale and snatched the bottle from his hands.

“I had hit rock bottom,” he told Al Jazeera. “I couldn’t think of a reason to live.”

Kale comes from a part of India that is well familiar with suicide deaths. Maharashtra state has India’s largest economy by far. But that wealth does not reach Kale’s rural district of Beed in the western agrarian region of Marathwada, now famous for its farmer suicides. According to official estimates, the region recorded more than 26,000 farmer suicides between 2013 and 2022 – an average of seven a day.

The suicides in Marathwada have been triggered by falling crop prices, rising inflation and climate change, with the average farm household income being as low as 11,492 rupees a month ($138), according to government figures, forcing farmers to think of alternative income sources for survival.

But unlike thousands from Marathwada, the farm crisis was not the immediate trigger for Kale to try to take his life.

An exam scam was what drove him to that extreme step.

‘Scam their way to the top’

Amid the deepening agricultural crisis, tens of thousands of children of farmers have been taking online exams for various government jobs, seeking a better future than their parents. While the exams for the government’s top jobs – the so-called Class 1 and Class 2 positions – are conducted by a state body, the lower-grade tests for positions like clerks, village accountants and teachers are contracted out to private companies.

According to complaints filed with police, the lower-grade exams are plagued with rampant corruption and paper leaks, allowing those with influence or money to “buy” government jobs, cutting the chances of poorer aspirants and denying them a fair shot.

Kale is a victim of this. For the past 10 years, he has been trying to get out of farming and land a government job – without success.

“I come from a drought-prone region where we hardly break even as farmers,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is frustrating to see people scam their way to the top while I work hard and get nothing in return.”

In August and September last year, the Maharashtra government conducted the examinations with the help of a private software company to recruit village accountants across the state. More than a million people applied and just more than 850,000 took the test for a mere 4,600 vacancies.

“Such is the level of desperation,” local political activist Dhananjay Shinde told Al Jazeera. “The state charges a non-refundable 1,000 rupees [$12] from each applicant. That means they collected 1bn rupees [$12m] from people who primarily come from very poor families.”

In the past eight years, Kale filled out the forms for more than three dozen such exams, spending nearly 40,000 rupees ($490) in search of a government job. “Who will give me my money back?” he asked. “You are charging us an amount. The least you could do is ensure a fair examination.”

However, instances of paper leaks and fraud in the 2023 exams were reported from at least seven districts of Maharashtra – Nashik, Ahmednagar, Wardha, Amravati, Sangli, Latur and Aurangabad. Al Jazeera has copies of the First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by the police in each district. Registration of an FIR means the police have recognised that an offence has been committed.

On August 29 last year, two candidates in Latur passed the online exam for village accountants. According to the FIR filed by police last month, one of them confessed that he had paid 2.7 million rupees ($32,500) to a man to cheat in the exam.

Once he logged in on his computer to take the test, he found two cursors on his screen – one his own and the other of the man outside who had remote access to his desktop. The candidate had to simply select the answers the other cursor pointed at, helping him pass the test.

That same month, police in Nashik arrested an accused man and checked the electronic tablet he was carrying. It had 186 photographs of the question paper of the village accountant exam under way at the time. Police said he was supplying answers to some candidates sitting inside the examination centre via Bluetooth and spy cameras.

The man was also accused in identical FIRs filed by the Maharashtra police in 2021 and 2022 when he was charged with leaking the questions for the tests conducted to recruit people in the state’s police and housing departments. But he absconded at the time. Now, he is out on bail, according to Police Inspector Subhash Dhavale at the Mhasrul police station in the city of Nashik.

In February, another man was found in Amravati with a document containing the 100 questions to be asked for clerical posts in the state’s soil and water conservation department, according to the police FIR. Local media reports said three employees of the private firm contracted to conduct the examination were also arrested for being complicit in the paper leak.

On September 6 last year, police in Aurangabad said they noticed four men talking suspiciously outside an exam room. One of them was caught while the others ran away. The police checked the caught man’s mobile phone and found 34 questions being circulated via the Telegram app, according to the FIR.

“These are just instances where people have been caught,” said activist Shinde. “This is a proper racket to ensure people close to political leaders get in. The state here is complicit in keeping the deserving candidates sidelined. It has a terrible impact on their mental health.”

‘Needs a lot of heart to keep going’

Kale took the September test in Aurangabad, a city about 125km (78 miles) from his hometown, where he attended most of his exams.

Three months after wallowing in sadness over failing the September test, Kale decided to end his misery.

“My family and relatives kept asking me if I was ever going to get a job,” he told Al Jazeera. “It made me feel guilty and useless. I couldn’t go on with this depression. If my grandfather hadn’t stopped me, I wouldn’t be speaking to you.”

Others in Maharashtra were less fortunate.

In April 2022, a 20-year-old candidate from the Wardha district took his life. Media reports then claimed the reason behind his death was corruption in the government’s competitive exams, paper leaks and delays in announcing results.

“It needs a lot of heart to keep going,” Manisha Gosavi, 41, who has narrowly missed out on a government job for five years, told Al Jazeera.

Gosavi was born to small farmers in the Satara district, another farming region in western Maharashtra. She moved to Pune, 112km (70 miles) away, after her marriage.

“I concentrated on my family for the past 15-20 years,” she said. “I raised two kids who are now old enough to look after themselves. I now wanted to make a name for myself.”

When she was 36, Gosavi resumed her education and became a graduate. Since then, she has sat for government exams, which have been marred by frequent paper leaks.

“As a woman, I understand the importance of financial independence,” she said. “Currently, my husband is the only earning member. He works in a private lab. I want to contribute to the household and ease his burden.”

In 2018, dozens of candidates shortchanged over persistent corruption in the state exams came together and formed a group called the Spardha Pariksha Samanvay Samiti, or Competitive Examination Coordination Committee.

The group, along with Shinde, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court last September, demanding the cancellation of the appointment of 4,600 village accountants after several instances of fraud were reported.

Their larger demand is the formation of a special investigation team to look into the extent of the fraud and not just arrest individuals but also act against officials in the state administration involved in the scam, as suspected by the victims and the activists.

The PIL also urges the Maharashtra government to conduct the examinations and not outsource them to private companies. The petitioners cite an increase in the instances of fraud since 2017, when a United States-based IT company and an Indian company were awarded contracts to conduct the tests.

Six months after it was filed, the PIL is yet to be heard by the high court.

‘Just auction the vacancies off’

Between 2017 and 2019, an unprecedented 25,000 vacancies were filled in Maharashtra for lower-grade jobs after 3.5 million aspirants sat the exams.

However, authorities in Ahmednagar, while shortlisting candidates for revenue officers’ positions, found that several applicants had managed to pass the test with the alleged help of dummy candidates. The district administration prepared a 12-page report and sent it to the government, which ordered an immediate audit of the tests by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

The PwC audit revealed a statewide, well-oiled scam in the exams conducted by Maharashtra’s Ministry of General Administration (GAD), which was handled by the then-Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, currently the state’s deputy chief minister and home minister.

In 2017, when Fadnavis was the chief minister, his government set up an entity called Maha-IT to facilitate the online exam. The PwC audit found that Maha-IT had not taken enough measures to ensure fair exams. It revealed irregularities in the appointments of invigilators, the spacing between candidates in exam halls and even the absence of security personnel in the venues, leading to cheating and paper leaks.

Al Jazeera sent a questionnaire to Fadnavis and his media adviser, Ketan Pathak, but has not received a response.

In November 2019, the Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government fell in Maharashtra and was replaced by a coalition of three parties – Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. Though the government of Uddhav Thackeray, the new chief minister, did not follow up on the PwC audit, it dissolved Maha-IT and scrapped the exam process implemented by the firm. Instead, the contract to conduct the exams was given to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a global IT corporation, and the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection, a recruitment agency under the federal Finance Ministry.

The paper leaks continued under their governance as well. Al Jazeera sent detailed questions on allegations of the scams to TCS but the firm has not responded.

In June 2022, 40 legislators from the Shiv Sena broke from their party, overthrowing the sitting government. Fadnavis was back in power as the deputy chief minister in a new coalition with the breakaway Shiv Sena lawmakers. The latest scams that Kale found himself trapped in last year occurred under the current government.

Two senior bureaucrats in the Maharashtra department that handles the state exams refused to comment, despite several phone calls. Rajesh Kumar, the chief secretary of the revenue department, did not respond to messages and phone calls. Sarita Narke, the state director of the revenue department, disconnected the phone call and told this reporter to send a message as to the purpose of the call. Upon sending the message, she did not respond.

However, in January this year, Fadnavis had told reporters the village accountant exams held in August and September 2023 were “conducted with transparency and if there is any proof of irregularities, the state will investigate it”.

“If the proof is accurate, the exams will be cancelled and the guilty will be punished,” he said, according to local media reports.

At about the same time, Maharashtra’s Revenue Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil said those alleging financial irregularities in the exams would be charged, claiming that the tests held to recruit village accountants were fair.

However, Nilesh Gaikwad, one of the founders of the Competitive Examination Coordination Committee, questioned why thousands of people who got state jobs between 2017 and 2019 continue to be in service, despite the widespread allegations of fraud.

“Even after it has been proved that the vacancies were filled fraudulently, shouldn’t the exams be taken again?” the 33-year-old asked. “Shouldn’t the appointments be cancelled? Otherwise, stop this charade of conducting online examinations. Just auction the vacancies off.”

As irregularities continue, as observed in the recently concluded village accountant exams, the candidates wanting to lift their families out of poverty continue to suffer.

“Our situation is so bad that nobody wants to marry into a farm household. If the state had conducted the exams fairly, I would have had a job. If I had a job, I would have been married. I would have had a family,” Kale told Al Jazeera.

“When one family member has a job, it keeps the entire household afloat. It helps ensure two meals a day because farming no longer does that.”

Source: Al Jazeera