The layers are coming off the mystery surrounding the scams carried out during the entrance exams for the Staff Selection Commission. The case with the malpractices during the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) board exams is similar.

A retired official who once led an investigation into a similar case believes it is a quagmire: the more one digs, the more dirt one is likely to find.

Playing with the future of young people is not a new tradition. Let me share a personal story with you.

I completed high school in 1975 at Mainpuri, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. My school was affiliated with the Board of High School and Intermediate Education, Uttar Pradesh. At that time it was reputed to be the biggest board in the country. My centre for exams was at the Sri Chitragupta Inter College. Located in the middle of Mainpuri, the college was surrounded by shops and commercial establishments where the town’s disreputable characters assembled during the exams. Their own educational credentials may have been questionable but when it came to helping others cheat in exams, they enjoyed a cult status.

Students who took it easy through the year were eager to grease their palms during the exam season. There were others who spent the entire year worshipping them. Apart from the entertainment, there was a guarantee that they would help them sail through. Some students from the town addressed them as khalifa (don). Before the exam they would strike a deal with an invigilator, peon, teacher, or clerk so that the question paper was sent out immediately after distribution. On the streets outside youngsters awaited the emergence of these question papers. As soon as they received the question paper, it was handed over to a senior student or teacher who would begin solving it. The solved question papers were then wrapped over pebbles and thrown into the school complex, where they reached the recipient. Such was the reputation and fear of these dons that the operation was completed without any hitch.

This was the scenario when Emergency had been imposed in the country. Vinoba Bhave, the national saint, had described it as anushasan parva (time for discipline) around the same time.

The situation was tragic for students like us who felt contempt for those cheating in exams. We were hit hard from both sides. On one side was the fear of lagging those who indulged in cheating. On the other, those correcting copies sitting in remote districts marked the papers strictly. They were not wrong. Certain districts were infamous for cheating and every candidate came under suspicion. The innocents got tainted for no fault of their own.

Despite all this, I believe those days were better because cheating in exams and corruption in competitive exams was just a social evil. It had not yet assumed the status of an industry.

These malpractices have evolved into an established industry in certain North Indian states. When a Nitish Kumar or Yogi Adityanath orders a crackdown on cheating, most students can’t even summon the courage to take the exams. The drop in the number of candidates and results last year in both states was because of these measures.

You may have noticed that immediately after the results certain people alleged that this was a failure of governance. This is a time-tested ploy. During the reign of Kalyan Singh, this lobby was so strong that it even left an adverse impact on the election results. Since then, politicians have avoided intervening in these matters. Not just this, some of them has personally benefited from this.

A recent survey conducted by the non-profit Pratham revealed that one in 10 children aged between four years and 18 years could not read textbooks for Class I or Class II in their native language. These were books prescribed for children aged between five and seven. Not just this, 36% of students in rural India didn’t even know the name of their national capital. As many as 57% of students in this age group couldn’t carry out divisions of three-digit numbers.

Until when will this catastrophic crisis in our education continue? Why are India’s lawmakers, who are ready to take umbrage at the drop of a hat, silent on this serious matter?

Shashi Shekhar is editor in chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin

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