New law targets centralized exam paper leaks, ignores state-level fraud concern

  • The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, came into effect on 21 June following a notification by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances, and Pensions.

Krishna Yadav
First Published24 Jun 2024, 08:00 AM IST
The new law solely focuses on centralized exams, omitting the scope to address malpractices in other forms of examinations.(Photo: HT)
The new law solely focuses on centralized exams, omitting the scope to address malpractices in other forms of examinations.(Photo: HT)( )

The government's new law on public exams aims to curb paper leaks, dismantle organized cheating and hold the National Testing Agency (NTA) accountable. However, it solely focuses on centralized exams, leaving out malpractices in other forms of examinations, experts said.

The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, came into effect on 21 June following a notification by the ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions. 

Read | Government forms panel to improve NTA as NEET, UGC-NET controversies rage

Punishable offences under the law include unauthorized access or leakage of question papers or answer keys, providing illicit assistance to candidates during exams, tampering with computer networks or resources, and manipulating documents related to merit lists or ranks. 

Both individuals and institutions could face imprisonment ranging from three to five years, coupled with fines of up to 10 lakh. 

Legal experts acknowledged the need for such legislation and hailed it as the first of its kind in India to curb organized crime networks behind paper leaks and hold government bodies like the NTA accountable. 

However, they pointed to several shortcoming.

One of them is the exclusion of state exams such as the UP police recruitment exam from its purview. This leaves it for states to come up with their own such laws.

And this | Heartburn at coaching centres as NEET lands in court

"The Act has the authority to legislate on examination malpractices, specifically focusing on public examinations conducted by entities defined in the schedule of the Act or notified authorities. Currently, this includes examinations by seven bodies, such as the Union Public Service Commission and the Staff Selection Commission, falling under its purview. However, state-conducted examinations, where paper leaks are notably more prevalent, are not covered. It is crucial that states establish robust mechanisms to address and prevent unfair practices and fraud in their public examinations," said Angad Baxi, principal associate at JSA Advocates and Solicitors.

Also this | How state-level school boards can promote educational equity

According to Baxi, while the Act is meant to serve as a model law for states, it's crucial to acknowledge that each state has unique job requirements. Not all states will be able to adopt identical model drafts. 

If a state opts not to enact a law, the only recourse available in case of paper leaks will be to follow the standard process of inquiry and investigation under general law. This poses a significant roadblock to implementing the law effectively at the grassroots level.

The experts Mint spoke to also pointed out other loopholes such as the absence of fixed timelines for agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe malpractices, with no interim measures in place during the probe.

"The Act does not specify timelines for completing investigations once they are lodged," noted Gauhar Mirza, partner at law firm Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas. 

Mirza added, "Another significant issue is the absence of guidelines on interim measures. For instance, in the current NEET (UG) case being investigated by the CBI, counselling is ongoing without any pause. This raises concerns: if the CBI finds anomalies and the exam is cancelled, what happens to candidates who have already undergone counselling? 

Will it result in trained doctors who may not have cleared a fair competitive exam? These are critical questions needing immediate attention, and the law should address provisions for interim measures."

Legal experts also highlighted loopholes such as the exemption of students from accountability under the law. This means that even if a student is found engaged in irregularities, they would not be punished under this law.

According to Mirza, "A first glance shows that the exemption clause that provides that the law does not apply to individuals who can prove that the offense occurred without their knowledge and that they tried their best to prevent it is an area which might be taken advantage of. The threshold of individuals has been kept very low."

Advocate Charu Mathur, one of the petitioners' lawyers against NTA in the Supreme Court, criticized the law as a quick-fix solution that fails to address the underlying issues. "Will this make the Chairperson liable? They need to get to the bottom and identify the real culprits," remarked Mathur.

"This law only focuses on punishment, but where are the reforms? We need to strengthen the system comprehensively, not just opt for piecemeal optics," she noted.

"The new Act emphasizes punishment, which is a necessary step. Alongside deterrents, it's crucial to address why students and institutions turn to cheating. Implementing technologies like digital question papers and online exams can reduce leaks. Educating students, educators, and parents about the consequences of cheating is essential. We also need to ease academic pressure with better resources and alternative paths to success. By focusing on prevention, we can ensure fair exams where success is earned through merit," suggested Rishi Sehgal, Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court of India.

According to a report by the Indian Express, there have been 41 documented instances of leaks in recruitment exams over the last five years across 15 states. These have impacted as many as 14 million applicants, who were competing for just 104,000 posts.

The enactment of the law follows widespread allegations of paper leaks in recent national exams such as NEET-UG 2024 and the cancellation of the UGC-NET, postponing of NEET-PG exam and the late night decision of govt to transfer matter of alleged irregularities in the NEET (UG) Examination 2024 to the CBI for a comprehensive investigation and eventually leading CBI to register the first FIR in the case.

The government also formed a high-level committee to provide recommendations for enhancing the structure, processes, data management, and security protocols of the National Testing Agency (NTA). 

Following the release of the NEET 2024 results on 4 June before its scheduled date, numerous discrepancies came to light, notably the unprecedented occurrence of 67 students achieving perfect scores of 720/720. Questions were raised regarding the legitimacy of these scores, especially with reports that six students from a single center in Haryana achieved perfect scores.

This led to uproar and widespread protests by students, coaching centres, and many social groups, which filed numerous petitions in the Supreme Court calling to completely scrap NEET-UG 2024 and this year, and some called for a retest.

This eventually led the government to withdraw grace marks given to 1,536 students, providing them with revised scores and the option to reappear for the exam.

Approximately 2.4 million candidates had participated in the entrance exam held on 5 May across 571 cities, including 14 centres located outside India.

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First Published:24 Jun 2024, 08:00 AM IST
HomeEconomyNew law targets centralized exam paper leaks, ignores state-level fraud concern

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