Easynomics: Of exam paper leaks, Byju’s, Kota Factory, and Dunki

Rashtriya Janata Dal student wing members at a protest march to Raj Bhawan in Patna, Bihar, over alleged irregularities in the NEET exam, (PTI)
Rashtriya Janata Dal student wing members at a protest march to Raj Bhawan in Patna, Bihar, over alleged irregularities in the NEET exam, (PTI)


  • The only way to ensure that leaking exam papers is no longer economically viable is to ensure that there are enough and more economic opportunities going around for those entering the workforce. Now, that’s easier said than done.

Let’s start this one with a story.

The summer of 1995 was hot like all Indian summers tend to be. And given how it is now, even then, exams happened bang in the middle of summer. Of course, in the erstwhile Bihar that I grew up in, summer and power cuts went together—or should we say load shedding—as bureaucratic as any everyday Indian term can get.

So, me and many others were writing our Intermediate Science (ISc) exams. Two mathematics papers were scheduled on the same day. If my memory serves me right, the first exam was to start at 9 am. Fifteen minutes before the exam, a friend and I were gently climbing stairs at the St. Xavier’s College in Ranchi to get to the exam hall.

In the more than five minutes that we leisurely took to get from the ground floor to the second floor, this friend laid out to me the questions that were expected in the exam. At that moment something that I had always heard of but never experienced came to be true: that exam papers were leaked.

But then these were the risks of not opting for a 10+2 course in a CBSE-affiliated school and going in for the Bihar Intermediate Education Council’s ISc course at the Xavier’s College. (Dilliwallahs, college can start earlier than a BA/BSc/BCom course. Mumbaikars, Junior College has other names). 

The trouble was that Ranchi at that point of time had very few good CBSE-affiliated schools, and the mark cutoffs for admission into those schools were quite crazy. And given that I was always an average student, I ended up in a college where the cutoffs were lower than in the best CBSE schools in the city.

Anyway, as I entered the exam hall, I was quite thrilled as I knew the answers to all the questions that were likely to be asked. Fifteen minutes later the question paper was distributed: The questions were exactly the same as I had been told.

A few hours later in the break between the two papers, the questions likely to come in the second mathematics paper were shared. And lo and behold, the questions were exactly the same as I was told they would be.

A few days later, the first paper of physics was scheduled. Again, the pattern repeated itself. Well, almost. As I made my way up to the exam hall, I was told about the questions that were likely to be asked. My confidence was high. I knew the answers to most of the questions that were likely to be asked, though not all.

Fifteen minutes later, the bomb dropped. The question paper had none of the questions from the leaked paper that had been sold to the world at large for around 200 a pop (well, it was the 1990s, things were a lot cheaper then.) Very soon, students started walking out one by one simply because they had only prepared for the questions that had been leaked and no more.

On top of that it was a difficult paper—not of a kind where one could just vomit what one had mugged up, which is how most school and college exams were back then. After the exam was over, the explanation offered was that the administrators had come to know that the paper had been leaked and so had changed it to the backup question paper, which apparently had also been prepared and printed.

A few days later a similar story played out with the first chemistry paper, with the final paper turning out to be very different from the leaked one.

Another few days later there was an announcement in the Ranchi Express—Ranchi’s favourite newspaper—that both the physics and the chemistry papers had been cancelled. It seems that the second version of the paper—which had led to walkouts in my college—too had been leaked in other parts of the state.

Of course, this meant that the already long examination season became even longer. Which meant that one had to continue preparing amid power cuts and the summer heat. Sometime later, after the exam results were announced and I had scored decent marks, I told my father that the exam papers had been leaked. And he very calmly remarked that you should have told me, I would have paid for it.

And that left me totally zapped, given that I had assumed that a proposition like that wouldn’t go down well with him. But his logic was that if you had prepared well for an exam, a leaked paper a few hours earlier could only be an icing on the cake, because whatever you could have learnt you possibly already had.

Now, what do they say about children never really getting around to knowing their parents. With due apologies to Karan Johar, it’s all about loving the parents without really knowing them.

All this happened nearly 30 years ago. But even now India is dealing with the same issue. Competitive exam papers are still being leaked. Government exam papers are still being leaked. And college exams papers are still being leaked.

Also read | There are no neat solutions to the country’s Neet fiasco

Even mindless action flicks—with loud background music, inane flashbacks and the action hero flying around kicking the baddies, of course, with a lot of VFX—are also back. Aamir, Shahrukh, Salman, Ajay and Akshay, are still big heroes, cavorting with heroines who were not born or were kids in the 1990s. 

Loose clothes are fashionable again. Campa Cola is back. Most TV is still shit and people are still watching Zee TV. Petty corruption is still a bane. Red tape still needs to be cut. The country still needs more economic reform and less economic gyan. People are still buying insurance policies to save taxes. And I am still listening to songs from the 1990s. Runa Laila and Aadesh Shrivastava have just finished singing Ali Baba Mil Gaya Chaalis Choron Se, from Al Pacino’s Scarface, oops Amitabh Bachchan’s Agneepath. And as I write this, Vijay Benedict is singing Ek Phool Sa Chehra Hai from Rahul “My Hair Won’t Sit Still" Roy’s 1991 movie Pyar Ka Saaya, Babbar Subhash’s scene-by-scene lift of the 1990 Hollywood movie Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and the woman better known as Whoopi Goldberg.

Sometimes I feel that the 1990s never left. Or that I am still living in the 1990s. But jokes apart, the fact that exam papers are still leaking is something that should be totally unacceptable to all of us. At the heart of this is simple economics. Any market transaction—which is what selling exam papers before the exam for a certain amount of money happens to be—is a demand-supply situation.

Or as I was told right after my exams in 1995, the question papers were allegedly leaked by a senior functionary in the education ministry of erstwhile Bihar. They were leaked in Patna and faxed around the state to the kingpins who ran the scam. They xeroxed the papers and then sold it on to students and their parents who were waiting and ready to pay.

So, there was demand from the end consumer—the students and their parents—and the supply was from someone working in a government institution. Of course, this was totally unethical and unfair. But then a market does not really care about ethics and fairness. If there is money to be made, someone out there will try to make it. Which is why you need an active government regulating and policing markets properly. But when the government itself becomes a part of the market, then the question of who will police the police arises.

Of course, many students and their parents were trying to outclass the competition by ensuring that they had access to questions before the exam. But I realized that even if you had access to the paper before the exam, you still had to be prepared for it, given that the paper was only leaked around midnight before the exam. And unless you were prepared, the paper was of little help, given that cramming up answers to 10-12 questions was simply not possible in the few remaining hours.

Of course, across large parts of Bihar at that point of time, the cheating option was also available, though not in my college.

More importantly, the checking of answer sheets in the Bihar that I grew up in could be quite random. Everything depended on whether the teacher checking was in the mood to check properly when your answer sheet came up for evaluation. Now, talk about the luck of the draw.

Indeed, things have changed since then. The exam paper leaking operation seems to be much more organized now. First, other than those leaking the papers there are also solver gangs, especially in the case of competitive exams, where questions are not very simple to answer. This market, like any other market, has evolved and created new job opportunities.

Second, those paying for the question papers have to pay a prohibitively high amount of money, unlike in the Bihar of the 1990s, when it was a mass-market operation. Or, and with due apologies to the late management guru C.K. Prahalad, there was a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid.

Third, those paying for the paper now need to be held at a secluded location before the exams, so that the paper leaks to only those who have paid for it, given that it is very easy to share an exam paper over WhatsApp/Telegram these days. Back then it needed fax machines, xerox machines and sharing of questions over a landline phone—infrastructure which was not so easily available to everyone and anyone.

Nonetheless, the detail that matters the most is still the same, like it was in the 1990s. At the heart of any question paper leak lies the fact that there aren’t enough economic opportunities available for the youth ready to enter the workforce.

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Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that the unemployment rate for those in the 20-24 age bracket stood at 24.2% in 2016-17. It has since jumped to 42.7% in 2023-24. For those in the 25-29 age bracket, it has jumped from 9.6% to 13.3% during the same period.

And given that, many families which are in a position to spend money to help their kin leapfrog the competition are ready to pay for it. Of course, it’s not as straightforward as this, given that people are also ready to borrow money to pay for question papers in advance.

In a way, paying for the question paper in advance is the next step or leap from sending your child to Kota or Hyderabad or Delhi or any other coaching town, so that he or she can train better to outclass the competition. Prima facie, there is nothing dishonest about coaching to compete for an exam and charging for that coaching.

There is a market need and an entrepreneur is fulfilling that need and making money in the process. There are second order effects of this as well. A town like Kota runs totally on money spent by individuals preparing for IIT exams. The economy of parts of Delhi, like Mukherjee Nagar, benefits from the money spent by those studying in coaching institutes.

The trouble is that many education entrepreneurs, both online and offline—who cash in on the lack of economic opportunities in the country along with the insecurity of many parents—and charge a high price for their coaching—don’t always deliver quality that a higher price promises.

In fact, there are coaching institutes that train individuals to get into better coaching institutes. Or as the story goes a few coaching institutes used to charge a bomb on the pretext that they will have access to question papers before the exam.

Also, a simple question that remains is whether students who go to such coaching institutes and compete in these exams successfully do so because they are exceptionally good or because of the training they receive at the coaching institute. This distinction almost never gets made.

And the pictures of a few of these successful students in newspapers and on websites encourage many mediocre students to enrol at such coaching institutes in the hope of a better future. Of course, no one talks about these students after they fail to clear the exams they had coached for. 

Which is why it is important that some rules be set on how coaching institutes advertise their success. It is important to mandate that they share data on the percentage of students who make it after taking their course, and not just the absolute number along with pictures of a few toppers.

There are several other money-making ways. In the 1990s, Brilliant Tutorials—probably the most popular engineering coaching institute at that point of time—used to have packages for school kids in the eighth and ninth classes to start preparing for IIT exams. 

I am told that similar courses are available for school-going kids even now. In fact, such courses are now available online. All this basically cashes in on the lack of economic opportunities and the emotional need of every parent to see their kids do better in life than themselves. Basically, the market stinks! (Byju’s anyone?)

Of course, in the 2020s, where every experience and insecurity is being monetised, like I am doing here, it has led to some wonderful fiction like Kota Factory. Life is stranger than fiction, and borrowing from it, makes for better fiction, something that the writers at The Viral Fever, the creators of Kota Factory, seem to understand much better than Bollywood royalty—or those we used to call babalog in the 1990s and GenZ likes to call the beneficiaries of nepotism—and who have grown up in trial rooms watching cinema and have very limited experience of a lived life that they are in a position to monetise. Which is why they copy. Or should I say get inspired.

Now, that leaves me with a final point—dunki, the term around which Shah Rukh Khan’s latest movie was based. The Punjabi term dunki comes from donkey flight—or the illegal immigration techniques used by people from Punjab, Gujarat and other parts of India—to gain unauthorized entry into countries like Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Dunki is another version of people willing to pay for exam papers in advance. Of course, those using this route are less educated and do not always have the lakhs of rupees required to gain an illegal entry. But they and their families borrow in hopes of a better future. Again, the lack of economic opportunity forces them to do so.

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To conclude, how can this be tackled? In the short run, the only way to do this is to ensure that systems are built in a way that papers don’t leak. That can only happen if professionals—and not sympathizers of the central government or the state governments—who have the experience of holding exams on a mass scale are allowed to run the show. Indeed, those running the show cannot exhibit willful blindness, like some of them currently are, given that the future of so many youngsters is at stake.

Which is why politicians need to sort this out and sort it out quickly. As Jonathan White writes In the Long Run—The Future As a Political Idea: “Politics is never just about what lies ahead… Yet those who neglect the future cede important political terrain to others who can use it against them." In that sense, there is a political incentive to sort out the current mess very quickly.

In the long-term, the only way to ensure that leaking papers is no longer economically viable is to ensure that there are enough and more economic opportunities going around for those entering the workforce. Now, that’s easier said than done. 

And that’s the trouble with writing such pieces—how much ever one might try, in the end one ends up mouthing a cliché. Like the cinema of the 1980s and the 1990s: You knew that once the hero had rescued the heroine, and his and her families from the villain’s adda(den), they would live happily ever after, all singing Oye Oye into the sunset. Of course, in life there is no happily ever after. But there are sunsets. And they can sometimes be very beautiful in long shot.

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