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HomeFeaturesJobless teachers, Munnabhai cheating mafias, paper leaks: Inside UP’s ‘Chhota Vyapam’

Jobless teachers, Munnabhai cheating mafias, paper leaks: Inside UP’s ‘Chhota Vyapam’

UP Teacher Eligibility Test scam shows how desperation of unemployed youth fuels an entire industry, from cheating syndicates to predatory coaching institutes.

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Sushil Kumar Rai could not attend his father’s funeral in Barabanki last November because he had to sit for the Uttar Pradesh Teacher Eligibility Test in Prayagraj aka Allahabad the next day. But, the Yogi Adityanath government cancelled the exam at the last minute due to a paper leak, dashing the hopes of more than 20 lakh aspirants.

Rai, a mathematics graduate, was shattered. The two-stage exams to qualify for government teacher jobs had been delayed numerous times since 2019 and Rai, who had passed both the qualifying exams but could not get a job because of the system backlog, had hoped his years-long preparations would finally pay off.

“The government cannot even ensure that exams are securely conducted. There was always the problem of Munnabhais (hired impersonators taking exams in lieu of candidates) and now papers are getting leaked,” Rai, who is currently finding work as a manual labourer to make ends meet, said.

As details about the paper leak tumbled out, many in the state started referring to it as UP’s chhota (mini) Vyapam” — a reference to a massive scam in government recruitment exams held by the Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal (Vyapam; professional examination board) in Madhya Pradesh.  The paper leak was not just an instance of one exam gone awry but symbolised the murky confluence of criminal gangs, big money, and a crumbling jobs sector that is driving lakhs of students to despair.

In the poll season, the UP Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) scandal, combined with protests over railway recruitment exams, has made government jobs a hot-button issue, with opposition leaders like the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav accusing the Adityanath government of allowing “corruption… in education and related sectors.” Even BJP MP Varun Gandhi has taken a critical line against the government, tweeting in December: “First, there is no government job. If some opportunity comes, the paper gets leaked. If you give the exam, you won’t have the result for years…”

Chief Minister Adityanath, meanwhile, was quick to announce that his government would invoke the Gangsters Act and National Security Act against those found guilty and ensure the exams were conducted in a “fair and transparent” manner the next time around. The government also announced in December that it would soon be filling up vacancies in teachers’ posts. However, these promises were too little too late for candidates like Rai.

Speaking to Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force (STF) officials, exam aspirants, and even some former scamsters in UP, ThePrint pieced together a picture of an entire industry that depends on the desperation of unemployed youth. This includes not only cheating syndicates and their influential patrons but also predatory coaching institutes for government recruitment exams. In many cases, former candidates themselves turn to crime — by working as exam solvers— and make money from the system they could not legitimately enter.

How deep the rot is, or how high it goes, is a matter of speculation, but according to one former cheating syndicate boss: “From top to bottom, everybody knows everything and many are even indirectly involved in the racket.”

Also Read: Let them eat communalism: Yogi’s poll pitch may work but heartland’s jobless fury endangers India

‘UP’s Chhota Vyapam’

 The UPTET paper leak came to light when the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force (STF) received a tip-off and arrested 23 people in the early hours of 28 November, the day of the exam. Suspicions that government officials might be involved were confirmed a few days later when the police arrested Sanjay Kumar Upadhyay, the secretary of the Exam Regulatory Authority and UPTET exam controller.

The case quickly drew comparisons with the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, which also emerged with a question paper leak complaint in 2009 and exploded into national headlines in 2013, when investigations revealed a nexus of officials and politicians in a complex exam-rigging enterprise. Indeed, one of the alleged “kingpins” of the UPTET leak was Santosh Chaurasia MBBS, who was also one of the accused in the Vyapam scam.

Much like the Vyapam racket, the UPTET paper leak was just the tip of a fraudulent enterprise in which government officials, exam solver syndicates, and middlemen in coaching institutes colluded with each other to make money from aspiring teachers.

The UP STF has so far arrested about three dozen suspects, including the alleged mastermind Santosh Chaurasia.

A top STF officer said that Chaurasia, who has been in and out of prison for similar crimes since 2006, hatched the UPTET paper leak plot when he was in jail in the Vyapam case.

“During interrogation, Santosh Chaurasia admitted that he exploited the desperation of students to qualify for UPTET. He knew that lakhs of students are waiting to get a government teacher’s job in UP and the vacancies always fall short. His plan was to sell the question paper for anywhere between Rs 5-15 lakh to students,” the STF officer said.

Putting the plan into operation involved cobbling together a complex network of co-conspirators at different levels.

The SIT source said that Chaurasia laid the foundation by setting up a fake exam paper-printing company called RSM Finserv and “fixing” exam controller Sanjay Kumar Upadhyay, an officer of Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Civil Service (PCS).

A screengrab of the RSM Finserv webpage, which features stock images and generic language

In December, the police arrested RSM Finserv director Rai Anup Prasad, who happens to be the brother of Bihar BJP MLA Rashmi Verma. She submitted her resignation last month after drawing heat over the matter.

While RSM Finserv has a website in which it calls itself a “growing skill assessment solution provider” and lists an address in upmarket Greater Kailash, New Delhi, the STF source said that the company was created expressly to perpetuate fraud.

Competence in handling security codes is a prerequisite for bagging a contract to print competitive exam papers, but this standard clearly did not apply to RSM Finserv. The STF officer said that the “dummy agency” had no experience printing anything, let alone exam papers, and yet managed to get a Rs 13 crore work order from the UP government.

According to the STF source, RSM Finserv outsourced the printing of more than 23 lakh question papers to four printing presses which were located in Delhi, Noida, and Kolkata paid Rs 6 lakh each to print and allow access to solvers’ syndicates.  Investigation is underway and if any other government officials are involved, they will not be spared,” the STF source said.

The UP government, however, insists that the buck stops with the arrested exam controller.

“No one else from the UP government has anything to do with the paper leak scam. We ensure that minimum people are involved in the process, so as soon as tender is out, it’s the sole responsibility of the examination controller. In this case, it was Sanjay Upadhyay, who decided the agency and gave the tender,” Deepak Kumar, principal secretary, Basic Education Department, said.

Thriving ‘market’ for ‘Munnabhai’ syndicates

The heart of the UPTET scam lies in the “market” for the premium-priced exam papers, and which is where the real money stood to be made.

“Chaurasia came to UP months before the UPTET 2021 and made local networks of people who could identify those who can pay the maximum amount,” the top SIT officer said.

Students protest against unemployment at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi Thursday | Photo: ANI
A file photo of students protesting against unemployment at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi | Photo: ANI

The prospective buyers for the leaked papers were not just students but also solver syndicates, who knew they could up their rates if they were pre-armed with the question papers. The main hunting grounds for this part of the operation was coaching institutions, some of which don’t just train students for exams, but also identify potential solvers and customers for cheating services.

Indeed, with or without leaked papers, exam solver syndicates thrive in UP and often employ thwarted but talented job aspirants who write tests for richer but academically unprepared candidates.  In January this year when the beleaguered UPTET 2021 finally took place, the UP Police arrested at least 80 test solvers and nine candidates for trying to cheat.

To understand the ground reality behind the bleak news shorts about such incidents, ThePrint visited Prayagraj, which is the hub of private coaching institutes for government exams as well as a breeding ground for exam solvers.

Also Read: JEE scam and NEET ban are failures of the existing system. But tougher questions lie ahead

No job, ‘empty stomach’, lakhs of rupees in sight

Kumar Rajan (name changed), 32, is a teacher at a coaching institution in Prayagraj. A few years ago, he too was an UPTET candidate who dreamed of a government teaching job, but despite his BSc and B. Ed degrees and high scores in the entrance exam, he was still left out in the cold.

His financial situation, however, started looking up when he started moonlighting as a “solver” for some of the biggest syndicates in the state. Rajan, who said he stopped this kind of work last year, has written the UPTET as a proxy for several candidates who felt he would get better marks than they could.

A coaching centre in Prayagraj | Photo: Tanushree Pandey/ThePrint

“We have stomachs to feed back home and the government can’t provide jobs so that students don’t have to become criminals,” Rajan, who supports a family of five, said.

According to him, he was always a good student but not getting a job for three years had driven him to the brink. Therefore, when one of the teachers from a coaching institute he attended offered him an opportunity to “earn lakhs”, he grabbed it.

“The teacher took me to meet these people who told me, ‘You just need to study all day, and we will take care of the rest’,” he said. Another part of his job was to “identify” weak students at the coaching centre who seemed as if they needed (and could pay for) the services of a solver. “We did this very discreetly. Only when we were 200 per cent sure did we approach anyone,” he said.

ThePrint also met Rajeev Sharma (name changed), who once headed a major solvers’ syndicate. The UP-STF has arrested him twice, in 2018 and 2019 for his role in cheating in UP Police exams and UPTET, but Sharma claimed he has stayed out of trouble since his release. With no small degree of pride, he described how he gamed the system for years until the police came down on him.

Also Read: ‘Feel like tearing my books, going home’ — the deep despair behind Bihar’s railway jobs protest

‘Entire system knows everything’

In 2007, Rajeev Sharma was all set to join the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Chhattisgarh, but at the last minute decided not to leave his family in Rampur, UP, since his mother was terminally ill and his father, a farmer with 3 acres of land, needed help. Armed with a BCom degree, Sharma thought it would be easy enough to find a good job, but he could only get a gig as a painter. “I worked like a donkey and earned only Rs 100 a day,” he said. Over the next two years, he continued his work as a painter and also earned a postgraduate degree in commerce, but all he got for it was a hefty education loan to pay off.

In 2011, he said, a friend suggested that they could make easy money as exam solvers in the absence of other well-paying jobs. “We did some research and realised that a lot of students who applied for various government exams were finding it very difficult to get through. So, we thought why not help them and also make some money?”

Sharma wrote his first exam as a proxy in 2012. He earned Rs 50,000 for his trouble and also discovered that “it was quite easy to bypass the system”. That year, he wrote four different exams and earned Rs 3 lakh in all.

Job aspirants in Bihar protest against the 'flaws' and changes in the railways recruitment process. | Photo: Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint
Job aspirants in Bihar protest against the ‘flaws’ and changes in the railways recruitment process. | Photo: Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

By 2016, he expanded his operations and recruited 200 students to work as “Munnabhais” for him, Sharma said. “From Rs 100 a day, I was earning a few lakhs a month. Aap bataiye kya karte (You tell me, what else could I have done)?”

Succeeding at the enterprise meant changing with the times, Sharma said. While at first, it was usually enough to merely paste the proxy’s photo on the candidate’s admit card, the advent of biometrics posed a challenge.

However, the gang found a workaround: they would use sealants to get the candidate’s thumb impressions, mix it with glue, and then add “a chemical that was only available in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk for Rs 10,000”. The result was an invisible gelatin cover that the proxy would place on his own thumbs.

“It was as thin as air and not even the biometrics machine could catch it. My kids appeared for hundreds of exams for four years, including UPTET, UP Police, SSC (Staff Selection Commission), Railways, NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation Limited),” Sharma said. At times, the gang also helped students cheat by using spy microphones and hearing devices that could be embedded deep into the candidate’s ears.

In addition to experimenting with science, Sharma said it was essential to build up a solid network.

“We had connections with almost all the big coaching centres, government and private. Our sources in the coaching institutes used to direct the weak students to us. That’s how we got most of our clients although some approached us through word of mouth,” Sharma said.

That was not all, Sharma said. “We had tie-ups with some big fish in the government ministries and departments. They used to take a cut of the money to help our clients by helping us replace their answer sheets sometimes… in case a client does not want to take the risk of using a solver at his place. The ‘big fish’ also used to ensure that if something goes wrong, we remain out of trouble. That’s the reason so many solver syndicates are able to run their racket in UP,” Sharma claimed. “My solvers had a 90 per cent track record of passing exams.”

When asked if he could name any of the said “big fish”, Sharma refused.

“I will not name anyone because even if I do, they will never be touched but I will be in great trouble,” he said, and paused for a moment.

“You have to be extremely naive to think that government papers are leaked and solvers’ syndicates work under the nose of the authorities without the entire system being aware of everything.”

Also Read: Marriage, money, maut — In Prayagraj’s ‘Kota’, students want exams as UP poll issue

The new ‘Kota’ trap for poor families

 On a chilly Monday morning this February, 30 to 40 men gathered at Prayagraj’s Labour Chowk to wait for daily wage jobs to come their way. Among them were several graduates and postgraduates, many worried about where their next meal would come from. With few white-collar jobs and Covid further dampening employment prospects, it’s quite common to see degree holders struggling to get menial jobs in Uttar Pradesh.

Lakhs of students, however, still continue to stream into Prayagraj to pump whatever little money they have into one of the hundreds of diploma institutions and coaching academies in the city.

Many institutions here offer the two-year course needed for the Diploma in Elementary Education (DELED), earlier known as the Basic Training Certificate, that students must obtain before sitting for UPTET, unless they already have a B.Ed degree.

UPTET aspirant Pawanesh Kumar Yadav in his tiny room in Prayagraj | Photo: Tanushree Pandey/ThePrint

Currently, there are more than 3,400 institutes across the state, amounting to around 2.40 lakh seats, offering the teacher training course, out of which the government runs only 67 institutes. Government institutes charge around Rs 42,000 for two years, whereas private establishments ask for nearly double that amount.

Dingy coaching institutions have also mushroomed across UP, but most so in Prayagraj. Many of these offer classes to candidates preparing for the UPTET and Super-TET, to the tune of Rs 30,000-50,0000 a year.

“Prayagraj has become another Kota (an exam coaching hub in Rajasthan). Private institutes and coaching centres have been thriving for the last five years. Poor families sell all they have to send their kids here to do a diploma course thinking they will get a job after clearing UPTET but little do they know that it’s only a trap,” Ramakant Yadav, a 29-year-old from Jaunpur, said. He has been waiting to qualify for a teaching job for years, and does odd jobs like washing dishes at restaurants to pay for his rent and food.

Also Read: Unemployment and unlimited data pack — UP’s youth are neither angry nor idle

Eligible but unemployed teachers, posts vacant

Qualifying for a government teaching job is an extended and convoluted process.

A teaching diploma and UPTET qualification are of little use until the government announces vacancies for posts, after which another exam called the Super-TET, instituted by the Adityanath government in 2017, has to be cleared.

The last time the Super-TET took place was in 2019, which was for vacancies announced in 2018. Since then, no new vacancies have been announced.

As of 2020, more than 1.40 lakh posts lay vacant in UP’s primary schools, according to data available with the state’s Basic Education Department. This number, according to a news report quoting officials, was in addition to the official vacancies, numbering 69,000, that the state government announced in 2018.

A December 2021 protest over delays in teacher recruitment in Lucknow | Photo: Twitter/ANI

Appointments of teachers for even advertised vacancies have been sporadic at best over the last five years. The Adityanath government appointed 46,319 teachers against 68,500 vacancies in the 2018-2019 academic session, and the 69,000 vacancies announced in 2018 were filled in two different batches by the end of 2021. Some of these seats were the subject of a legal battle and student protests, but were cleared for appointments by the Supreme Court in May 2020.

In December 2021, just weeks ahead of the UP assembly election, the Adityanath government announced 17,000 vacancies for the post of assistant teacher. But for the lakhs of aspirants in UP, it is likely to be too little too late.

“This government took so many years to fill the vacancies of 69,000 teachers announced by them in 2018. For three years no new vacancies were opened. Those who qualified as teachers were in lakhs, but the vacancies made available by the government were in thousands,” Divanath Mishra, an education researcher from UP, said.

According to him, there is an acute shortage of teachers in schools, even as “over eight lakh qualified and eligible teachers have been waiting for a job at a government school for five years”.

Sanjeev Sinha, convenor of the State Collective for Right to Education, a coalition of civic society bodies in Uttar Pradesh, said that this situation did not bode well for primary education in the state.

“It’s sad that the state government has not opened any vacancies for the last three years. So many schools have just two or three teachers to teach all the subjects from classes 6-8. They do not even know half of the subjects. This is destroying the quality of our government schools,” Sinha said.

Sinha also expressed despair over the paradoxical situation where the demand for teachers and teaching jobs could never meet the supply.

“There has been a massive increase in the number of seats for the Diploma in Elementary Education (DELED) needed for UPTET. Lakhs of students are getting admission… but they are never able to get a job because there are no jobs,” Sinha said.

Many aspirants, therefore, are in perpetual limbo, like Sushil Rai who has cracked the exam many times and still hopes the job dice will roll in his favour, despite currently needing to make ends meet by taking jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

“My mother sold off her last piece of jewellery to make me a graduate, and then for the coaching and studies for UPTET… but even after doing everything and clearing UPTET and Super-TET, I have no job,” Rai said. He was distraught after the question paper leak in November last year, but this January, he gave the UPTET yet again.

Pawanesh Kumar Yadav, another UPTET aspirant was going to give the exam in November too, but did not sit for it this year. The political science graduate who comes from a poor farming family in Jaunpur said he often thinks of suicide. “The government will be responsible for all the students who die because of unemployment… they are playing with the lives of lakhs of people,” he said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

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