‘Blacklist’ tag, mass protests in J&K, postponed exams — all about the Aptech controversy

‘Blacklist’ tag, mass protests in J&K, postponed exams — all about the Aptech controversy

On 14 March, J&K administration postponed its services selection board recruitment tests. This came amid protests by aspirants against its decision to hire the firm Aptech to conduct exams.

Aspirants protesting against J&K Services Selection Board (JKSSB) in Jammu | ANI

Aspirants protesting against J&K Services Selection Board (JKSSB) in Jammu | ANI

New Delhi: Earlier this week, the Jammu and Kashmir administration postponed its controversial services selection board recruitment tests, a development that came on the back of massive protests that saw the likes of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah participate. 

Led by aspirants, the protests are against the administration’s decision to rope in a “blacklisted firm”, Aptech, to help conduct the examination. Aptech Limited is a vocational training services provider headquartered in Mumbai. 

The J&K Services Selection Board’s (JKSSB’s) move to postpone the tests — which were scheduled to begin Thursday — also comes at a time when the protesters have taken the battle to Supreme Court. They did so after a division bench of the J&K High Court set aside an earlier order of a single-judge bench quashing the examination.

In their petition before the SC, protesters argue that Aptech, the company that has been given the tender to conduct the examination, has been blacklisted in the past for irregularities. The petitioners also allege that the JKSSB arbitrarily changed the criteria of the tender to enable the company to participate in the bidding process.

Lawyers involved in the case told ThePrint that the petition will come up before the apex court on 20 March.

In response to the allegations, Rajesh Sharma, chairman of the JKSSB, had last week defended the board’s decision to hire Aptech. “The company was blacklisted. It’s not blacklisted now…It was blacklisted for three years in 2019, and the blacklisting period ended in 2022…Legally, we had no reason not to hire the agency,” Sharma was quoted as saying.

While Aptech refused to comment on the allegations since the matter is subjudice, it told ThePrint: “We have full faith in the judiciary and await fair trials”.

Here is a breakdown of what the controversy is about and what the courts said about it. 

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What SC petition claims

In their petition before the Supreme Court, the aspirants have cited at least five other instances of irregularities allegedly involving Aptech.  

According to the petitioners, in 2016, Aptech was hired by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam for conducting recruitment tests for 1,300 posts. Of these, the Yogi government in 2020 cancelled appointments for 1,188 posts of junior engineers and clerks after a special investigation team found several irregularities in appointments.

A special investigation team probing the alleged irregularities had named Aptech in connection with the case.

The petition cites another such instance, when, in 2018, the Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (UPPCL) hired Aptech for a recruitment exam for junior engineers. However, the exam was invalidated the same year after the UP Special Task Force set up for the purpose allegedly found irregularities in the online recruitment exams. 

It was after this that Aptech was blacklisted for three years — from May 2019 to May 2022. 

In February 2021, the Delhi High Court had also imposed a fine of Rs 10 lakh on Aptech. This action came on the back of Aptech’s petition challenging its disqualification in a tender issued by the Directorate of General of Training (DGT) for the selection of service providers to conduct end-to-end computer-based tests under its various schemes. 

In its order, the high court had noted: “Organisations resorting to, or permitting malpractice at an institutional level should be kept at bay, by bodies conducting public examination and such conduct ought not to be condoned.”

In addition, petitioners also cite alleged instances of irregularities in recruitment exams in Rajasthan and Assam. 

It’s significant to note that the single-judge bench of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court had cited some of these alleged irregularities while quashing the JKSSB recruitment exam. 

The ‘modified’ tender

According the petition in Supreme Court, the JKSSB issued an e-tender notice on 5 September 2022 for engaging an agency for a year to conduct computer-based tests for it.

A clause in this tender notice, according to the petitioners, said that the agency must submit an affidavit certifying that “it is not under a declaration of ineligibility for corrupt or fraudulent practices with any Government departments/ agencies/ministries or PSU’s and is not blacklisted by any government departments/ agency/Ministries or PSUs”. 

According to the petitioners, Aptech didn’t fulfill this criterion, and, “with a view to award a contract in favour” of Aptech, the board modified its notice on 14 September 2022. 

This modified criteria, according to the petition, required applicants to submit an affidavit declaring that the “firm/agency is not involved in any ongoing investigation by any investigating agency related to conduct of CBT exams. Further, Firm/Agency is not blacklisted/debarred by any govt. Body/Govt. Institution/Board/PSU of the Country as on date”.

“In a hush-up manner,” aspirants have claimed in the petition, “JKSSB cancelled the tender and shortly floated a new tender in which the same condition of the corrigendum was added in place of earlier condition, which finds mention in NIT No.18 of 2022. with mala fide intention in an arbitrary manner changed the terms and condition of the earlier NIT (sic).”

How matter moved from HC to SC

On 28 November 2022, several aspirants had approached the Jammu and Kashmir HC demanding a direction restraining the board from conducting the exam through Aptech. 

On 8 December, Justice Wasim Sadiq Nargal of the Jammu and Kashmir HC had ruled in favor of the aspirants. In his order, he said that “the functioning of Jammu and Kashmir Service Selection Board does not inspire confidence in holding public examinations”, and that “it has become incumbent on all stakeholders to review the functioning of the Board”.

The court found the decision to award the contract to Aptech “malafide” and, stating that the change of the condition in the tender was intended to favour Aptech, quashed the contract. 

According to the order, junior engineer-civil (Jal Shakti department) and sub-inspector (Home department) exams that had already been conducted through Aptech stood cancelled “at whatever stage they are on”. 

The court also directed the government to constitute a high-level committee headed by a retired high court judge “to enquire into the conduct of the Jammu and Kashmir Service Selection Board for their brazen irregularities/illegalities in changing the terms/conditions of the tender” and to probe its decision to award the contract to Aptech. 

However, on 9 December, only a day later, a division bench of the high court stayed the single bench order. The board, the bench, said, will proceed with the selection process for various posts, but it restrained the Board from declaring the results till further orders. 

Then on 10 March, the division bench sent the case back to the single-judge bench to decide afresh and that, in the meanwhile, its interim order passed will remain in force. 

This allowed the JKSSB to proceed with the recruitment of junior engineers (Jal Shakti department) and sub-inspectors (Home department). 

On 13 March, aspirants moved the Supreme Court against the HC order, specifically challenging the part of the ruling that allowed the board to proceed with the recruitment.

This report has been updated to include Aptech’s response.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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