Kolkata: A recruitment drive conducted by the West Bengal Central School Service Commission (WBSSC) in 2016 has returned to worry the Mamata Banerjee government after six years.
An inquiry committee constituted by the Calcutta High Court has described in its report how at least 609 allegedly illegal recruitments of Group ‘D’ staff were conducted.
In a 68-page report submitted last month, a copy of which was accessed by ThePrint, the committee has detailed how the Right to Information (RTI) Act was allegedly misused to facilitate the “illegal” recruitments.
Candidates who had been unsuccessful in the recruitment exam, it is alleged, could file an RTI application and get their answer sheets for inspection. Subsequently, they were able to file an application to have their scripts re-evaluated — and their marks increased.
However, there’s no provision under the School Service Rules to increase marks or ranks in such a way — which is why the resulting appointments have been called “illegal”, with a money trail suspected. Last year, a single-judge bench of the high court ordered an investigation by the CBI, but this was stayed by a division bench, which instead constituted an inquiry committee.
“Right To Information can only provide information of the marks received by the candidates,” advocate Arunava Banerjee, who was a member of the HC-appointed committee, told ThePrint.
“RTI cannot increase a candidate’s marks, as was done in the case of Group ‘D’ recruitment,” he alleged.
ThePrint reached state cabinet minister Partha Chatterjee, who held the school education portfolio from 2014 to 2021, via telephone, text message, WhatsApp and email on 2 May. This report will be updated once his response is received.
The state’s present education minister, Bratya Basu, refused to speak about the alleged scam, but said, “I don’t want to comment (on) what’s happened in the past. But we assure you, we will ensure transparency in recruitment.”
Speaking to the media at the state secretariat after a cabinet meeting on 5 May, Basu said, “We won’t set up any internal inquiry. That’s for other departments to do. Our job is to appoint. Not inquire.”
How the ‘scam’ was revealed
The WBSSC is in charge of appointing teaching and non-teaching staff in all government-aided and recognised schools functioning under the state education department. According to the inquiry report, it had published an advertisement on 8 August 2016, to fill up vacancies for Group ‘D’ posts. The written exam for interested candidates was held on 19 February, 2017.
Candidates appear for written exams, followed by a personality test. Successful candidates receive recommendations from regional commissioners, followed by appointments.
According to the rules, any recruitment panel — candidates who qualify the written exam are put in panels, based on district and category — is valid for a term of one year from the date of acceptance of the panel by the concerned regional commissioners. An extension of only six months is allowed, beyond which the panel cannot be extended.
In this case, the original panel was published on the central commission website on 6 November 2017. The panel for Group ‘D’ expired on 4 May 2019.
The inquiry committee report claims, however, that the ranks of some candidates were changed on 18 June 2019 (based on the system of RTI applications) and the final panel was uploaded on the central commission website on 20 June 2019 — more than a month after its expiry.
According to the inquiry report, under the School Service Commission Rules, 2009, there’s no provision for re-evaluation/re-checking of answer scripts or optical mark recognition (OMR) sheets that are digitally evaluated. In spite of this, WBSSC officials told the committee that candidates could seek re-evaluation/re-checking of OMR sheets by submitting an application under the RTI Act.
Based on such applications, the inquiry report says, the WBSSC would supply the OMR sheets to the candidates, along with the answer keys. Candidates could then make their own assessments and submit a separate application for increasing marks if required. This would then be processed by the commission, and if approved, the candidates’ marks would be increased and their ranks upgraded in the panel of Group ‘D’ recruitments.
Four unsuccessful candidates then brought to the notice of the Calcutta High Court the names of 523 people who had allegedly been appointed after the expiry of the recruitment panel. After this, the high court in an order passed on 22 November 2021 handed over the investigation of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The inquiry report says: “Hon’ble Single Bench of High Court gave direction for CBI to conduct an inquiry to trace out the invisible hands involved in preparing and sending recommendation letters to the president of the Board for appointment of undeserving candidates in Group ‘D’ posts as the Hon’ble judge was of the view that corruption (was) writ large in the whole process of public employment and also suspected money trail.”
The court tasked the CBI with enquiring into the “extreme illegality in making recommendations and appointments to the underserving candidates in Group ‘D’ posts”. However, the West Bengal government challenged the CBI inquiry and filed four separate appeals before a division bench.
A division bench of Justice Harish Tandon and Justice Rabindranath Samanta then put a stay order on the CBI probe. Instead, it constituted a three-member inquiry committee on 6 December 2021, comprising advocate Arunava Banerjee, professor Ashutosh Ghosh — a member of the board of the Central School Service Commission — and Paromita Roy, deputy secretary (administration), West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. Retired high court justice Ranjit Kumar Bag was appointed to supervise the committee.
The division bench said that the single bench that had ordered the CBI probe would be given a copy of the inquiry committee’s report. The committee submitted its findings on 11 April. After reading the report, the single bench again ordered a CBI inquiry, but that too was stayed by the division bench on 13 April.
The modus operandi
For the inquiry, the committee randomly picked 16 candidates who had appeared for the Group ‘D’ recruitment examination. It then found that 15 of these people got appointment letters after the expiry of the recruitment panel.
Allegedly, none of these 15 candidates took part in counselling for Group ‘D’ recruitment, as required under Rule 18 of the School Service Commission Rules, 2009. Rather, they got “fake recommendation letters” from the office of the central commission on the basis of their RTI applications.
According to the report, however, these candidates couldn’t supply a copy of the RTI when asked by the inquiry committee.
M/s NYSA Communications — the company that was engaged for evaluating the OMR sheets — confirmed to the inquiry committee that it had handed over all the answer scripts to the WBSSC after publishing the results. The company said that it had never re-evaluated/ rechecked any answer scripts, contrary to what officials of the state education board had claimed in order to justify appointments allegedly based on RTI applications.
The report also says that the panel of successful candidates was prepared at the WBSSC’s office, without any involvement from the chairpersons of the regional commissions. It’s the latter who are supposed to give the recommendation letters according to the School Service Commission Rules, 2009.
The investigation had also allegedly disclosed that the chairman of the WBSSC had instructed the chairpersons of the five regional commissions to scan and store their signatures on the WBSSC’s application server. These were later used as “illegal digital signatures” for more than 500 “fake” recommendation letters.
These “fake” appointment letters were then allegedly hand-delivered to the undeserving candidates — by specific peons and special messengers — and not through speed post or registered post, as stipulated in the rulebook. This way, there was no memo number maintained in the office register of these letters.
Then, on 1 November 2019, a joint secretary to the West Bengal government passed an order and formed a committee to complete some still-pending recruitments, the inquiry report says.
Dr Shanti Prasad Sinha, an advisor to the central commission, was appointed convener, to supervise, monitor and guide this committee. Not only was this committee constituted after the expiry of the Group ‘D’ recruitment panel, its formation was “illegal in the eyes of law” according to the inquiry report, as the WBSSC is the only body empowered to conduct the recruitment procedure.
The inquiry claims to have revealed how the convener of this “illegal” committee was making “illegal” appointments of Group ‘D’ staff, along with officials of the state education department.
Indictments and current probe status
The inquiry committee in its report has suggested that FIRs be filed against Dr Shanti Prasad Sinha under sections 465/417/468/34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — making false documents, cheating, forgery and criminal acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intentions.
Reached for comment, Sinha said: “As convenor, I convened two meetings but no meeting was held. As an advisor, I have no connection with illegal recommendations. Please ask the chairman and secretary.”
Blame has also been pinned on Dr. Kalyanmoy Ganguly, president of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education; Professor Saumitra Sarkar, former chairman of the central commission, and Ashok Kumar Saha, former secretary of the WBSSC. The report calls for FIRs to be filed against them under section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC.
ThePrint spoke to Ganguly, who said that the matter is sub judice and he wouldn’t like to make any comments at the moment. When asked about the allegations in the inquiry report, he said: “I haven’t seen the report. A copy hasn’t been given to me. So I can only respond once I read the report myself.”
Reached for comment, Sarkar said: “I am unaware of the report and its findings since it’s not been published.” Asked if he was aware of the alleged illegal recruitments during his tenure as mentioned in the inquiry report, he said he did not know anything about it.
ThePrint also reached Saha over phone, but he said, “At this stage no comments can be given, I’m sorry.”
Meanwhile, the CBI, which was probing the case until the division bench of the HC stayed it, had questioned Shanti Prasad Sinha on 6 April. Four other members of the allegedly illegal committee supervising the recruitment appeared before the CBI for questioning on 4 April.
The central agency has also interrogated the private secretary of minister in charge (MIC) Partha Chatterjee. Although the order for the constitution of the committee to complete selections was signed by the joint secretary, according to the inquiry report, “Such steps are taken only after the approval of the MIC. So Partha Chatterjee was aware of the committee.”
Last month, the high court had directed Sinha to appear before the CBI.
The single judge bench of the Calcutta HC had on 13 April also asked minister Chatterjee to appear before the CBI, but the order was stayed by the division bench on the same day, for four weeks.
The division bench also issued a stay order on the CBI inquiry for the same period.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee and Rohan Manoj)