How are exams being rigged? Educationalist highlights multiple facets of manipulation of entrance examinations

Educationalist Maheshwar Peri said that it was about greedy parents, colluding faculty members, and the impact on millions of students.

BySumit Jha

Published Jun 17, 2024 | 7:00 AM Updated Jun 17, 2024 | 8:23 AM

NEET exam

The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) has faced severe credibility issues after a controversy involving allegations of cheating, question paper leaks, and irregularities in the evaluation process.

These issues have raised concerns about the integrity and fairness of the nationwide entrance examination conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) for admission to undergraduate medical courses in India.

Multiple petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court, leading to the court asking the NTA to conduct a re-examination for 1,563 candidates.

This, even as the allegations of paper leaks and manipulation at examination centres remain unresolved.

The larger question remains: How are these examinations being conducted in a way that allows for prevalent rigging and paper leaks?

Educationalist Maheshwar Peri, the founder and chairman of Careers360, delved deep into how exams in India are rigged.

“The rigging isn’t just an academic scandal. It’s a direct assault on the dreams and hard work of countless Indians. It’s dirty tricks and hidden agendas sabotaging your future. This is beyond the paper leak. As I said, it’s about a system, it’s about a mafia that operates the system,” said Maheshwar Peri in a video.

He added that it was about greedy parents, colluding faculty members, and the impact on millions of students, their dreams, and their aspirations.

Also Read: From grace marks to alleged paper leak, NEET UG exam row explained

Problems within the system

Dr Ajay Kumar is a former president of the Indian Medical Association and a member of the National Medical Council.

He also served for a considerable time in charge of the National Board of Examinations, which used to conduct the NEET PG examination.

He discussed a particular instance where they discovered collusion within their system with external forces to compromise the examination.

“As a member of the National Board of Examination, we took over seven years ago. At that time, whenever the NEET PG examination was held, there were at least 50-60 cases in court alleging that the questions had been leaked. It was a significant issue,” he recalled.

“When we took over, we tried to identify the problem. The number one problem was one person in charge within the board was colluding with these unscrupulous people,” said Kumar during a TV debate.

NEET row: Number of toppers to go down to 61 from 67 as NTA withdraws grace marks

The hackers’ way

Meanwhile, Peri noted that information about an examination held in 2021 came to light only in 2022.

This was the JEE Main 2021 examination, which most students take to gain admission to NITs and IITs.

It came to light that a gang was operating in India in collaboration with hackers outside the country.

The primary hacker — a Russian national identified as Mikhail Shargin — operated from Kyrgyzstan.

The Indian accomplices, who ran a coaching centre, contacted Shargin, brought him to India, and explained the technology behind the examinations, including how the servers operated.

They used this knowledge to influence the examinations. According to Delhi Police, the gang charged ₹8-10 lakh per candidate for JEE exams and ₹6-8 lakh for GMAT exams, amassing around ₹60 crore.

A team led by Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Raman Lamba contacted the hackers, posing as candidates seeking help to clear the GMAT examination.

They paid the money, booked a slot, and the accused, on the exam day, sent a link to a software called Ultraviewer, which allowed remote access to the laptop at the examination centre.

This access was then given to a “solver” — a faculty member in India who solved the questions on behalf of the candidate.

The police officer posing as a candidate scored 780 out of 800 marks with their help.

Once the gravity of the situation was realised, police traced the hackers’ location to Mahim in Mumbai and arrested three people.

Further investigation led to the arrest of an individual in the Pitampura area of Delhi, who headed a coaching institution.

This institution was setting up its own exam lab to become an exam centre so it would become easier for him to compromise the exams.

These people were also developing software to compromise other exams such as those for recruiting forest guards and soldiers in the Navy.

This raised concerns that even the armed forces might have compromised personnel due to such fraudulent activities. The need to defend the integrity of examinations became apparent.

According to a Delhi High Court order, the CBI reported that the accused colluded with the supervisor of a JEE Main 2021 exam centre in Sonipat under the National Capital Region, enabling fraudulent practices.

The centre was compromised, followed by faculty and solver involvement, and remote access creation, leading to the rigging of the examination.

“As we speak, there’s a great possibility that 820 students are studying in premier institutions of the country who possibly benefited from this fraud,” claimed Peri.

“The NTA took action against 20 people from the Sonipat centre, banning them for three years, but 820 students allegedly benefited from these Russian hackers,” he added.

“We still lack complete information on what exactly happened, and it’s likely that these students are in premier institutions at the cost of more deserving candidates,” said Peri.

Related: No evidence of paper leak in NEET-UG, says Union education minister

Managing the backend

Peri explained that when he realised the gravity of the charges, he pressed investigative reporters to dig deeper into the issue. He emphasised the need to get to the bottom of the entire situation.

To understand the process, he decided to speak to an agent who arranged for the entire fraudulent operation.

“By the time we got into it, as I said, the CBI order came in May 2022. Most of the examinations were over, but one major private examination was still ongoing,” recalled Peri.

“This exam had about 3.5 lakh applicants for a very limited number of seats. So, we contacted an agent and started conversing with him. The more we listened, the more shocked we were,” he said.

What did they do? They ensured that the applicant chose a centre and slot of the arrangers’ choice, and then they “managed” everything.

Peri recalled that in one instance, they even said, “You just have to sit; we will do the rest of the work.”

He provided an audio clip to illustrate how the operation works, as described by the paper leak mafia to a Careers360 investigator:

“Why will the police catch me? It’s my own centre, my own people. The kid will come and sit for three hours. We’ll manage everything from the backend. We do it in three hours; it’s not like we do it in five minutes. We utilise the full three hours. We’ve done it in bulk and are still doing it. Nothing will happen. There won’t be a problem. After getting the work done, we’ll take the money. There won’t be any risk for you; whatever the risk is, it will be mine. If you’ve booked the slot, it won’t happen.”

A second agent chimed in: “There is ₹22-23 lakh in expenditure — after getting the work done, after getting the rank.”

One aspect involves paper leaks. Another involves rigging examinations through technology, with Russian hackers answering questions while the candidate sits in the exam centre. However, they need to fix the centre and the slot to do this.

Once these two elements are understood, the extent of the fraud in exams like JEE and the ongoing private examination becomes clear.

Peri claimed similar issues have surfaced in NEET, highlighting the importance of understanding the cases that have come to light.

Related: ‘NEET-ly’ shattered students flail to stay afloat, NTA offers no helpline

The first NEET case

The first case of irregularities in NEET this year came to light from Bihar, where about 20 medical aspirants were brought to Patna and given question papers and answers in advance.

On 5 May, the Patna police received a tip-off about a suspected paper leak two-three hours before the NEET exam, which was scheduled for 2 pm to 5 pm.

That same day, seven-eight people — including Sikander Yadav, one of the main conspirators — were detained.

The police also recovered some burnt question papers from the flat of this private individual.

On 6 May, a total of 13 people, including four examinees and their parents, were arrested and sent to judicial custody.

Another notable incident happened in Sonipat. Eight candidates from the same centre achieved almost identical top scores, raising suspicions.

These candidates had no known family names and were not claimed by any coaching institutes as their students, despite being top performers.

The sheer number of coincidences in this case is striking.

Related: Amid student suicides and suicide threats, allegations of a nationwide scam

The Godhra case

More recently, a group of students filed a case in the Supreme Court, alluding to a third example of examination malpractice. This incident took place in Panch Mahal in the Godhra taluka in Gujarat.

According to the petition, at least 16 students from distant states like Odisha, Jharkhand, and Karnataka allegedly paid ₹10 lakh each to clear NEET and chose a centre in Gujarat.

Suspicions came to the fore for the first time when students from faraway places chose this particular centre, Jai Jalaram School in Godhra, indicating it might be compromised.

Police informed the court that these 16 students were part of a group of 26 who opted for this centre.

Their names were found on a list recovered from the prime accused, Tushar Bhat, a geography teacher at the school and the superintendent at the NEET centre.

The modus operandi started with soliciting students, demanding money, and collecting post-dated checks.

Then, two methods were involved:

  1. If it’s a paper leak, students are taken to a specific centre and given the examination paper a few hours before the exam, with a solver on-site solving the questions for them.
  2. For online examinations, the scammers access the students’ terminals remotely, with a solver answering questions on behalf of the candidates.

“So, you actually have a paper leak where you get the question paper a few hours before the examination,” said Peri.

The scale and complexity of these fraudulent activities are much larger than previously thought.

Related: I will be your voice in Parliament, Rahul Gandhi tells students

The bigger, larger, and invisible problem

There are proven cases where remote access was given to individuals to answer examination papers.

Additionally, there have been instances where the question papers were leaked, and students were taken to a particular hotel, given the question paper and answers, and asked to memorise them before the exam.

Peri provided some immediate solutions

  1. Identify the red flags: For example, suspicious centre choices. There should be scrutiny when students from distant states choose specific centers far from their home states. Why would students from all over the country choose centres in Godhra or Sonipat? These choices should raise red flags.
  2. Verification and investigation: One solution is sample-based verification. Conduct verification on a sample basis to identify irregularities. Algorithms can be used to flag discrepancies where the home state of the candidate significantly differs from the chosen exam centre. Another solution is score verification: Compare the scores from Class 10-12 with the NTA scores. For instance, if a top NEET ranker failed their class 12 exams or scored exceptionally low, it should prompt an immediate investigation.
  3. Algorithmic and statistical analysis: Use algorithms to detect anomalies in the selection of examination centres and the scores obtained. If there is a dramatic difference, it should be investigated. Employ forensic audits and technical reviews to detect digital footprints indicating data interference.
  4. Immediate response from NTA: The NTA should respond swiftly to any suspicious activities. Any discrepancies or irregularities should be thoroughly investigated using statistical and forensic methods.
  5. Public awareness and vigilance: It’s crucial for the country to wake up to the large-scale rigging happening in examinations. Public awareness and vigilance can help safeguard the integrity of the examination process.

“I just hope that we, as a country, wake up to this issue. If we don’t act now, the large-scale rigging in examinations will undermine all the efforts students put into preparing for these exams. Those who can afford to pay a tout will take away the opportunities from deserving students aspiring to get into top colleges,” said Peri.

(Edited by Arkadev Ghoshal)

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