It started unravelling in 2013.

In July that year, a day before Madhya Pradesh was to hold state-wide examinations to select MBBS students, the state's crime branch raided a hotel in Indore.

The officials must have been flummoxed by what they found. As many as eight students (though perhaps even more) had come from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to take the test. However, questioning revealed that these candidates had no plans to actually study in Madhya Pradesh.

Instead, in a discovery straight out of the movie Munnabhai MBBS, they had been brought to Indore by touts so that local candidates could copy from their answer sheets.

Further questioning led the investigators to a local doctor, Jagdish Sagar. From him, they found a list of 413 candidates who appeared to have paid Sagar to ease their way into a medical school that year.

The trail also led to senior officials in Vyapam, as the Madhya Pradesh Vyavasik Pariksha Mandal, or Professional Entrance Board, is known. The organisation conducts tests for medical colleges, law schools and the state police service, among other exams. More arrests followed. Those interrogations confirmed what students had known for long – that large-scale rigging of exam results was underway at Vyapam.

Suspicions raised

Complaints about question paper leaks were being made from 2000 onwards – if not earlier. MLAs such as Paras Saklecha had been raising this issue in the state assembly from 2009 onwards.

Even now, the enquiries have been half-hearted. Despite a two-year investigation, the biggest names in custody until now are touts like Sagar and administrative functionaries in Vyapam. Saklecha alleged, “They have only suspended the students – not the impersonators, not the colleges, and not the people behind the scam.”

It is in this context of selective investigations – even as several people associated with the scam have met unexplained deaths –  that whistleblowers half-welcome the Supreme Court's decision to transfer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. “The investigation could also be used by the central government to keep Shivraj Singh Chouhan under control,” said Anand Rai, a doctor in Indore who had tipped off the state police about the copying racket. “We want this to be a Supreme Court monitored probe.”

That is the next question. Given the generally low credibility of the bureau – it didn't exactly cover itself in glory investigating the captive coal block allocation scam – how does one know whether Vyapam is being investigated well?

To answer that question, you need to first know why the Vyapam scam took root in Madhya Pradesh.

The rise of rigging

One place to start understanding that question is Indore. One of the principal groups subverting enrolments, that of Jagdish Sagar, operated from here. It's also the city where two of the principal whistleblowers – a doctor called Anand Rai and Saklecha, who runs coaching centres for youngsters looking to pass competitive exams for posts like junior bank staff – are located. The town is also home to the prestigious Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College. Over time, private medical colleges have also come up here.

In his conversation with Scroll, Saklecha started with an introduction to the early days of exam rigging in the state. “In around 2000, it was on a very small scale. One student would ask another student to take the exam on his or her behalf.”

Around 2004, he said, things got a little more organised. Coaching centres preparing candidates for these medical entrance exams began arranging for impersonators, perhaps three or four proxies a year.

Then the business acquired scale. Larger gangs wrested candidates away from the coaching centres. These gangs brought in as many as 50-100 impersonators from as far as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The people who ran these gangs, said Saklecha, were mostly doctors. “They knew good students who could work as impersonators."

Marking out territories

As the number of gangs grew, the market evolved further. First, students began shopping for lowest prices between gangs. This gave rise to a set of disputes which, by 2009, had resulted in the gangs dividing up Madhya Pradesh among themselves in order to avoid competition. Take Sagar. According to Rai, he started in Bhind but was forced to leave by another person in the same business called Deepak Yadav. It is after this dispute that Sagar based himself in Indore. Another doctor, called Tarang Sharma, added Saklecha, operated out of Bhopal.

The impersonator model had its drawbacks. Its growth was constrained by supply – it needed to find bright students willing to work as solvers. Also, while photographs could be morphed to look like both the candidate and the solver, finding solvers to match the candidates' gender was harder.

The other model at work was the leaked question paper. As Poonam Sharma, a new MBBS student in a private college in Indore told Scroll, students who paid money would be shown question papers just before the exam.

Till now, exam rigging in Madhya Pradesh was similar to how exams are rigged elsewhere in the country. But, around 2007, parallel changes underway in Bhopal made it possible to transform the rigging business.

The rise of centralisation

In a detailed report for The Wire, Rakesh Dixit, a veteran reporter in Bhopal, traced the next stage to Sudhir Sharma. Sharma, a mining baron in the state with links to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as the late KS Sudarshan and Suresh Soni, got an associate of his – Pankaj Trivedi – appointed as examination controller of Vyapam. Trivedi too was politically connected. His cousin, writes Dixit, is Sudhanshu Trivedi, the BJP spokesperson.

Until then, the manipulation of the system used to take place at the field-level – leaked question papers and impersonators. Under Pankaj Trivedi, manipulation moved to Vyapam's computer systems. This is well illustrated by the new models of rigging that emerged.

The first, says Saklecha, was the "train and bogie". Here, every candidate would be paired with a solver from whom the candidate would copy. Sagar and his associates would send a list of candidates and solvers, defining the sequence in which they had to be seated, to the exam controller's team that would make those changes. This was possible only by manipulating the assignment of roll numbers to candidates. The second model also worked around the roll numbers. Here, since the exam controller's office knew the roll numbers of every student, candidates (who paid) were instructed to leave their answer sheets of these multiple question tests blank. The answers would be filled in by solvers later.

With defined processes came scale. Subversion grew rapidly.

Expanding ambition

Take the Optical Mark Recognition system, where the answer sheets had to be left blank. It was, says Saklecha, picked up by the state elite.

Initially, said a state Congress leader, “People asked for a favour – an admission for a child, etc – but then also got to know what the process is.” With that, some of the elite in the state also began brokering admissions. By December 2013, writes Dixit, the Special Task Force set up to investigate Vyapam had identified 129 accused. The list, which included people who had paid money to touts or had brokered deals themselves, includes Officers on Special Duty to the Governor and state ministers (including Lakshmikant Sharma, the minister in charge of technical education, which oversees Vyapam), IAS and IPS officers, and their kin.

As Dixit writes in his testimony, Pankaj Trivedi also named Lakshmikant Sharma and mining baron Sudhir Sharma as key recommenders.

Out in other cities and towns, the train and bogie model was scaling up as well. Students who had used the system to gain admission were enrolling others, collecting a cut before passing the their peers onto the brokers. Said the Congress leader, “Complaints and PILs were flowing in from 2006 onwards but, as there was no crackdown, everyone was emboldened further.”

By 2012, says Saklecha, the train and bogie had almost fully replaced the impersonator model.

Three models

That was the logic. Three models of subversion. One built on the proud edifice of leaked question papers. Another on the train and bogie system. And the third on answer sheets someone else would answer. Each targeted student markets with different levels of political access.

By 2012, the market that developed was very sophisticated.

Try this. As a postgraduate student from Indore's Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College told Scroll, a student paying large sums – as much as Rs one crore – for a postgraduate seat would also define the specialisation she wanted. The most prized, he said, were radiology, psychiatry, ophthalmology, orthopaedics and dermatology, which would earn the graduates the highest remunerations in the real world. Those fixing the exam would ensure the candidates got enough marks to qualify for the specialisation they wanted.

However, if a paying candidate found that he was eligible for neurology in addition to the stream already paid for, he could not upgrade. Said the postgraduate, “Candidates had to only take the seat they had paid for. Otherwise, the planning done [by those selling the seats] would go awry.”

More options

There were other options. Students were offered a look at the question paper if they paid Rs 15 lakhs (at 2011 rates), said another student. “Those who could not afford Rs 15 lakhs were told they could see 50 questions if they paid Rs 1.5 lakhs," this person said.

What is more, this market had different rates for general and reserved category students. In 2010, for instance, a general category student had to pay Rs 12 lakhs for a peek at the questionnaire while a reserved category student paid Rs 3-4 lakhs. By 2013, rates had converged somewhat with the numbers standing at Rs 18-20 lakhs and Rs 10 lakhs respectively.

Other scams took root as well. Private colleges, which had some seats under their discretionary management quota but the rest under the state government, began using Vyapam to sell their governments seats.

But the bigger question is this: Madhya Pradesh has one of the lowest doctor-population ratios in India. According to a 2011 Planning Commission report, it ranks in the bottom eight. Even as the Vyapam scam made matters worse by pushing undeserving candidates into its MBBS and MD programmes, no checks and balances kicked in.

The question is why. That's what the CBI has to answer.

Inside Vyapam

Take the institution itself. Vyavasik Pariksha Mandal was an autonomous body. It was headed by a chairperson (who had to be a senior IAS official holding the rank of Chief Secretary). In addition, there was a board of directors, which included the minister of technical education. This board, however, only concerned itself with policy decisions, not administrative ones.

However, the Vyapam scam shows an institution where a staffer, the exam controller, was calling the shots. Asked Ajay Dube, an RTI activist in the state who has been studying the systemic failures that resulted in Vyapam: “What were the chairpersons doing all this time?”

Or take the 2013 incident this article starts with. A list of 413 candidates was recovered from Jagdish Sagar. The suspicion was they had paid for admissions. The exam had already been held. When the results came, these students had been selected.

This created a tricky question of justice. Should these students' admission be suspended even before the investigation was concluded? That would be unjust if it later emerged these students were blameless. On the other hand, if they were allowed to stay on, and if it later emerged that they had indeed paid, injustice would be done to all the students who had prepared for the exam but failed to qualify as these 413 grabbed the seats.

This is how the state government resolved the dilemma. According to Abhay Chopra, a lawyer who filed a PIL in this matter as his own daughter was unable to get admission on merit, “Trivedi wrote a letter to the Department of Medical Education and state health secretary saying that till the investigation ends, no one can be suspected.”

Asked Chopra, “Why did the exam controller write such a letter to the Department of Medical Education and state health secretary?” Indeed, why didn't the chairperson write this.

Scroll could not see these letters. But here is what happened. The students were allowed to stay on.

This resulted in an eight-day hunger strike by other students.

The morning in Indore when Scroll met Saklecha, he spoke about the three levels of screening students have to get through before getting admission. Application forms, photographs, marksheets, signatures and thumb impressions are scrutinised in the examination hall, during post-result counselling (when colleges are alloted), and then again at the college at the time of admission. “There was checking at three places,” he said, “but these candidates got through anyway.”

To the top

But the biggest set of questions go all the way to the top. During much of this period – 2008-2012 – CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan was in charge of education in the state.

There are other questions. Who took the decision to appoint Pankaj Trivedi? Also, even as these complaints were coming in, Vyapam's mandate was expanded in 2007 beyond MBBS and MD to conduct exams for state government and other jobs – constables, forest guards, bank staff and more. According to the people Scroll spoke to, similar corruption is seen in those exams as well. Given that complaints about corruption were already doing the rounds, did the state government set stronger processes in place before transferring this responsibility to Vyapam?

Also, did the money paid for seats stay with Pankaj Trivedi or did it flow beyond him?

Further, MPPMT – its entrance exam for the MBBS – was meant to be replaced by the All India Pre-Medical Test in 2013. This was done only in 2014. In the final year, many people told Scroll, there was again a lot of corruption. And so, the CBI also needs to look at who decided to defer the introduction of the all-India test.

All this is without getting into questions about the unexplained deaths. Meanwhile, Congress leader Digvijay Singh's alleged that the Chief Minister removed his name from a controversial excel sheet provided by a whistleblower, while students (the ones who paid) are being harassed by some members of the Special Task Force.

The CBI has its task cut out.