The Supreme Court earlier this week upheld the disqualification of more than 1,000 students who had fraudulently obtained admission to medical colleges in Madhya Pradesh as part of the Vyapam scam, effectively stripping many doctors of their degrees and reducing them to high school graduates.

The Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, better known by its Hindi acronym, Vyapam, had cancelled the students’ admissions after the Indore police blew the lid on the pre-medical test racket in July 2013. The students had, between 2008 and 2013, gained admission to medical colleges through fraudulent means, including using impersonators to take the tests for them after paying bribes to politicians, bureaucrats and other middle men.

In May, a division bench of Justice J Chemaleshwar and Justice AM Sapre ruled that the admissions were illegal, but were divided on the course of action against the students. While Sapre said their degrees and admissions should be cancelled, Chemaleshwar had recommended leniency, saying it would be a national waste to disqualify hundreds of doctors. He recommended instead that keep their degrees in return for doing social service for a few years.

On Monday, the medical students and doctors lost the legal battle in the highest court. Of these, 634 medicos were those who had moved the Supreme Court against a Madhya Pradesh High Court order disqualifying them, while the remaining 453 students were not party to the case but will also be affected by the ruling, said Vyapam director Bhaskar Lakshakar.

Ailing sector

The recent Supreme Court ruling deals a blow to the already ailing healthcare sector of Madhya Pradesh.

The state has 16 medical colleges, including six government-run ones, which together produce 1,600 MBBS graduates every year. According to the state Medical Officers Association, Madhya Pradesh should ideally have around 15,000 doctors in government hospitals, but the actual strength is just about 3,000. The number of sanctioned posts for MBBS and postgraduate doctors, including specialists, in government-run hospitals and health centres is 7,000. But in rural areas, 55% of health centres do not have MBBS doctors, the association said. The statewide shortage of doctors is over 60%, said Lalit Shrivastava of the Medical Officers Association.

Nowhere to go

Of the 1,000 students affected by the order, 400 had finished their courses and were practicing as doctors, while the rest were in varying stages of their MBBS courses. “The government and the Supreme Court have left us with no option but to commit suicide,” Bhavesh Nayak, a student who has now been disqualified, told the local media after the verdict. “Our entire career is ruined.”

Another affected student, Sunil Jat, asked,” Can the government ensure a secured future for us? Our time to build a career is already gone.”

Deepak Bundela said that while students like him had been penalised, the real culprits were roaming freely.

The pre-medical test racket in which these students were charged is part of the broader Vyapam scam, which also involved rigging of recruitment tests for jobs in state government departments.

The scam came to light in 2013, when the Indore police arrested 12 impersonators who had appeared for entrance exams on behalf of the candidates. Over the next couple of years, more than 2,000 arrests were made in the scam. In 2015, the investigation was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, after several people linked to the scam – including students, alleged middle men, witnesses and a journalist investigating the racket – died under mysterious circumstances. While a special task force that was earlier investigating the case pegs the number at 25, the CBI is looking into 17 deaths.

Barring the alleged kingpin of the scam, Dr Jagdish Sagar, who was said to have links to several leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, all other arrested accused, including the then Vyapam examination controller Pankaj Tridevi, chief system analyst Nitin Mahindra , former minister Laxmikant Sharma, his then officer on special duty OP Shukla , mining baron Sudhir Sharma , Congress leader Sanjeev Saxena, businessmen, doctors, a police officer and two bureaucrats are out on bail. The accused have been charged with manipulating the entrance test to ensure admission to students after charging them or their parents a hefty sum. Several others who had exploited students’ eagerness and desperation to secure seats in medical colleges to make money are yet to face trial.

The students had urged the Supreme Court to grant them leniency, on grounds that they had studied hard for five years and cleared all the internal college examinations after securing admissions, However, a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice JS Khehar held that the actions of the appellants were “unacceptable” and flouted the law. “Their actions constitute acts of deceit, invading into a righteous social order,” the bench observed on Monday. “National character, in our considered view, cannot be sacrificed for benefits – individual or societal.”

Pragati Neekhara, advocate for some of the students, said the verdict is a huge shock for the petitioners, who have already wasted precious years of their lives fighting a lengthy legal battle.

Whistleblower Dr Anand Rai said students should have been the last to get penalised in this scam, especially when the masterminds “were still free”.

Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, on whose petition the Supreme Court directed a CBI probe into the scam, said after the verdict that the students, who were victims of the corrupt system, had had been punished, while those who manipulated it for financial benefits were roaming freely.