“In Naini, teachers studied more for exams than students,” said Pankaj Singh, only half-jokingly. Naini is an industrial township across the Yamuna river from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Singh, who owns an inter college – a school up to Class 12 – in the town claimed to have an insider’s view of the “most organised” cheating racket in Uttar Pradesh, which has a reputation as one of the worst states when it comes to cheating in school exams.

It is a reputation that the Bharatiya Janata Party government, elected a year ago, is seeking to change by reforming the examination process. Over 10.61 lakh candidates have opted against taking the various school board exams this month, with the government attributing the massive attrition to its crackdown on cheating.

In Allahabad district, where students from all over the state come to take their exams, partly because of the ease of cheating, there is evidence that this is not an empty boast.

Until last year, said students registered for Class 10 Class 12 state board exams, they counted on a range of what they called suvidhayen, or facilities, to obtain marks without studying or even appearing for the exam. Answers could be handed out on slips of paper, dictated by the invigilator, even entire answer scripts could be filled in by someone else.

To profit from this cheating industry, schools greased palms to be selected as examination centres and got their own students placed at a co-conspirator’s institution. Both sets of students were then charged for the help they received and their high marks served as an advertisement to draw in the next batch. Other academic decisions were affected as well. Singh’s school discontinued humanities in Classes 11 and 12 a few years ago because it was bad for business. The need for long, distinct answers made mass copying difficult.

Because every involved party – government functionaries, school authorities, students, parents, teachers – was complicit, cheating was low-risk. The industrial scale of operations meant help could be secured for under Rs 1,000 in some places.

But not this year. In July 2017, Chief Minister Adityanath held a video conference with the senior officials of all districts, exhorting them to get strict. The government announced that elements of an anti-copying law, first enacted in 1992 by another BJP government, would be implemented. Crucially, it made supervisors and invigilators at exam centres where students are caught cheating culpable. In addition, the school board, the Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad, moved a significant part of the process of selecting exam centres online.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Singh decided against engaging in the usual lobbying to have his school on the list of examination centres. On the first day of the exams on February 6, a supervisor and two invigilators at an inter college in Naini were arrested for dictating answers. By February 21, at least 854 students across the state had been caught “using unfair means”, and the police had filed 74 first information reports, against students, invigilators and supervisors.

This does not mean cheating has ended, say students. Where it continues, the added risk has driven up the cost. An Allahabad schoolgirl said the going rate for the facilities is now Rs 8,000 in some places.

Constable Narayan Yadav at Bal Bharti Inter College in Naini. The exam centre's supervisor and two invigilators were arrested on the first day of the exams. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

How did the old system work?

In previous years, a committee headed by the district magistrate and including the district inspector of schools, the local authority for secondary education, examined schools for availability of infrastructure such as rooms and toilets and recommended a set of them as exam centres to a division-level committee. The division committee would randomly check some of the schools listed, ask for changes and then recommend the list to the school board to finalise. “We had a three-level screening process but the district level report was rarely questioned,” said Lalmani Dwivedi of Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh, a teachers’ organisation. “This time, the board took charge.”

Neena Srivastava, the board’s secretary, explained: “We asked government, aided and private schools to declare the facilities they have online – such as the number of rooms, tables, toilets – and gave them marks [out of 190] against each criterion. The district inspector verified their claims. The school with the highest score within a 5 km radius was picked.”

Included in the criteria for selection for the first time was the availability of CCTVs – a long-standing demand of Dwivedi’s organisation because of their “psychological impact”.

To make monitoring easier, only schools capable of accommodating at least 300 students were picked. As such, the number of examination centres in the state dropped from 11,415 in 2017 to 8,549 this year.

Uttar Pradesh Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad's secretary Neena Srivastava in her office. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

What has changed?

Inter college students who had experienced the lax monitoring in Class 10 were alarmed by the change. “There are cameras [trained on us] and we are not allowed to talk during the exam or turn our heads,” said Swati Sharma, emerging from her accounts exam at Arya Kanya Inter College, near Rambagh, Allahabad. Boys were asked to leave shoes and socks outside and dropped pens were retrieved by invigilators because at some centres bending was not permitted.

A Class 10 student said he was stunned to find the special task force of the police posted at his exam centre in Bal Vikas Inter College Chakrana Tiwari in Chaka, Naini. “They spent an hour at the centre the day we had maths,” he said.

The police say they are more involved than ever. A booklet of instructions has been dispatched to every station house officer. Allahabad has been divided into three “super zones”, 11 zones and 37 sectors – each placed under a senior officer. Each of the 313 exam centres is monitored by a team of a sub-inspector and two constables – policewomen where the centre is for girls – and 11 quick response teams are on standby, said Brajesh Kumar Mishra, Allahabad’s additional superintendent of police. Until February 17, the police had made three arrests.

“Earlier, we got one policeman and not the same one every day,” said a teacher at Kesar Vidyapeeth Inter College, a government-aided school in Chowk area of Allahabad. “This time colleges know who will come and they stay put throughout the exam.” If they do not arrive on time, schools can call them up. Srivastava added that the local intelligence units of the police are also involved.

Examination centres were selected on the basis of marks given by the board.

Of the over 8,000 exam centres, the board has identified 2,087 that require extra vigilance – 1,521 have been declared sensitive and 566 very sensitive. “These are in areas where cheating is common and papers have been leaked before,” said Srivastava. “The highly sensitive ones are where locals and guardians could get violent.” The board’s additional secretary, Pradeep Singh, said every district has some sensitive areas but Kaushambi, Allahabad, Aligarh, Ballia, Azamgarh and Ghazipur are the most disreputable. Allahabad has 76 sensitive and 21 very sensitive centres.

Another weapon against cheating is the use of coded answer scripts, which are printed by the government press and come with a particular number. “They cannot be duplicated,” said Srivastava. “The child must enter the code on the attendance sheet and write their own roll number at the end of each page.” The board claims to have increased the number of districts using such answer scripts from 31 last year to 50. Eventually, all districts will be covered, said Srivastava. Correction of answers will also be carried out under CCTV surveillance.

Bad results

In 1992, Kalyan Singh’s government enacted Nakal Adhyadesh, or anti-cheating law, which made cheating in school exams a non-bailable offence. Just 14% candidates had passed that year, said Pradeep Singh. “We are expecting the same thing this time,” he added.

The law was repealed in 1993 by the Samajwadi Party government of Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had made it a campaign issue in that year’s Assembly election. Several school owners and teachers alleged that the state’s authority over board exams slackened most on Yadav’s watch. Partly because of this, countering cheating became a pet project for the BJP, which took steps against it every time it came to power. The 1992 law was reinstated under BJP’s Kalyan Singh in 1998. But it was never fully implemented.

Students have mixed feelings about the latest changes. Mansi Gautam, Class 12 science student from Malakraj, Allahabad, said that efforts to counter cheating make the system fairer for those who have attended classes and studied. Commerce student, Priyanka Singh similarly approved of the measures. But most of their exams have gone badly and teachers and students expect poor results.

Students leave Arya Kanya Inter College in Allahabad after writing the Class 12 physics and accounts paper. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Meanwhile, examinees are dropping out in droves. By February 17, Allahabad district had lost over a fifth of its Class 10 examinees, 26,822 out of 1,27,332, according to the district inspector of schools, RN Vishwakarma. Examination centres across Naini are counting the absentees. On February 17, at least 57 candidates failed to show up for the Class 10 social studies exam at Madhav Gyan Kendra Inter College on Jail Road.

“Children will write one bad exam and decide there is no point in writing more,” said one of the three inter college teachers who replaced Bal Bharti’s staff after they were arrested. There, 110 of the 480 candidates skipped the Class 10 social studies exam on February 17 and 141 out of 425 did not take the Class 12 physics paper. “Usually, private schools posted better results than government schools,” said the teacher. “This time we will get the real picture.”

Still not perfect

Despite the precautions, loopholes persist. The principal of a private inter college in Naini pointed out that until the CCTVs start recording sound, there is no way to know if an invigilator is dictating answers from a blind spot.

Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh member Lalmani Dwivedi said flaws in the selection process remained. “We found that schools with fewer facilities were given higher scores than better-equipped institutions,” he alleged. “In Jasra block, an aided school with 30-35 rooms was passed over for one very close by with about 15. And the merit list of all schools with their scores was not made public.”

Srivastava admitted there may have been flaws. “We were doing it for the first time, it is possible there have been some flaws,” she said. “A school may have a reputation locally that did not reach us. But we tried to make the process as transparent as possible.”

Dwivedi underlined a more deep-rooted problem: despite the school board maintaining that it prefers government and government-aided schools over private ones, nearly half the aided schools in Allahabad were not allotted exam centres. Compared to other states, Uttar Pradesh has few government or government-funded schools. It has left most of secondary education in private hands, largely outside its regulatory control. This neglect is responsible for the cheating epidemic in school exams, teachers say, and controlling it would take more than just cosmetic reforms.

Some names have been changed on request.