On the morning of February 17, Abdul Sheikh, 17, packed his pens and ruler in his motorcycle pannier and set out from Pura Fateh Muhammad, a residential colony in Naini, in Uttar Pradesh’s Allahabad district.

His family assumed he was headed to the examination centre to write the Class 10 social studies paper. But instead he went to Omaxe City, a glitzy housing and shopping complex with a mall and under-construction flats, where he met his friends. The group spent the three hours an exam lasts just “roaming around” and taking photographs and selfies.

They were not the only ones to sit out the exam.

In Allahabad district alone, 26,821 students registered to write the Class 10 Uttar Pradesh state board exams in 2018 failed to show up for the social studies paper. By February 26, over 10.6 lakh examinees in Classes 10 and 12 had dropped out across the state.

The state government attributes the massive attrition to its crackdown on cheating. This year, as Scroll.in reported in the first part of this series, the Uttar Pradesh school exam board overhauled the examination process, reducing the number of exam centres, making video recording compulsory and ensuring greater police presence. This deterred students from taking the exams, it claimed.

Sheikh had prepared for the first exam – by collecting 10 days of pocket money, about Rs 350, reckoning that was enough to buy him help at the exam centre.

Of his syllabus, he had bothered to study less than half. He and his friends had whiled away their school time riding motorcycles in other neighbourhoods of Allahabad, clicking pictures and posting them on social media. They went to Civil Lines twice in a month to get their hair fashioned into the uniform style of the colony’s male teenagers – close-shaven around the head and long on top.

“Seniors had said we would get help,” Sheikh explained.

But when he went to the centre at Chaka, Naini, to write the first exam, in place of indulgent invigilators and chits of paper to copy from, Sheikh found close-circuit cameras, a ban on shoes, and policemen. He did sit through that exam but did not go back for the second. He saw no point in continuing. He knew he would fail.

Sheikh’s father owns a shop in Allahabad. He bought his son a smartphone that, since Class 8, has been Sheikh’s constant companion.

But not all students who dropped out of the school exams were pampered teenagers. In Uttar Pradesh, mass cheating allowed an easy route to everybody chasing a high school certificate. The dropouts had diverse backgrounds, with no limit on age. But most had one thing in common: they had all enrolled in private schools. Poorly regulated, they offered safe avenues for cheating, as the next story in this series explains.

The dropouts

From 9 am to 6 pm, six days in a week, Ajay Keswani, 24, runs a puri-subzi stall at Medical Chauraha, a crossing on Mahatma Gandhi Road. His weary face and betel juice-stained lips would have stood out in any schoolroom but despite enrolling, he spent no time in class.

He took admission in Class 9 in 2015, years after dropping out of school. “I thought I might need a degree someday,” he said. Although a resident of Malakraj, a slum area close to the Allahabad City railway station, he took admission in Kaushambi, a neighbouring district with a reputation for making cheating easy. Attending classes was out of the question. “How could I?” he asked rhetorically. “I am busy all morning.”

In 2016, Keswani passed Class 10 with 75% marks. “The answers were read out in the hall,” he admitted. The service cost him Rs 2,000 – a quarter of his monthly income. The same year, he enrolled in Class 11 in a school in Phaphamau, like Naini, a satellite town of Allahabad city. He wrote the two intermediate Hindi exams this February before dropping out. “We had to leave even our shoes outside,” he said. “What is happening is good, this is how it should be. But I was not prepared.”

Malakraj has other students who have dropped out. Plumber Vijay Gautam’s younger brother wrote just the first exam. “He works in a children’s clothes store in Katra,” he said, referring to a market area. “This is common here... My brother and two-three others had given some money too – I am not sure how much – but all of them have quit.”

Every examination centre had the police guarding the entrance. Abdul Kalam, seniormost of the trio at an Allahabad inter-college, said said security was this tight for the first time.

In Class 10

In late April, when results are expected, Sheikh’s parents will not be the only Pura Fateh Mohammad residents to learn their son was absent.

Ahmed Raza, 17, and Azim Khan, 18, students of different schools and assigned different centres, too have been leaving home for the Class 12 intermediate exams but spending that time in other parts of Allahabad.

For the Class 10 board exam, Raza had actually studied. “I did not know we would get help,” he said. “But on the first day itself, someone brought pieces of paper with the answers on them. About five-10 children crowded around each and copied. There is more vigilance even in nursery tests.”

Even though he had prepared for the exam, he decided to pay the principal Rs 400 to allow him to cheat, because he “wanted to increase the percentage”. He passed, scoring 451 out of 600, 75%. His father, a driver, bought him a smartphone as a reward.

Khan, too, claimed that he first realised cheating could be so easy during the Class 10 exams. He wrote them at a centre on Jail Road, Naini, where the supervisor allegedly sidled up to students about 15 minutes into the exam offering different levels of help for examinees to pick from – answers to 20% of the questions for Rs 500, 50% for Rs 1,000 and the full paper for Rs 2,000. Although prepared, Khan took the “20% slab” that fetched him the short answers. He passed Class 10 with 70% and, like Raza, got a mobile phone from his father who works in Saudi Arabia.

It was from this lot that Sheikh learnt about cheating. He was warned it would be tougher this year, that the chief minister was keen on controlling cheating, but thought: “This is Naini town, something can be managed.” He was wrong, at least about his centre, and inside the hall, during the first and only exam he appeared for, “some stared at the walls, some scribbled, some went off to sleep”. Three of the four boys in his circle subsequently dropped out. In Khan’s exam hall, “only about 5%” students looked like they knew what they were doing. They even met students from other districts of Uttar Pradesh, such as Mirzapur, Azamgarh and Jaunpur, who had enrolled in Naini schools, lured by the promise of easy marks, but were disappointed.

Cutting class

Uttar Pradesh’s cheating racket did not just undermine the sanctity of its examination system, it ruined the education opportunities of its students. They enrolled but cut more classes than they attended, always assuming, as Sheikh did, that “schoolwala satisfy kar mega”. The school will bail them out during exams.

Raza and Khan described their two years of intermediate studies like it was a long weekend. “We roamed around the city on our bikes and took photos,” said Khan. When they felt like it, they went to school. On the other days, they left home in the morning, selfie-ready – skinny jeans, high-maintenance haircuts from a posh salon in Civil Lines, carefully trimmed stubble. They photographed each other at Company Gardens, Civil Lines and malls on their phones and uploaded them on social media. Raza, who had acquired a digital camera, ran a side business taking photographs of visitors at these popular sites for a fee. Most of their pocket money went into grooming and mobile data-packs.

One of their batchmates left Allahabad about six months before the exam to work in a shop in Paharganj, Delhi. “We attended, now and then, for a few months initially but stopped going after,” said Khan. He admitted to regretting that frightful waste of time and funds. Pura Fateh Muhammad parents paid an average school fee of Rs 700 per month.

What next?

Sheikh and Khan have both resolved to work hard this year and resit the exams in 2019. If the same schools do not take them on again, they are confident others will. “We have only dropped out, we were not debarred,” reasoned Khan. “Aur, medical bhi laga sakte hai.” Claiming they were sick and furnishing fake certificates to back it is another option. After clearing Class 12, Khan hopes to study engineering.

Raza does not see himself returning to his school at Ramnagar crossing. “If it goes on like this, how will we finish school?” he said, implying that without the opportunity to cheat, he cannot pass. But his Class 10 result, obtained through cheating, is good enough for admission into an Industrial Training Institute for skills education.

It is the end of the road also for Malakraj’s Ajay Keswani. He cannot abandon his stall to attend classes. He is getting married in the summer and needs the money. He cannot pass without cheating either.

Note: All names of examinees changed on request. Apart from being embarrassed, they are concerned they may be stripped of certificates they have already obtained.