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Above: The scam-related evidence may have been tampered with at the NIOS head office in Noida/Photo: Anil Shakya

In another shocking case of deceit like Vyapam, the CBI has found that 1,800 students in three centres passed the NIOS exam without appearing for it in connivance with unscrupulous officials

By Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal 

The lid on a Vyapam-like exam racket is about to be lifted as the CBI is pretty close to arresting conspirators who got 1,800 Class X and Class XII candidates fraudulently cleared in the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) exam in 2017.

A six-month investigation led the CBI to conclude that the students’ appearance in the exam centres in Umaria, Sehore and Ratlam districts of Madhya Pradesh had been manipulated. The CBI is yet to make any arrests. “We have more or less connected the dots but we need to investigate a little more before filing the charge sheet,’’ a top CBI officer reportedly said. An FIR was registered in July last year after an internal probe by NIOS found massive irregularities at these centres.

In the first week of June 2017, NIOS was alerted about large-scale malpractice in the exams conducted at the following centres—Kendriya Vidyalaya on Sagod Road (Ratlam district), Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, Pali (Umaria district) and Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, Shyampur (Sehore district). Suspicion was also raised about the role of the Guwahati regional centre where the answer sheets were evaluated.

NIOS chairman Chandra B Sharma ordered an internal probe by setting up a three-member panel which comprised Professor Mazhar Asif, chairman of the regional advisory committee at the NIOS Guwahati centre; Dr Babli Choudhury, member of this centre; and Professor Pawan Kumar Sharma, chairman of the regional centre advisory committee at the NIOS Bhopal centre. The committee found that invigilators at the examination centres had marked these students absent and the blank answer sheets were sent to the regional centre in Bhopal.

Here, a sack containing the answer sheets was sealed in the presence of inquiry committee members and sent to the NIOS headquarters in Noida.

When the sealed answer sheets were examined at the Noida office, the committee members were shocked to find massive irregularities. They observed that on the day of the NIOS exam in April 2017, the attendance of the candidates was marked on two sheets—one identifying each candidate with his name and photograph and another carrying their signatures. After the exam was over, the attendance sheets with photographs were sent to the regional centre in Bhopal. Another set of sheets was sent to the evaluation centre at Guwahati. Attendance sheets dispatched from each of the three examination centres to Guwahati were found to be tampered with.

The attendance record (with photos) received in Bhopal from Kendriya Vidyalaya, Sagod Road, showed that only 19 out of the 693 candidates had appeared for the test. But the sheet (with signatures) dispatched to Guwahati showed that all the examinees were present. The panel also observed that the rigged attendance sheet sent to Guwahati looked authentic.

All NIOS examination centres, as per rules, are required to return all the unused answer sheets to their respective regional centres after the examination. When the committee inspected the regional centre at Bhopal on July 7, 2017, it discovered that all the unused answer sheets had been duly returned by the three exam centres. However, the Guwahati evaluation centre received a bundle of answer sheets including those belonging to absent candidates. As the accompanying attendance sheet (carrying signatures) received at Guwahati showed all the candidates as present, the evaluation centre did not suspect anything foul.

When the probe committee went through the answer sheets evaluated at Guwahati, it noticed that the ones belonging to the absentee candidates did not have the NIOS logo imprint. However, the serial numbers on the fake answer sheets received at Guwahati were similar to the ones on the unused answer sheets returned to the Bhopal regional centre. The panel also observed many examples of two different types of handwriting on a single sheet. The committee found that a majority of the candidates registered to appear at the three exam centres were from Punjab or Odisha. It felt that this was strange as one would expect the registration list to reflect the local population.

The role of an unidentified nexus in this scam became more apparent on August 10, 2017. On this day, the regional director of the Guwahati centre received an email from an “RP Singh” asking for the mobile number of an employee. A scrutiny of the bank account of the employee later revealed that several deposits amounting to Rs 4,91,600 were credited between May 9 and June 23, 2017, from Mayur Vihar in Delhi. The deposits were disproportionate to the employee’s income, the committee found.

Based on its report, the NIOS chairman wrote to the Union human resource development ministry seeking a thorough probe into the scam. Sharma, in his letter on August 22, 2017, said that the preliminary probe had revealed that more than 1,000 candidates from MP had passed the exam without appearing for it.

The ministry, in turn, asked the CBI to investigate.

Calling it a big scam, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in June 2018 petitioned the Bhopal police seeking action. AAP convener Alok Agrawal alleged: “Out of 1,224 candidates belonging to three schools, only 24 appeared at three different examination centres set up for the exam. But all 1,224 were declared passed. It smacks of major corruption on the lines of the infamous Vyapam scam and an FIR should be registered.” He also demanded an SIT probe under the supervision of a High Court judge.

The CBI registered the case on July 23, 2018, under the IPC sections of criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery and corruption and under the Prevention of Corruption Act on a complaint from the HRD ministry. Its investigation confirmed that serial numbers on almost all the blank answer sheets had been removed “in an attempt to destroy evidence”.

In November 2018, the CBI conducted raids at 26 locations at various NIOS premises, houses of its former officials and study centres. The raids were spread across various places in six states, in Bhopal, Sehore, Ratlam and Umaria in Madhya Pradesh; New Delhi; Fatehabad and Faridabad in Haryana; Bhubaneswar and Ganjam in Odisha; Guwahati, Kamrup and Lakhimpur in Assam; and Gangtok in Sikkim.

During the operation,  hard disk drives, mobile phones and various incriminating documents, including admit cards, vouchers, passbooks, mark sheets, cheque books, seals, diaries and answer sheets of NIOS, payments received from candidates, fee payments made to NIOS, seating plan in the examination hall, etc, were recovered.

The operation yielded astonishing facts. The sleuths detected that 1,800 students—mostly from Odisha and Punjab—secured mark sheets for Class X and Class XII without appearing in the examination. Each of them allegedly paid Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000, said CBI sources. The racketeers forged and manipulated attendance and answer sheets of the students. The CBI recovered documents which suggested that a substantial amount of money was deposited in the bank account of an NIOS employee in Guwahati from a bank account in Delhi. Unidentified NIOS officials, some students and private persons conspired to pass the absentees and failed students. The probe revealed that those involved in the racket submitted forged answer sheets written elsewhere.

Last month, the CBI called former and current NIOS employees and the inquiry committee members to its Bhopal office. After questioning them, the CBI team realised that the evidence had been tampered with, the officer said. The tampering, he said, could have taken place only at the Noida headquarters where the sack remained for nearly a year-and-a-half.

After Vyapam, this scam has given a bad name to Madhya Pradesh.

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