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The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024: Curbing Malpractice and Upholding Sincerity

They say single paper cannot decide your destiny, but unfortunately in India, it does.

The students preparing for competitive exams already have immense pressure, as these exams can significantly impact their lives. But the increasing news of paper leaks and malpractices acts as an additional source of constant tension and anxiety for the students. Amidst the ongoing controversy surrounding the NEET and UGC-NET exams the central government has recognized an urgent need to address these issues.

In response, the government introduced the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024.

The act aims to curb the use of unfair means in a broad range of examinations conducted by different bodies. This includes major bodies such as the as the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the Staff Selection Commission (SSC), the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection, and railways, among others. The act is one of it's kind, dealing with unfair practices and related offenses. The Act has a wide scope of application enough to accommodate other agencies as required, which can be added through notification by the Central Government.

Key Provisions of the Act
Wide Scope: The act has a broad scope, encompassing a wide range of offenses and actions categorized as unfair practices. This comprehensive approach makes the act exceptionally effective in addressing and mitigating various forms of misconduct.

The Act Empowers authorities to conduct surprise checks, seize electronic devices, and coordinate across agencies to tackle organized cheating.

Power to Refer Investigation to a Central Agency: The act effectively empowers the central government to refer any case to a central investigation agency whenever necessary to ensure swift and careful resolution of related matters.

Appointment of a Public Official: The Act ensures accountability and openness in the process by designating public examination authority officers as public servants. Because of this, the authority's service regulations and procedures may be followed to take appropriate administrative action against the public employees who are in default.

How does the new legislation aim to prevent malpractice in public exams?
The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act is an assuring step towards the students who put there hard work that exams will be fair and those who violate the law will face punishment.

Stricter Punishments: The law prescribes imprisonment of a minimum three years, extendable to five years, for individuals caught leaking exam papers or tampering with answer sheets. Offenders will also face fines of up to Rs 10 lakh.

Non-Bailable Offenses: It clearly states that all the offences covered under the ambit of this law shall be cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable. Which implies that authorities can arrest individuals without a warrant and they cannot seek bail as a right.

Organized Crime: If someone, including the examination authority or service provider indulges in an organised crime, , he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not less than five years but which may extend to ten years and with fine which shall not be less than one crore rupees.

Empower authorities: To conduct surprise checks, seize electronic devices, and coordinate across agencies to tackle organized cheating.

Punishments under the Act
The act is judiciously crafted to assign punishments under different acts considered under unfair practices. It recognizes a greater responsibility on the service provider than any other person, as can be noticed by difference in the gravity of the punishments. A service provider is charged with upto Rs. 1 Crore fine plus 3 - 10 years of imprisonment whereas any other person found indulging into unfair practices is charged with 3 to 5 years imprisonment along with a fine of 10 lakh rupees. It further provides blacklisting and 4 - year ban on the service provider to conduct any examination, which serves as a concrete measure towards fixing their liability, underscoring the legislative foresight to create a deterrent effect in the long term against any person or institution indulging in such activities.

For the organized crime, if any person is caught, he will be charged up to Rs. 1 Crore fine and 5 - 10 years of jail, on the other hand, of any institution is found to be part of an organized crime, its property will be subjected to attachment and forfeiture and proportionate cost of examination shall also be recovered from it.

The introduction of stricter punishments will instill fear in those responsible for the increasing incidents of paper leaks and cheating.

What's left to be addressed?
While the The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act serves to be an comprehensive step to uphold fairness and integrity, there are still some areas that may need further attention and improvement.

Issue of public examinations being canceled due to unfair practices like paper leaks
Rescheduling of the exams that are canceled due to unfair practices and paper leaks still remains a concern. If these public exams are not rescheduled in a timely manner, it can have disastrous consequences, given the magnitude of the examinations and the thousands of students that take them. There is no set amount of time specified by the Act for the exam to be retaken. In order to avoid any loss of candidates' preparation and merit, it is recommended that the optimal time frame be within six months of the exam's announcement of cancellation. This will ensure fair opportunity and chance for each candidate.

Exclusion of state exams initially
The act only concerns itself to the central authorities, States may choose to implement it, but many might not do so right away, leaving offenders free to take advantage of the legal void in state-level examinations. Noticing the rising cases of malpractice, implementation on all levels is an immediate need.

Establishing and ensuring adherence to eligibility criteria to invigilate an exam
It frequently happens that administrative officers and invigilators are not aware of the correct norms and processes for conducting the examination. This brings inefficiency and leaves a room for adoption of unfair means by certain candidates. In order to prevent this, there should be clear eligibility criteria to invigilate a public examination and proper adherence to these criteria must be ensured. Additionally, proper comprehensive training should be given to the invigilators to ensure smooth conduct of examinations and they are well equipped with the necessary skills. Online training programs and development of modules can also be effective in this area.

Underutilization of modern technology and AI
This is bewildering that, despite the fact that offenders are using all these technology for their schemes, the authorities are yet to use these technologies effectively to ensure smooth conduct of the exams. Integration of AI and modern techniques should be used for surveillance in the examination process. AI can be integrated to catch any discrepancies in the evaluation process overlooked by the human eye. Electronic printing and distribution of exam papers can minimize the risk of paper leaks. Technology should be leveraged to streamline the entire exam life cycle - from setting questions to conducting exams to evaluating answer sheets.

The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, is a positive step to ensure that exams are conducted effectively and without the issues of paper leaks, as has been seen in the NEET exam controversy. Use of malpractices, which leads to cancellation of the exam has far greater impact than initially thought. Cancellation of even one such exam effects the life of thousands and lakhs of candidates who have invested their blood, sweat, and tears into their preparation.

The effective implementation of the legislation could go a long way in curbing the menace of cheating and upholding the integrity of crucial public examinations that determine the future of millions of students. Although stakes are high, it is unclear how much the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act of 2024 would actually improve the public examination system and eliminate its problems.

"The object of a public examination cannot by any means be construed to be so restrictive as to be cruel on the candidates," the Calcutta High Court stated in a recent ruling. Considering the aforementioned, although it can be said that the act is to prevent unfair practices in public examinations, the primary goal of the act, which is to protect bona fide candidates, should not be disregarded. The growing number of paper leak incidents should serve as a stark reminder to put the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, into force effectively.

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