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From Leaked Papers to a Level Playing Field: Can This New Law Stop Exam Cheating?

Imagine pouring your heart and soul into studying for a crucial exam, only to find that the questions leaked online days before the test. Or imagine the anxiety of a student sitting in an exam hall, constantly suspecting classmates of cheating with hidden devices. This is an unfortunate reality for many students appearing for competitive examinations in India.

Cheating and paper leaks have become pervasive issues across the country. The recent allegations of a paper leak in the NEET 2024 exams ignited student protests across the country, demanding the cancellation of the exam. Such acts have not only eroded trust in the education system but also created a frustrating mental environment for ambitious young people striving for a brighter future.

A pervasive culture of paper leaks casts a long shadow over the integrity of examinations in India. Media reports paint a grim picture, suggesting over 70 exam papers were leaked across various states in the past seven years. This rampant cheating has resulted in numerous exam cancellations, potentially impacting the careers and futures of a staggering 1.5 crore (15 million) young people. These leaks have disrupted the examination process and raised serious legal concerns regarding the fairness of the examination system.

The concurrent list of the Indian Constitution empowers both the Central Government and State Governments to enact legislation on education and examinations. Although there has been no central legislation on this matter so far, the shared responsibility has resulted in a patchwork of state-level laws aimed at curbing the issue of cheating and paper leaks. States like Uttarakhand and Gujarat passed such acts in 2023, joining existing legislation in Rajasthan (2022), Jharkhand (2001), Uttar Pradesh (1998), and Andhra Pradesh (1997). Despite the existence of these state laws, paper leaking and cheating cases have increased in each of these states. In this context.

The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024, introduced by the Central Government, offers a potentially significant step forward. The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024 was introduced in Lok Sabha on February 5, 2024. This bill proposes a more unified national approach, advocating for stricter penalties, enhanced vigilance, and a crucial focus on holding service providers accountable for their role in maintaining examination integrity.

The definition of 'Public Examination' in Section 2(K) of the bill is extensive, encompassing any examination conducted by a "Public Examination Authority" as listed in the bill's schedule. The schedule lists five public examination authorities namely, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the Staff Selection Commission (SSC), the Railway Recruitment Boards (RRBs), the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection (IBPS), the National Testing Agency (NTA) that conducts the JEE (Main), NEET-UG, UGC-NET, and the Common University Entrance Test (CUET).

The bill also defines "organized crime" and imposes penalties for it, addressing the gap in state legislation that lacks specific provisions for such crimes. Section 2(1)(h) defines it as "an unlawful activity committed by a person or a group of persons indulging in unfair means in collusion and conspiracy to pursue or promote a shared interest for wrongful gain in respect of a public examination." The bill outlines a comprehensive list of offenses concerning public examinations.

It criminalizes leaking or attempting to leak exam papers, unauthorized possession or distribution of exam materials, tampering with answer sheets, providing or receiving unauthorized assistance during exams, and breaching examination security protocols. Additionally, it bans collusion or conspiracy to engage in these activities. Any unauthorized entry into examination premises with disruptive intentions will also be prosecuted. Further, it mandates the service provider to report any such offenses to the police authority, failing which the service provider will be deemed to have committed an offense.

All the offenses listed under Chapter II of the Act are cognizable, non-bailable, and non-compoundable. Offenses under the act attract imprisonment for a term not less than three years, which may extend to five years, and a fine of up to ten lakh rupees. A service provider, if found guilty, will face a fine of up to one crore rupees. For organized crime, the penalties are even harsher, with imprisonment spanning five to ten years and fines not less than one crore rupees.

Institutions involved in organized crime will have their property attached and forfeited, underscoring the bill's rigorous approach to maintaining examination integrity. Furthermore, the section prescribes that in case of non-payment of the fine, an additional punishment of imprisonment shall be imposed, as per the provisions of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023 (when brought into force). Investigations into offenses arising under this Act shall be conducted by a police officer holding the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police or Assistant Commissioner of Police. The Central Government reserves the right to transfer the investigation to a central investigative agency.

The central bill does not penalize the examinee for any offense, unlike some state legislation that not only penalizes the examinee but also debars them from appearing in exams upon conviction, thereby making it a student-oriented law. It overall serves as a model to curb the corrupt practice of the paper mafia and ensure transparency in the examination system, supporting meritocracy.

Nonetheless, it's crucial to acknowledge the deeply entrenched nature of such crimes, often intertwined with authority from the top to bottom. Therefore, not only deterrence but rigorous implementation of the bill's provisions becomes paramount for eradicating the issue at its core. In today's cutthroat competition for government jobs, students face immense pressure to get through the competitive examination.

While this central legislation may seem like a robust solution to tackle unfair practices, it overlooks the crucial step of understanding and addressing the root causes. The legislation prioritizes establishing offenses and associated penalties, offering a reactive rather than proactive approach. As goes the saying, 'Cure the disease, not the symptoms', a more effective strategy would be to implement strict protocols for the printing, transportation, and storage of examination papers. Currently, the process involves numerous individuals, from paper preparation to delivery, creating vulnerabilities.

Thus, even a single weak link driven by pressure or financial greed can lead to paper leaks. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government to eradicate the influence of unethical middlemen who leverage political patronage for monetary gain and must also ensure mechanisms to stop paper leak scams, which act as a termite gnawing at the growth of our country. Written By: Neelakshi Pal

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