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Questions For Sale

Questions For Sale

Technology has many advantages. We can communicate in a few seconds; we can find out the location of our friends at ease and also reach certain places without hassles. But this comfort is not without risks. Over the last few weeks, the words “leaks” and “protests” have been figuring widely in all public discussions.

Be it the print media or the electronic media or the social media, the images of people shouting slogans like “Stop playing with our future” #Vyapam, #CorruptCBSE, #SSC, #AIIMS, have been making the rounds. 

Yes, there was a distinct stress and fear associated with the months of February and March, when we were children. Those days, our main source of knowledge was books and teachers. Now, children have access to the Internet where a plethora of information is available at the press of a button or two. The Internet is certainly a good resource; especially those open sources of information that can help kids acquire multiple skills and even have a few degrees or certificates.

As for the closed sources, technology has made certain people information-rich. A petty clerk or a top executive has the same access to loads and loads of data. It is common to see your inbox full of marketing mails, without soliciting them. Those clerks or executives might have sold your precious personal information to a marketing agency, to drive more sales. It certainly is a breach of trust. But the perpetrators operate scot-free, without any fear, despite having stringent laws and rules and regulations in place.  

Small wonder that the question papers, which earlier used to be very sacred and stored under lock and key, were found in the social media, minutes before or after the examination began. Be it SSC or CBSE, WhatsApp and Facebook were used to pass on the question papers along with the answers! 

Days before the resumption of the budget session of Parliament, hundreds of candidates gathered before the headquarters of the staff selection commission (SSC), protesting against the combined graduate-level examination held during February 17 to 21 this year. 

The reason for the protest was the alleged leak of solved question papers just a few minutes after the examination began. Does it actually matter, if the paper is leaked after the exam began? One may think that it may not have helped many. It is possible that the paper was leaked even before those images were posted. 

Every year lakhs of candidates appear for examinations conducted by the SSC in the hope of getting a secure government job. Non-gazetted officers required by different ministries and departments of the Central government are appointed on the basis of these exams. This year, around 1.90 lakh candidates appeared for around 9,400 vacancies of lower division clerks, stenographers, central excise inspectors, income tax inspectors etc.

The exams are not easy to clear. There are questions to test the mathematical and reasoning skills and also to check the command of the English language. For those who cannot imagine or think of appearing for UPSC examinations, the SSC offers a solace and a hope of getting into a government job.

Though the exams are not as tough as the UPSC one, it requires a lot of hard work and practice to pass these exams. Over the years, people having specialised skills have set up special coaching centres. A crash course in these coaching institutes requires a lot of money. 

People from remote areas, who do not have the privilege of having coaching centres in their vicinity, travel to cities like Delhi, stay in filthy conditions (to save money so that they can pay the high fees charged by these coaching centres) to undergo coaching in the hope of cracking these exams and finally getting a job. 

Needless to say, they have to shell out a major chunk of their family’s income for these exams. In such circumstances, if a few rich or those who can afford to pay a few thousand bucks can get access to the entire paper with solutions, would it not be an injustice for those, who have worked hard and have invested their hard-earned money for having a secure future? Certainly it is.

That is exactly what happened this year with the SSC exams. While certain influential coaching centres got hold of the question papers set for SSC exams, certain people posted the paper with solution on their Facebook page and the SSCtube, a page meant for SSC aspirants. 

Although the commission postponed the exam for a couple of hours immediately after such posts went viral, yet the students demanded a CBI probe alleging mass-cheating. The students also confirmed that the paper had leaked even before the exam began as the questions asked in the exam and those shown in the social media were the same.

Some students also alleged that some candidates were allowed to appear from remote locations and pictures were again posted on the Facebook page. How can this happen as neither the candidates nor the invigilators are allowed to carry watches, forget mobile phones at the centres, where exams are being conducted? The question paper can only be viewed on a computer screen and candidates are given a rough sheet and an answer sheet during the exam. The images pointed out serious flaw or lax in the security measures.

The fact that the Facebook page had pictures showing the exam interface was completely ignored by the SSC board, which gave itself a clean chit after the so-called investigation. Instead of acknowledging the facts, the SSC chairman, alleging  mala fide intentions, in a statement said that the protests are “being actively instigated and sponsored by two coaching institutes/agencies with vested interests”.

It is a different matter that the government changed its stand and ordered a CBI probe later on. But the fact is that unless people protest and raise their voice, the government machinery does not take any  suo motu notice. Incidentally, it is the same Modi government, which believes in and is instrumental in promoting Digital India. And the same technology is being used for taking students for a ride.

On the one side, we have 31 million unemployed youth and on the other we have children, who after going through the education system for years lack basic learning skills. Be it the youth or children, the government does not seem to be serious about either education or employment.

On a different note, this government was swift enough to send a notice to Facebook when a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, gathered personal information of a mind-boggling 50 million users on the pretext of conducting an online survey taken by only 270,000 members. And people like Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad immediately sprang into action and threatened Facebook with legal action if there was evidence showing that data leaks influenced elections in India.

The point is if the government knows that technology can be misused and what implications it may have in case sensitive data is leaked, why can’t it ensure the safety of information that affects millions of youth of this country? Why can’t it be as prompt as it was in Facebook’s case! Modiji, any answers please?

Yes, a few might have been arrested but does it offer a long-term solution? The answer seems to be a big No.

(The writer is Executive Director, Deepalaya, and can be reached at  jassi.rai@gmail.com)

(Published on 09th April 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 14 & 15)