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"It's all about the money. Whoever has money, has the question paper. Those who have it, they pay Rs 5 lakh, Rs 20 lakh. I don't think I am weak in studies, but I feel lost before the system," said Kavi Karauli (29), a government job aspirant from Rajasthan's Karauli district.
Aspiring to be a school teacher, Kavi is one of the three siblings who grew up in a poor farming family in Karauli's Todabhim tehsil. Over the past decade, he has taken up several odd jobs, including daily wage labour, to fund his education. Through the years, Kavi has also appeared for several competitive exams for government jobs.
However, like lakhs of government job aspirants in the poll-bound state riddle by unemployment, Kavi has been a victim to paper leak scandals marring these exams at least twice.
"How does a question paper leak and reach people's pockets?" asked Congress leader Sachin Pilot in May 2023, as he reached Jaipur after his week-long Jan Sangharsh Yatra, mostly perceived as a rebellion against chief minister Ashok Gehlot.
Perceived as a youth icon in Rajasthan, Pilot over the past year popularised the issue in the run up to the 2023 Assembly elections.
Come November 2023, the scandals are now one of the primary election issues for both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Over the past few months, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attacked the Congress government in the state on several occasions, calling it "paper leak business."
But beyond the politics and the blame game, the struggles of lakhs of aspirants appearing for these examinations only multiply when the questions papers get leaked.
Shattered Dreams and Increased Struggles
"I wanted to be an RAS officer. But there were financial constraints since my father is a farmer. There wasn't much support from him so I wanted to work. I started to work as a daily wage labourer to support my fee and rent. In 2013, I had qualified for RAS but that paper leaked and that exam was cancelled. I again appeared for it in 2016 but I didn't score well that time," Kavi said.
In 2021, Kavi prepared and appeared for the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET). An eligibility test for the recruitment of primary and upper primary government school teachers in Rajasthan, it is conducted by the RBSE (Rajasthan board of Secondary Education).
"In 2021, the REET exam took place and I was very well prepared for it. Then we were told that the paper leaked. I was completely broken at the time. I had written the exam well. I lost all courage. I was completely demoralised," he said.
REET 2021was the biggest paper leak scandal of the past decade in Rajasthan. Conducted after a gap of four years after 2017, the state government had opened over 31,000 vacancies to fill teachers' posts, for which 16 lakh aspirants appeared. The exam was eventually cancelled, nullifying the hard work and shattering dreams of 16 lakh aspirants.
In 2022, Kavi appeared for the RPSC second grade exams. But this time, tragedy struck harder.
"In 2022, there was RPSC second grade exam. But we again came to know that the paper for the second grade exam leaked. Between the leaked exam and the re-exam, my father was detected with cancer. I lost the rhythm of my preparations. We were completely shattered because of financial constraints and lack of emotional support," Kavi said.
"My father passed away on 25 June. In this period, I was so shattered because of my father's passing and I had only a month to prepare. I missed qualification by eight marks in the re-exam," he said.
Like Kavi, Rishikesh and Rahul, two childhood friends living near Jaipur's Riddhi Siddhi Circle, too, were victims of the December 2022 paper leak of RPSC second grade examinations.
Both sons of farmers, they, too, had their sets of struggles following the leak.
"We appeared for the exam at the centre and there were 15 minutes left for the exam to get over. We were then told the paper had leaked. The re-exam was held a month later but I wasn't as well prepared so I did not do well. The family was upset, it would have been good if I would have got a job after the exams," Rishikesh said.
Rahul said that they were informed about the leak at his exam centre in Bharatpur just before it was to begin.
"We had not even written roll numbers. they collected the papers from us. By the time, I had started preparing for REET level 2 exams and the GK re-exam was around the same time, so both got spoilt. Due to the leak, both REET level to and grade 2 exams were spoilt for me," Rahul said.
The Paper Leak Nexus
To understand the nexus, let's zoom in on the investigation of the 2021 REET paper leak.
On the day of the exam, the Bikaner police recovered Bluetooth devices in slippers of several persons who were arrested, allegedly sold in several cities for Rs. 6-7 lakh.
The Rajasthan government suspended several government officials including teachers, officers of the Rajasthan Police Service (RPS) and Rajasthan Administrative Service (RAS) for the alleged irregularities.
After the state government's denial of leak, an investigation by the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Rajasthan police revealed that the paper was indeed leaked.
The investigation later revealed that the paper was stolen from the Shiksha Sankul in Jaipur by a man named Ramkirpal Meena- employed by the district coordinator for REET Pradeep Parasher who was also arrested later.
As of August 2023, over 100 people were arrested in several cases related to the REET 2021 paper leak.
Meena had allegedly received over Rs. 1.2 crore in exchange for the question paper, including from those engineering the leak as well as aspirants.
Gehlot Govt's Stringent Steps Didn't Help Much
Given the scale of the REET 2021 scandal, the Gehlot government in 2022 brought in the Rajasthan Public Examination (Measures for Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2022.
It provided for imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine of Rs 10 crore for those involved in leaking question papers.
But despite the stringent laws, a set of questions for the General Knowledge (GK) paper for the RPSC second grade exam leaked in December 2022. The culprit, this time, was found out to be one Babulal Katara, who was reportedly in charge of setting the paper.
The Act was then amended in the state assembly's monsoon session this year to enhance the punishment to life term.
A closer look at several of these leaks, however, reveal involvement of officials at several levels, including former employees of the RPSC, government employees, and teachers of private coaching institutes.
We met Upen Yadav, a household name in the state for vehemently protesting against the paper leak nexus for a decade, at his office in Jaipur's Riddhi Siddhi Circle area, a hub of coaching institutes for competitive exams.
"One of the biggest problems in Rajasthan is the printing press. The printing is outsourced. The printing presses need to be government-owned. The paper leak mafias are masterminds, they have all the information on which printing press the paper has gone to. Second, private schools with tedious conditions are bribed with Rs 5-10 crore to help leak the paper. That is another way to leak it. Even the ones who frame the question papers are doubted at times. So, the ones who frame the question papers, the printing presses, and the exam centres are the source. These are 3-4 points from where the paper get leaked," Yadav said.
"Third is politicisation. The RPSC, the karamchari chayan board, all have people who have been politically appointed. The political appointments need to stop," Yadav said.
'Rajasthan's Unemployed Youth Losing Faith in the System?'
Calling Pilot's demands opportunistic and accusing him of forgetting about them after being appointed to the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the Opposition BJP, too, has made corruption in the RPSC and the paper leak nexus one of its primary poll planks.
"They have done nothing. Their loot of jobs is not hidden from anybody. The youth will be the weapon for this government's downfall. He (Sachin Pilot) did a padyatra, called it the Jan Sangharsh Yatra and forgot about allegations of corruption after he was appointed to the CWC," Rajasthan's Leader of Opposition, Rajendra Rathore told The Quint.
In June this year, the Enforcement Directorate launched an investigation into the paper leak nexus in the state with raids across several districts. Most recently, the agency reached the doorstep of Congress president Govind Singh Dotasra in Jaipur, formerly the state's school education minister.
Despite the crackdown, aspirants across the state have lost faith in the system.
"The price I had to pay was so big. My father could have seen me employed before he passed away," Kavi said.
"The moment papers leak, we get demotivated somehow. The vacancies come after so many years. Why do you create situations that you'd have to avoid life imprisonment to people? UPSC also conducts exams but we have never heard that the papers have leaked. That kind of management is needed in the RPSC to avoid any leaks," Rahul said.
Yadav said that the Congress government in the state took good steps to punish the culprits, but the corruption in the system runs deeper than what gets reported in the media.
"When there are elections, why do the votes to leaders don't leak and stay confidential? Because it compromises the future of politicians. But this is a question of the children of farmers, of poor common people. Whoever is in the Opposition takes a stand for the youth only to get votes. The moment they are in power they try to create a different atmosphere. The youth are used only for votes," Yadav said.