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The Leak in Our Education System: From NEET to NET, Is Anti-Cheating Law Enough?

The question is whether a harsher punishment would be a solution to this menace.

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India faces major issues in the education sector, manifested through appalling incidents of national-level exam paper leakage both for NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) and UGC-NET (University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test) 2024.

These two incidents strongly question the credibility of the authority that has been vested with the powers to conduct these examinations, which is the National Test Agency (NTA). 

The recurrence of such faults necessitates an immediate rethinking of the measures put in place to protect millions of students whose futures are at stake. 

I say this, even more emphatically now, because a Right to Information (RTI) recently revealed that the NTA, which is also responsible for conducting other crucial examinations such as JEE and CMAT, is registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.

This is not only questionable, but also surprising because it was constituted only in 2017, replacing and collating all the national-level examinations under one head, and yet the NTA is not governed by a parliamentary act and not subject to the rules that govern the conduct of government employees.

In light of this, is an anti-cheating law enough?

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Anti-Cheating Laws Across the Country

In the last few years, several states have enacted laws to curb cheating in examinations. According to news reports, incidents of cheating and paper leaks have occurred on several occasions in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and many other states across the country. 

The Uttarakhand Public Service Commission papers were also leaked in January 2023. After many similar cheating incidents, which led to protests and unrest in the state, Uttarakhand promulgated an Ordinance to bar and penalise the use of unfair means in public examinations.

Since 2015, Gujarat has not been able to hold a single recruitment exam without reported paper leaks. In February 2023, the Gujarat Assembly also passed a law to penalise cheating in public examinations. Other states such as Rajasthan (Act passed in 2022), Uttar Pradesh (Act passed in 1998), and Andhra Pradesh (Act passed in 1997) also have similar laws.

Here's a table summarising state-wise data regarding different Acts prohibiting cheating and unfair practices in examinations, including the year, state, and the government under which these acts were passed.

The question is whether a harsher punishment would be a solution to this menace.
The above-mentioned laws clearly reflect that there were enough laws to regulate such irregularities, but the bigger question is whether a harsher punishment would be a solution to this menace.

The answer lies in the future because with technology, even hacking or leaking of national-level papers is becoming more ‘digitalised’.

It was only last month when a report concluded that most of the NEET papers were leaked through an online application – Telegram. Although we have a statute covering cybercrimes, with regard to such paper leaks through digital mediums, the authorities concerned should work on such a framework – because at present even the rules are not there yet, and the present Public Examinations Act of 2024 does not specifically indicate of any such measures with regard to digital mediums.

Anti-Cheating Act Tabled by the Centre

The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act of 2024, enacted by the Central government, is a legislative measure designed to curb cheating and other unfair practices in public examinations. The Act introduces stringent penalties for individuals and institutions involved in malpractices, including imprisonment and hefty fines. It mandates the use of advanced technologies and surveillance methods to secure examination processes and materials.

The Act also empowers authorities to take swift action against violators, ensures the protection of whistleblowers, and establishes a robust framework for monitoring and preventing unfair means in exams across the country.

This legislation aims to restore integrity and trust in the educational and recruitment examination systems by ensuring a fair and transparent process for all candidates. 

The Central government had introduced the bill in February this year and the rules have not been notified yet. This step of notifying the Act was after various incidents of paper leaks were reported across the country.

If we go through the definition clause, Section 2(h) defines “organised crime” as the means of 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.  

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What Constitutes Unfair Means?

The Act has been brought in to curb practices like cheating, compromising the integrity of the examination, and so on. Under Section 3 of the Act, 'unfair means' has been defined, which will include any acts of commission or omission by any person or group of persons or institutions, and also include but not be restricted to, any of the following acts for 'monetary or wrongful gains' –  

  • Leakage of question paper or answer key

  • Participating in collusion with others to effect leakage of question paper or answer key

  • Accessing or taking possession of question paper or optical mark recognition response sheet without any authority

  • Providing solutions to any questions to another by any unauthorised person during the examination

Lastly, with regard to the punishment for the aforementioned Act, present under the head of 'unfair means', Section 9 states that any person or persons resorting to unfair means and offences under this Act shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not less than three years but which may extend to five years and with a fine up to Rs 10 lakh.

In case of default with respect to the payment of the fine, an additional punishment of imprisonment shall be imposed, as per the provisions of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita 2023 implemented from 1 July.  

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Who is to be Blamed?

Every time a paper is cancelled, leaked or postponed, the victims are those lakhs of students who have been dedicating their crucial years to a fruitful outcome. But if the outcome is only flawed then there’s nothing for them on the table.

There is a principle of administrative law which says that even if one step of the process is unfair, then the whole process is termed as arbitrary or unfair. 

When papers are leaked and exams are subsequently cancelled, it leads to immense psychological stress, uncertainty, and financial burdens for students and their families.

The preparation for these exams often requires years of dedicated effort, and a single act of malpractice can render all that effort futile, shaking students' faith in the educational system. Furthermore, rescheduling exams imposes additional logistical challenges and delays in academic timelines, affecting students' future plans.

In light of this, the government bears a significant responsibility to ensure the security and integrity of these examinations.

Robust measures, such as advanced encryption technologies, stricter surveillance, and rigorous accountability protocols, must be implemented to prevent such breaches. It is also crucial for the government to address these concerns transparently and take swift action against those responsible.

The unfortunate incident last week, where Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition, was not allowed to speak and his mic was allegedly muted when he was speaking on the issue of NEET and UGC-NET paper leaks, by Speaker Om Birla in the Parliament highlights a disturbing lack of dialogue on such a critical issue.

Open discussions and debates in legislative bodies are essential for addressing systemic problems and restoring public trust.

The refusal to allow this conversation not only undermines democratic processes but also signals a concerning disregard for the educational and future prospects of millions of students. 

This is not the first time that any national-level examination was comprised, or the paper was leaked, but it seems we haven’t learnt from the past. Now, with the advancement of technology, one needs to introspect as to how such leaks can be prevented – for which even the Information Technology Act or fresh guidelines relating to such digital offences need to be considered by the authorities concerned.

(Areeb Uddin Ahmed is an advocate practicing at the Allahabad High Court. He writes on various legal developments. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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