The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test-Undergraduate (NEET-UG), conducted annually by the National Testing Agency (NTA) for admission to undergraduate medical programs, was held on May 5 this year with a record 23.81 lakh registrations, and over 96% of the registered candidates sitting for the exam. The NTA is an autonomous agency under the Union ministry of education.

The results were announced on June 4, the same day as the declaration of the general election results. Shortly afterwards, concerns regarding the exam and scores of some candidates began to surface, with allegations of a full-blown ‘scam’ starting to pop up. Opposition leaders, such as Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, Mallikarjun Kharge and several others also raised questions about the conduct of the national-level exam claiming that the results indicated a huge scam. They wrote to Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan seeking a probe into the matter.

Results Spark Various Concerns

On June 4, the results revealed an unusual situation where 67 candidates achieved the All-India Rank (AIR) 1 with a perfect score of 720, including six candidates from the same centre in Jhajjar, Haryana. This was particularly striking since in the last six years (2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023), the number of students attaining full marks has ranged between zero and three. However, as per NTA, this increase in the number of toppers resulted from more students taking the exam.

Many also pointed out that some candidates had scored 718 and 719, which was practically impossible under the standard marking scheme of NEET-UG, where each question carried four marks, and one mark was deducted for each incorrect answer. Thus, the highest possible scores after 720 should be 716 or 715. The NTA addressed this matter on June 4, stating that several students had reported a loss of time during the exam. As a result, grace marks were given to affected candidates, making it possible for some to receive scores of 718 or 719.

It was later revealed that as many as 1,563 candidates from Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Chhattisgarh were granted grace marks by the NTA after they approached respective high courts alleging discrepancies which led to the loss of time. However, this decision faced significant backlash, leading to counter-petitions demanding the scrapping of the grace marks. The NTA announced on June 8 that the education ministry would be forming a four-member panel to re-examine the grace marks given to over 1,500 students. On June 13, the Centre informed the Supreme Court that they had decided to revoke the grace marks, offering the 1,563 candidates the option to retake the exam which is to be held on June 23.

Moreover, even before the results were announced, there were multiple allegations of paper leaks at several centres, including Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Sawai Madhopur, the exams were reconducted following the intervention of the Collector. However, in Chhattisgarh, students had to approach the court to address the issue.

Dharmendra Pradhan’s Stance: ‘No Paper Leak, No Corruption’ on June 13; ‘Some Irregularities’ on June 16, ‘Taking Moral Responsibility’ on June 20

From the declaration of the NEET-UG results on June 4 until June 12, Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan had not made any statement addressing or acknowledging the allegations of discrepancies. During this period, Pradhan’s X profile remained active and mostly featured tweets about the BJP’s big win in Odisha and his re-appointment as the education minister. We could not find any news reports with his quote on the matter either during this period.

On June 13, Pradhan finally broke his silence about the matter and responded to Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s tweet where Kharge had alleged that the NEET exam had been rigged. Quote-tweeting Kharge’s tweet, Pradhan wrote in Hindi: “…As per the instructions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, the examination of 1,563 students will be conducted again. No concrete evidence of any kind of rigging, corruption or paper leak has been found in the NEET exam so far. All the facts related to this are before the Supreme Court and are under consideration. I want to remind Congress that to prevent paper leaks and to conduct a cheating-free examination, the Central Government has passed the Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act this year, which has many strict provisions. Congress should not be under the misconception that if any nexus is found, no action will be taken against it. The provisions of this Act will be implemented very carefully. It is an old habit of Congress to do politics on the future of students…”

Pradhan further reiterated the same to the media when addressing the allegations regarding the NEET-UG paper leak and stated that there have been no paper leaks and no corruption, he mentioned that there was ‘no concrete proof to back‘ the claims of the paper leak.

Pradhan also described the controversy as “motivated”, suggesting that coaching centres might have instigated the protests. He also addressed the unusual number of toppers in NEET-UG 2024 and said that the increase in high scorers was a result of the government’s efforts over the past three years to align the difficulty level of NEET with that of Class 12 board exams, suggesting that the difficulty level of the examination had been brought down over the years.

On June 16, BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan changed his stance and said that he had been informed of some “irregularities” in two centres and said that the culprits would receive the “harshest punishment. However, he did not get into details of what these “irregularities” were.

On June 20, he again repositioned himself vis-a-vis the scam, and told reporters that he was taking ‘moral responsibility’ for the loss of faith of students. The Indian Express has underlined that “his stance on Thursday on the allegations and controversy surrounding NEET-UG is different from last week when he had said there was no evidence of a paper leak. “There is no corruption,” he had told reporters right after taking charge of his second stint as the Education Minister in the newly-formed NDA government at the Centre.”

What Forced Pradhan to Change His Stance?

After being pressed into action, law enforcement agencies in several states have unearthed massive irregularities in the conduct of NEET, which include almost every form of malpractice an examination can suffer from.

In Bihar, Aspirants Paid Rs 30 to 50 Lakh

Fact is, reports of NEET-UG paper leaks and investigations into the same have been in public domain for over a month, since even before the results were announced. According to a Times of India report dated May 13, the economic offences unit (EOU) of the Bihar police discovered that medical aspirants had paid substantial amounts ranging from Rs 30 lakh to Rs 50 lakh each to ‘brokers’ to obtain access to question papers before May 5. It further stated that the EOU had confiscated various documents such as bank cheques and roll codes of candidates from the residences of two individuals — Nitish Kumar and Amit Anand, who ran an education consultancy firm. They were arrested on May 5.

13 Arrested; 35 Candidates were Given Solved Papers

A TOI report from May 22 states that the EOU arrested 13 individuals, including four medical aspirants, three parents, three linemen, two associates, and a driver. Deputy inspector general (DIG) Manavjit Singh Dhillon told the paper the aspirants had confessed to being taken to a secluded house in Ramkrishna Nagar, rented by the linemen, where around 35 aspirants were given marked question papers on May 4. The police recovered burned question papers, which would be reconstructed by an FSL team for comparison with the originals.

Post-dated Cheques for Leaked Papers

On June 16, DIG Manavjit Singh Dhillon, told PTI, “During the course of the investigation, EOU sleuths recovered six post-dated cheques that were issued in the favour of criminals who reportedly facilitated question papers to the aspirants ahead of the examination”. The EOU had issued notices to nine candidates (seven from Bihar, one from Uttar Pradesh, and one from Maharashtra) to join the probe. As per news reports, it was suspected that the nine aspirants, along with four other examinees from Bihar, had received the NEET-UG question paper and answers in a ‘safe house’ near Patna the day before the May 5 exam. DIG Manavjit Singh Dhillon further added, “The evidence of the transaction has also been found, and six post-dated cheques have also been recovered during the course of the investigation. The EOU sleuths also recovered partially burnt question papers from the safe house.”

Bihar Govt Engineer’s Admission of a Racket

A written confession from Sikandar Prasad Yadavendu, an engineer with the Bihar public service commission surfaced on June 19, revealing his connection to a racket specialising in leaking question papers for NEET, BPSC, and UPSC exams. Yadavendu admitted to arranging logistics in Patna for several candidates, including his nephew Anurag Yadav, a NEET aspirant. India Today reported that the guest house bill books mentioned a ‘Mantri Ji’ (Mr/Ms Minister), who allegedly facilitated the stay for Yadavendu’s nephew and other aspirants.

Godhra: Physics Teacher Confesses to Promising Solving of Papers for Rs 10 Lakh

India Today reported that a case was registered on May 9 against a schoolteacher in Godhra, in Gujarat’s Panchmahal district, and two others for allegedly attempting to assist six NEET-UG candidates at the Jay Jalaram School by promising to solve their exam papers for Rs 10 lakh each. Physics teacher Tushar Bhatt, the deputy superintendent of the exam designated by the NTA at the said centre, along with Parshuram Roy and BJP functionary Arif Vahora, was booked for attempting to help NEET-UG candidates cheat. Police recovered Rs 7 lakh in cash from Bhatt’s car, paid by Vahora as an advance to secure a candidate’s place on the merit list. The report further mentioned that the students were instructed to leave blank questions whose answers they did not know and those will be filled in later. Bhatt confessed to having been promised Rs 10 lakh each to solve the question papers.

Parshuram Roy, Key Accused in Godhra, Among Arrested

One of the main accused in the Godhra paper leak case is Parshuram Roy, who owns a visa and foreign education consultancy firm. Roy is the maternal uncle of Bhaskar Chaudhary, an accused in last year’s Junior Clerk exam paper leak. According to a TOI report, Roy provided Tushar Bhatt with a list of students to assist during the exam in exchange for money.

As of the time of writing this report, the Gujarat police have arrested five persons in relation to the alleged NEET-UG paper leak case in Godhra. Bhatt, Roy, principal of Jay Jalaram school Purshottam Sharma, education consultant Vibhor Anand and a mediator, Arif Vahora. The scam was allegedly orchestrated jointly by Vadodara-based Roy Overseas coaching, Purshottam Sharma, principal of Jay Jalaram school in Parvadi village (the exam centre), and Tushar Bhatt, a teacher and the NEET centre deputy superintendent. The plan allegedly was to alter the mark sheets of 30 students. Police have identified 27 students, linking at least a dozen to Roy and Anand, with the rest being under investigation.

Police have recovered cheques totalling Rs 2.82 crore from Roy’s office, allegedly given by seven students, along with Rs 66 lakh transferred into Roy’s bank account by four students. Blank cheques with parents’ mobile numbers and two lists of parents’ names and contact details were also found. Authorities believe Roy and Anand advised students from other states to choose the Godhra centre for their exams. The police suspect the cheating racket extended beyond just one centre in Gujarat.

‘No Unusual Advantage’: NTA’s Bizarre Explanation

In a response that is nothing short of bizarre, the NTA told the Union education ministry that the examinees under police investigation did not appear to have gained any unusual advantage, based on their scores. According to the NTA, the students who were being scrutinized scored less than 500 out of 720.

However, it should be noted that neither the NTA nor the Union Government has acknowledged a potential paper leak at these centres. Toeing the line of the minister, the NTA had earlier claimed that 63 cases of students using unfair means were reported in NEET-UG but there had been no paper leak and the sanctity of the medical entrance exam hadn’t been compromised.

Hearing two petitions filed by 30 candidates, the Supreme Court on June 18 adopted a firm stance in the matter, with Justice S V Bhatti of a Vacation Bench headed by Justice Vikram Nath telling the lawyers representing the Centre and the NTA, “Even if there is 0.001% negligence on the part of anyone, it should be thoroughly dealt with”.

Justice Nath issued notices and instructed the Union government and NTA to submit their responses within two weeks. The Vacation Bench scheduled the case for hearing on July 8, along with other related petitions challenging different aspects of the conduct of NEET-UG 2024.

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