Originally Published 2015-07-28 00:00:00 Published on Jul 28, 2015
The sheer magnitude of Vyapam has stunned people. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in power in Madhya Pradesh for the duration of Vyapam, is clearly answerable for the mess. Its government and chief minister have a lot to explain.
Vyapam scam: State Govt has a lot to explain

In recent weeks, the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board, better known by its Hindi abbreviation of Vyapam, has become a subject of notoriety. First admission at medical colleges and then lower-level government job recruitment in Madhya Pradesh has been corrupted by a system of bribes, fraudulent candidates sitting examinations, and children or associates of senior politicians and civil servants making it to medical education institutions in place of meritorious students.

While scandals of this nature are not unknown in other states or even in Madhya Pradesh in an earlier period, the sheer magnitude of Vyapam has stunned people. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in power in Madhya Pradesh for the duration of Vyapam, is clearly answerable for the mess. Its government and chief minister have a lot to explain.

The case has now been transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation by the Supreme Court. This followed the perception that the special investigation team being monitored by the Madhya Pradesh high court needed to be superseded. One of the reasons for this perception was the revelation that even wards and dependents of senior high court judges may have been beneficiaries of Vyapam.

The belief that the Supreme Court will set things right is a touching and honourable one. It is motivated by the sentiment that somehow and for all their angularities, national-level institutions still think of the greater good in a way that state and provincial institutions do not. In the case of Vyapam, the fact that medical education has been so distorted - both in state government as well as private colleges - has been a particularly rude wake-up call. It can lead to an entire generation of medical graduates from Madhya Pradesh being looked upon with suspicion, even perfectly honourable medical graduates.

Having said that, can we be certain that Vyapam will be the last scandal of its kind? The intent here is not to divert attention from the troubles of the BJP government in the states nor to suggest that it is hardly alone in the sort of mischief its functionaries have been accused of.

The issue is a broader one: if prevention is indeed better than cure, as the old adage goes, are we any closer to preventing the recurrence of such scandals? Each time a Vyapam-type swindle occurs, there is sanctimonious talk of systemic safeguards and reform. Do these ever occur? Indeed, what is the record of the very institutions that have been entrusted with the duty of clarifying the Vyapam issue and punishing the guilty?

It is here that a degree of sobriety is called for. Indeed, a Supreme Court judgement of 2013 may actually have set the ground for a series of sequels to Vyapam, albeit with no single occurrence of such a large nature. In July 2013, exactly two years ago, a three-member bench headed by then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir abolished the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET). It was a two-one verdict, but it had wide and far-reaching ramifications.

NEET was promoted by the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the Dental Council of India (DCI) but was conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). It created a common platform for entrance examinations and admission for medical education institutions across the country, whether run by the states or private trusts. The judgment quashed NEET and allowed individual colleges to admit students to undergraduate and postgraduate medical courses as per their "procedures, beliefs and dispensations" (quoted from a newspaper report of the time).

The colleges covered by the judgment ran the range - state-owned, unaided and aided, minority institutions and so on.

Defenders of the institutions that had wanted NEET annulled or severely diluted spoke of constitutional guarantees to minority institutions, the idea of autonomy in higher education, the need to minimise government interference in education.

These are all very virtuous principles. Even so, it needs to be said that successive court judgments have tampered with the latter two - the idea of autonomy in higher education, and the need to minimise government interference in education - but inexplicably the apex court chose to uphold them in the case of a common admission examination administered by a respected third party.

It is nobody's case that the CBSE is a perfect body, but in tasking it with managing the entrance examination, the MCI and DCI (themselves very problematic institutions) couldn't really have chosen better among the examination service providers available in the country. That aside, a common examination for a spectrum of medical colleges, as opposed to a number of individual examinations, would have been more cost efficient and convenient for candidates and their families.

So why did private medical colleges, many of them run by politicians and politically connected individuals, object so vehemently to NEET? The answer is simple.

A transparent and same-rules-for-everyone mechanism, monitored by the CBSE, threatened to shut down bucket shops and come in the way of allowing colleges to sell seats, ignoring proxies sitting in place of official candidates, and essentially making a mockery of a fair admission process.

This is not to say all colleges do it, but the practice is rampant, as would be expected in a country with such shortages in medical education capacity.

In a sense, the Supreme Court and the three-member bench headed by then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir ignored Indian realities and (no doubt inadvertently) sowed the seeds for Vyapams or at least Vyapam lites.

In an era when the courts seem to step into everything, from deciding whether an immunisation protocol against diarrhoea should be introduced to if Canon Law should be the personal law governing Christians in India - public interest petitions on both matters are before the courts - the judiciary has to be mindful of the implications of what it says. This is not to suggest in any manner that it should agree to that which is illegal or improper.

Nevertheless, as it considers the Vyapam case in all its enormity in the coming months, the Supreme Court would do well to take another look at the NEET judgment of 2013. Didn't it throw out the baby with the bathwater?

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Asian Age, July 26, 2015

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