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Vyapam woes for Shivraj

Arguably, February 2015 has been the blackest month in the political history of Madhya Pradesh for several reasons. For one, on February 25, the embattled Shivraj Singh Chouhan government facilitated safe passage for tainted Governor Ram Naresh Yadav by a state plane from Bhopal to New Delhi a day after an FIR was lodged against him for forgery in the forest guard recruitment test conducted by the Professional Examination Board (PEB). For another, the very next day, the ruling party’s brute majority ensured scuttling of the budget session barely four days after its commencement and a day after the Budget was presented. Third, on February 26, Congress leader Digvijay Singh made public the details of the calls and SMSes of the Chief Minister’s wife, Sadhna Singh, to jailed mining baron Sudhir Sharma, recommending a candidate’s appointment as contract teacher. The Chief Minister hit back immediately. On the last day of the month, a paranoid BJP government dug out a nine-year-old inquiry report on alleged irregularities in appointments in the Assembly between 1993 and 2003, to lodge an FIR against the then Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, and the then Speaker, Sriniwas Tiwari. Taken together, all these developments unmistakeably suggest that the Shivraj Singh government is rattled as never before in the 12 years of BJP rule, thanks to the probe into the PEB scam that appears to be inching towards the Chief Minister. The entire state is caught in the vortex of a political storm caused by the PEB scam, with the fate of the Governor all but sealed and that of the Chief Minister under threat. All eyes are now on the whistleblower, Prashant Pandey, a cyber expert, who has threatened to furnish clinching evidence before Delhi High Court about the scam. On his petition, the court has forestalled Pandey’s arrest by the Bhopal police, which has been after him since evidence against the Chief Minister was made public by the Congress on February 16. The police suspect that Pandey photocopied all the data retrieved from the computers of the PEB officials and selectively leaked them to Congress leaders. Earlier, he had been roped in by the police to help the investigators of the scam crack the case. An investigative report by Rakesh Dixit.

MADHYA Pradesh has been no stranger to political swindles that shook successive Chief Ministers since the state was formed in 1956. But the multi-billion rupee Professional Examination Board (PEB) scam, or the Vyapam scam, that has been rocking state politics for over a year is unparalleled for its humongous size and complexity.

It allegedly involves Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as a suspected beneficiary of the mind-boggling fraud committed on thousands of aspiring medical students and job-seekers for various government posts. It is also linked to Governor Ram Naresh Yadav, whose son and OSD allegedly took money on the premises of the Raj Bhawan to get candidates cleared fraudulently in the contract teacher test conducted by the PEB.

The former personal assistant (PA) of the Chief Minister is also an accused. While Yadav’s ex-OSD, Dhanraj Yadav, is in jail, Chouhan’s ex-PA, Prem Prasad, is out on bail.

The multi-layered scam is being dubbed the biggest political rip-off in Asia. Union cabinet minister Uma Bharti, whose name also figured in the scam, says it is bigger than the fodder scam of Bihar. She has been supporting the Congress demand for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the scam, much to the discomfiture of her own party.

The Congress has accused the Chief Minister of being directly involved in the scam. It alleges that Chouhan got his name deleted at 48 places from the original excel sheet which was reportedly procured from the hard disk of the then PEB system analyst, Nitin Mahindra, who is in jail. Mahindra had mentioned the names of all those who had recommended admissions and appointments for various tests through PEB in the excel sheets.

The Chief Minister has, of course, denied all the allegations against him and described them as a conspiracy of the Congress to malign his image. On the other hand, AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh has said that the Congress will not rest until a CBI probe is ordered into the scam.

MEANWHILE, Madhya Pradesh High Court Chief Justice AM Khanwilkar’s go-ahead to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to quiz the Governor for his role has added a new dimension to the investigation.

The SIT, constituted by the MP High Court to oversee the Special Task Force (STF) probe, gave its nod to the investigative agency (STF) to proceed against a “high-ranking dignitary”. Following this, Yadav was charged under different sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 420 (fraud), besides being booked under relevant sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

The SIT has recommended that the Governor be made a co-accused under Section 120 (B) for entering into criminal conspiracy. The SIT head, Justice Chandresh Bhushan, has said in his report to the court that the Governor could not have been unaware of the fact that his son, Shailesh Yadav, took Rs. 3 lakh to get 10 candidates cleared in the contract teachers’ test. One of the accused in the case had revealed that he had paid Shailesh the money on the premises of the Raj Bhawan. The police are on the lookout for Shailesh in his home town-Azamgarh, UP.

Mutual recrimination between the Congress and the BJP gives an impression that the whole scam is the handiwork of ruling party politicians only. More so, as the names of some RSS leaders have also cropped up as suspects.

The most crucial fact being lost sight of is that the PEB scam is a shocking manifestation of the rupture in the admission and recruitment system the state’s bureaucracy has been nurturing for decades for its own end.

A retired bureaucrat, who worked closely with Chouhan, says he cannot say to what extent, if at all, the Chief Minister is involved. “But from experience, I can say that he is paying the price for giving the bureaucracy too long a rope.”According to him, one of the secretaries in the CM’s office, who is said to be Chouhan’s Man Friday, is responsible to a great extent for the mess Chouhan finds himself in.

Another retired IAS officer points out that unbridled powers vested with the PEB was the root cause for the loot happening through its officers, in collusion with middlemen, politicians and bureaucrats.

MASSIVE corruption spawned by the PEB could be traced back to the genesis of the board. In 1970, the State government formed a board to conduct entrance examinations for the government medical colleges. Another board was formed in 1981 for engineering colleges. The PEB, which was formed in 1982, replaced both these boards. With commercialisation of professional education in 2002, insiders breached the system for fraudulent admissions.

The proliferation of private medical and engineering colleges from 2004 onwards paved the way for the PEB to start conducting examinations for 50 per cent of their seats. The college owners then played a trick. They got clever “scorers” to appear for these tests. On clearing the test they would withdraw on the last date, leaving the field open for the promoters to sell the seats for hefty donations. Private medical colleges also started postgraduation courses, infiltrating the government colleges through unfair means.

The reason why admissions in medical colleges have become a lucrative business for the politico-bureaucratic nexus has to be understood in the backdrop of poor healthcare, corruption and centralised licensing power in the state.

The PEB scam is a shocking manifestation of the rupture in the admission and recruitment system which the state’s bureaucracy has been nurturing for decades for its own selfish end

Madhya Pradesh has only 10 medical colleges-six government and four private. Former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia got approved another medical college in Shivpuri, his parliamentary constituency, but the state government is dithering on allotting land for it.

Madhya Pradesh has a doctor-population ratio of 1:18650. Newly qualified postgraduates earn approximately 20 times the per capita income of the state. Therefore, privileged parents are willing to plough big money into their wards’ medical education. A postgraduation degree costs up to Rs. 4 crore in a state-recognised private medical college. It is much cheaper-at Rs. 75 lakh-to secure a seat in a government college through the ‘network’.

The Public Examination Board, at the centre of the multi-billion-rupee scam (above); Governor Ram Naresh Yadav (left) has been named in a recent FIR

INDIA is perhaps the only country where sale of medical seats by private medical colleges is part of official policy. It means that the ability to pay counts for more than merit. The Medical Council of India (MCI), which regulates the sale of medical seats, is itself corrupt. Issuing threats of de-recognition to the state’s medical colleges from the MCI is an annual ritual. Despite poor infrastructure and acute shortage of medical and para-medical staff, the colleges survive de-recognition threats by greasing the palms of MCI officials. It suits the politician-bureaucrat nexus to keep healthcare poor and the number of medical colleges limited. For, the stake of admission in these colleges remains high in terms of money extorted from private medical college owners who, in turn, charge phenomenonal donations from students.

The nexus has a direct bearing on the state’s healthcare. MP has the highest infant mortality rate (IMR) at 54/1000 and the second highest maternal mortality rate (MMR) at 220/1 lakh in India. With over 60 per cent child malnutrition, Madhya Pradesh is compared with sub-Saharan states in hunger parameters. Yet, in the same state, income tax raids on the premises of two former health directors-Yogiraj Sharma and Ashok Sharma-yielded assets worth several hundred crores of rupees. The Central scheme of the National Rural Health Mission is the biggest source of loot for the corrupt in the health department.

How the fraud was committed

Pankaj Trivedi and his cohorts subverted the PEB functioning broadly in three ways:

Impersonation: An impersonator is one who writes an exam on behalf of someone else. They are brilliant students who can score very high marks. The concerned officers on the examination board would change the photograph back to that of the original candidate after the exam. The student would end up passing an exam which he or she never appeared for. The impersonators would be paid a hefty amount for securing the seat.

Engine and bogie system: People on the board would fix a person whose work would be like that of an engine. He would be seated strategically between two candidates who wanted a seat. The engine would help them copy from his paper. The examiners would be usually bribed to fix the seating arrangement.

OMR sheets: Chosen candidates would be asked to leave their answer sheets blank. They would be randomly given high percentages after the exam. Concerned authorities of the board would then file an RTI demanding to view those exact answer sheets. They would then fill in the answers in the OMR booklet according to the marks the candidates had already been given. This would be done so that if someone were to check those answer sheets, there would not be any loophole that could give them away

THE scope for corruption increased in 2007 as the BJP government handed the PEB the recruitment examinations for the personnel for various departments, including those of semi-government and public sector units. Till then, the State Public Service Commission used to conduct these examinations.

Today, recruitments to 40 departments is controlled by the board. Opportunities to manipulate the system for filling the government departments with bogus candidates have become immense. Recruitments of contract teachers and police personnel have proved particularly lucrative as the number of candidates in the two departments is quite high. No wonder, then, most of the accused, including bureaucrats arrested for recruitment fraud, were linked to the tests for contract teachers and police personnel.

Earlier, these recruitments used to be organised through the respective departments. Corrupt officials in the departments would strike deals with the racketeers to get chosen candidates cleared. The clandestine operations would go on smoothly, barring occasional rumblings from the candidates who thought they were cheated. But such complaints were too few and far between to warrant serious media attention. In fact, the success of the admission-recruitment racket emboldened the nexus to tweak the system more audaciously to make their operations smoother.

For instance, when the ‘recruitment mafia’ realised that though it could help candidates pass the theory test for the police department, it could not help them clear the physical test, it got fitness norms diluted. In some cases, it even managed to get the fitness test abolished. The bureaucracy was only too willing to help-of course, for a price.

WHILE college admissions fetched the middlemen anything between Rs. 5 to 50 lakh per candidate, the recruitment racket fetched them Rs. 1 to 10 lakh for each candidate.

Laxmikant Sharma, the former Mining Minister, was an important cog in the scam

With the admission-recruitment racket growing into a multi-billion rupee industry, a top power broker in Madhya Pradesh, Sudhir Sharma, decided to control the PEB’s corrupt empire. Sharma’s rise during the 10 years of the BJP regime has been stupendous. He was a teacher in an RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Mandir. When his close friend, Laxmikant Sharma, became the state Mining Minister, Sudhir quit the job and entered the mining business. Within years, he emerged as a top-notch mining baron. His influence on the bureaucracy increased. Transfers, postings and appointments in the state government departments became his side business.

Leveraging his friendship with Laxmikant, Sudhir got his acolyte, Pankaj Trivedi, appointed as examination controller in the PEB. Trivedi was a lecturer in an Indore college, so his elevation in the PEB raised many eyebrows in bureaucratic circles. But Sudhir succeeded in silencing them. One of Pankaj’s brothers, Piyush, is the vice-chancellor of the state’s only technical university. Another brother, Sudhanshu, is the BJP’s national spokesman.

The scope for corruption increased in 2007 as the BJP government handed the PEB the recruitment examinations for the personnel for various departments, including those of semi-government and public sector units

Pankaj also managed to buy the key functionaries in the board, notably chief system analyst Nitin Mahindra, assistant programmer CK Mishra, Ajay Sen and Santosh Gupta.

For years, Pankaj and his cohorts got away with cheating thousands of deserving medical students and job aspirants, primarily because they were secure in the belief that Laxmikant, who was also the state’s Technical Education Minister, was protecting them. Although the PEB is supposed to be a self-financed, autonomous body with a senior IAS officer as chairman, it was Pankaj his friend who called the shots. The then chairman, Ranjana Choudhary, was completely in the dark about the dubious goings-on right under her nose.

By the time the scam was unearthed in July 2013, Pankaj had got admitted over 1,000 students in the State’s medical colleges. Several hundreds got government jobs after paying a hefty cut to the middlemen, who shared the booty with the PEB gang. Billions of rupees had changed hands when the Crime Branch in Indore registered the first FIR in the scam and arrested Dr Jagdish Sagar, one of the kingpins in the PMT fraud.

Former PEB system analyst Nitin Mahindra, now under arrest

The arrest followed production of concrete evidence in the fraud by a whistleblower, Dr Anand Rai, in the court. The Indore bench of the High Court also spurred the police to act, following a writ petition filed before it by parents of some students who had appeared in the PMT-2013. They pleaded with the court to scrap the test in the wake of the reports that 300 ineligible students had managed to get into the merit list. The police seized a list of 312 candidates from Dr Sagar’s palace-like house, 12 days ahead of the counselling for PMT-2013.

TILL July 2013, there had been sporadic reports since 2008 in the state’s media about ‘Munnabhais’ getting admission in the state’s medical colleges. Dr Rai says the PMT scam had been going on for at least 10 years. “The first case of impersonation was brought to light in 2004 in Khandwa district. Most of the cases are still pending in courts.”

Dr Sagar’s arrest in July 2013 blew the lid off the scam. However, a bigger storm was still in store. His interrogation led to the arrest of Pankaj and his cohorts in September 2013. When Pankaj started talking in police custody, the magnitude of the scam began to snowball. He confessed that the scam was not just confined to manipulation in the PMT, but also involved forgery and bribery in at least five recruitment tests conducted by the PEB-tests for food inspectors, the milk federation, contract teachers, subedar-sub inspector and police recruitment.

Chandresh Bhushan, the man piloting the SIT investigation into the PEB scam

Given the ever-widening ramifications of the scam, the Chief Minister announced the formation of the Special Task Force (STF) for investigation. However, after the Assembly elections in November 2013, embarrassment for the new government began as Pankaj started naming influential beneficiaries of the scam. He named his mentors, Laxmikant and Sudhir, as key recommenders for fake appointments and admissions. Laxmikant had lost the Assembly election in 2013, Sudhir had gone into hiding.

With the revelation of two important names, the scam unravelled with breathtaking speed. By December 2013, the STF identified 129 accused. They included Dhanraj Yadav, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to the Governor, the Aurobindo Medical College, Indore, Chairman Vinod Bhandari, his colleagues, IAS officer KK Jain, deputy commissioner RK Mishra, DIG RK Shivhare, IG Sonali Mishra’s brother Bharat Mishra, two state police officers from Gwalior, the OSD to Laxmikant Sharma, OP Shukla, and the OSD to the Chief Minister, Prem Prasad. Some of them had paid money to touts for securing admission for their wards. Others had acted as touts themselves.

OP Shukla, Laxmikant Sharma’s OSD, flaunted his connections in the bureaucracy

SUBSEQUENT months saw the STF rapidly arresting suspects in the scam. Each arrest led to more revelations and, therefore, more arrests. Boys and girls would be picked up from their homes and brought to the STF office for interrogation like criminals. Some would be accompanied by their parents. Poignant stories appeared in the media as to how some parents had obtained loans after pawning assets to pay to the middlemen. Photographs of the boys and girls being herded to the police stations would evoke pity towards the accused and anger against the system which brought them to this sorry pass.

The arrests of Laxmikant and Shukla, his OSD, created a sensation. While being taken to court, Laxmikant told mediamen that three IAS officers were behind his arrest. Shukla cryptically said that if he opened his mouth, it would shake the entire bureaucracy. However, both chose not to divulge names. Incidentally, Shukla used to flaunt his connections in the IAS fraternity when he was an OSD. He was alleged to be a key interface between Pankaj and those bureaucrats who wanted their favourites appointed in the government or admitted in medical colleges.

By April 2014, over 1,000 accused, including suspected ‘Munnabhais’ and their wards had been arrested. The number of those absconding was even bigger.

The multi-layered PEB scam is as complex as it is wide-ranging. STF personnel have made arrests from many states, including Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Delhi

A visibly upset Chief Minister admitted in the Assembly after formation of the new overnment that the STF had detected 1,000 bogus appointments made through a nexus of the mafia with the PEB officials. He, however, refused to accede to the Congress demand for a CBI probe into the scam.

Meanwhile, the arrests have continued. So far, more than 160 FIRs have been registered, 1,800 persons arrested and over 1,200 admissions in medical colleges cancelled. The latest to be arrested among influential persons is Amit Pandey, the husband of senior IAS officer Amita Vajpayee Pandey. He was held for his role in contract teachers’ recruitment in January 2015.

The multi-layered PEB scam is as complex as it is wide-ranging. STF personnel have arrested suspected middlemen and impersonators from many states, including Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Delhi.

Meanwhile, MP High Court Chief Justice Khanwilkar in November 2014 ordered formation of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to monitor the investigation conducted by the STF. Since then, the SIT, headed by retired High Court judge Chandresh Bhushan, is monitoring the probe and duly reporting the progress to the High Court Chief Justice.

It may take years before the accused are finally convicted, given the sheer complexity of the scam and the huge number of accused involved in it.

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