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The unchanging litany of woes against state public service commissions

By Anand Vardhan

On May 4, Amit Abhishek was unsure of securing a train ticket for his journey from Delhi to an examination centre in Purnea district of northeast Bihar.

The 31-year-old had a long wait before he finally got the admit card to sit for the preliminary exam scheduled for May 8 – part of the recruitment to the state civil services conducted by the Bihar Public Service Commission. He finally tried his luck for a tatkal ticket, and got it.

But Amit’s troubles weren’t over. When he finally sat for the exam in Purnea, the BPSC cancelled it four hours later. An inquiry committee had just confirmed that the question paper had been leaked before the exam took place.

Amit is one of around six lakh candidates who appeared for the preliminary exam to fill 802 vacancies in the state services. The leak, and subsequent cancellation of the exam, were additions to a range of uncertainties candidates faced after years of preparation to crack the exam.

The leak last week is reportedly the first for the BPSC’s state civil services exam, though there have been earlier cases of leaks involving exams for the recruitment of lower-rung staff. In 2017, for instance, the paper for the clerk-grade exam of the Bihar Staff Selection Commission was leaked, causing much uproar.

But no one was prepared for the furore this time around. TV channels, on loop, showed screenshots of the leaked paper being circulated on social media, even as lakhs of candidates were trying to take the exam at centres across Bihar’s 38 districts. The candidates were mainly from Bihar and neighbouring states like Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, with also a sizable number from Delhi. They mostly comprised those who had exhausted their attempts to crack the Union Public Service Commission civil services exam.

That there had been a serious breach of confidentiality was obvious. As the recruitment body for the state government, entrusted by Articles 315-322 of the constitution, the state public commission’s primary responsibility is to ensure the sanctity of the examination process. The security around the question paper forms a vital part of fair play.

In the normal course, confidentiality is ensured through a standardised process. This includes secret printing of the question paper, sealing the question paper, and sending it to magistrates of districts that have exam centres. The offices of the district magistrates then send the sealed papers to the exam centres, under strict supervision. Here, the seal is opened in the presence of the centre’s magistrate appointed by the commission (usually a district official), the centre superintendent, and the centre’s controller. Some candidates act as witnesses.

Any compromise in this supposedly fool-proof process dents the credibility of the institution and belies the hopes of lakhs of toiling students.

Besides the leak, there were allegations about a group of students being purportedly given the question paper in a separate room at the Veer Kunwar Singh College exam centre in Bhojpur’s Arrah before the scheduled start of the exam. After a round of questioning, four officials – including a block development officer and the college principal, who was the centre’s superintendent – were suspended. The Bihar police’s economic offence wing is now probing a larger plot behind the leak.

But the leak is a setback to the efforts in recent years to bring some semblance of regularity to the schedule, results and recruitment calendars of the commission. In the last two and a half decades, the commission was erratic in notifying vacancies and publishing results. The results themselves often ended up in long litigations.

More disconcerting is the fact that several state public commissions have been in the news for the wrong reasons. Last year, for instance, the Pune police uncovered a “scam” in three different recruitment exams conducted by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission. The MPSC Samanvay Samiti, which is a group of MPSC aspirants, also lodged complaints against suspected malpractices in other exams conducted by the MPSC.

Last year also saw an agitation by candidates alleging discrepancies by the Jharkhand Public Service Commission in conducting the civil services preliminary exam. This protest found a political voice when the opposition broached it in the state legislative assembly.

While some state commissions still retain credibility, similar allegations have surfaced in most states. The public service commissions in states like Punjab and Haryana are far more susceptible to scams or allegations of malpractice. In states like Jharkhand, the distrust in the state commission has reached a point where aggrieved candidates have demanded that the responsibility to conduct even state exams be handed over to the UPSC – provisions for which are mentioned in Articles 315-322 of the constitution.

Now, that’s a demand that any state government is unlikely to consider anytime soon because of the simple fact that such a move would mean the state government losing an important institution, as well as its autonomy in recruiting state officials.

Such regular dents in the credible conduct of state exams could prove costly. They undermine the quality of intake in the state services – the second rung of bureaucracy that works under the UPSC-recruited officers belonging to, for instance, the IAS and IPS. As more state-specific services, the second rung is also seen as being more grounded, with a better understanding of the local milieu of governance and tasks of policy implementation at the grassroot level.

Popularly called the provincial civil services officers – a colonial grouping – the significant role of the state services and the need to uphold and further improve its standards has only received scant attention in recent decades. This was reflected upon almost a decade ago by political scientist Devesh Kapur, who was also a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Along with other aspects, Kapur noted the alleged corruption in many state public service commissions and why rebuilding their integrity was crucial. Contrasting the probity associated with the UPSC with frequent allegations of malpractice in state commissions, Kapur observed:

"Whatever the limitations of the entrance examinations for the all-India services, (such as the age limit or the number of attempts), the UPSC has managed to retain a level of probity in the conduct of the exams. The SPSCs (the state public service commissions), on the other hand, present a more depressing picture.”

“Virtually all SPSCs have been dogged by controversy. Numerous reports on the workings of these bodies are rife with ‘irregularities’, ‘manipulation’ and ‘anomalies’. Members with dubious credentials have been appointed – such as siblings of cabinet ministers and people facing murder charges. High courts have annulled examination results and appointments, as well as ordered inquiries by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Exam papers have been leaked, and sometimes replaced, and the exams themselves have been inept with factually incorrect ‘model’ answers and errors in the scaling system across different exam subjects.”

That, almost a decade ago, Kapur could mention some of the key accusations in a long litany of complaints against the state commissions points to two related realities. First, the concerns regarding dubious practices in the state public service commissions are not new. Second, very little seems to have changed since then in the direction of addressing such concerns.

Meanwhile, episodes like the recent BPSC question paper leak reveal that the growing number of applicants, and subsequent rise in exam centres across the state, has posed new challenges to the full-proof integrity of the exam-administering machinery. That the BPSC could not measure up to the challenge is evident in the gaping holes exposed by the paper leak.

Amid numerous uncertainties about their preparation and chances that the state services candidates navigate for years, the dread of a paper leak adds that bitter element of unfairness. Before these doubts about the process’s sanctity can chip away credibility, the state commissions need to restore their institutional integrity. A sharper management of exam logistics, and high probability in conduct and scrutiny of the process at each step, can do a lot towards bolstering confidence in fair play.

The state services are too vital a part of the huge bureaucratic machinery of the Indian state to expose its recruitment process to any chance of being compromised. The second rung of the steel frame cannot afford to be even a notch less sturdy.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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