Wednesday, June 23, 2004

failing the grade

Who says cheaters don't win? In India, criminals are making millions by stealing exam papers. That's casting a shadow over the education system's ability to function as a meritocracy.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal in June 2004).

WHEN POLICE STORMED a building in a middle-class New Delhi neighbourhood late one night this spring, they found the men they were looking for in the midst of an unusual crime. The alleged perpetrators of one of the biggest scams to rock Indian higher education were chaperoning a midnight crammers' session for some 39 students--with a healthy sampling of parents looking on--as they studied for the entrance examination for India's prestigious medical colleges. When officials verified that their handwritten study sheets perfectly matched the top-secret question paper, not due to be released until the beginning of the exam the next morning, the test was cancelled and the tutors were taken into custody.

That was bad news for the 240,000 or so would-be doctors who had sweated over textbooks for months in preparation for the Central Board of Secondary Education's All India Pre-Medical Test, which determines who will gain admission into 15% of medical degree programmes here. Far from a reprieve, the cancellation meant more waiting, more studying and more stress. For students from rural areas, who had to travel long distances to reach testing centres, it meant they would have to spend even more money for their chance at a lucrative career.

Worse still, this wasn't the first case of its kind. Over the past several years, as many as 10 important question papers have been leaked. They include the Common Admission Test that governs admittance to the ultra-prestigious Indian Institutes of Management, or IIM, a degree from which virtually guarantees a bright future in business. The leaks have left Indian education officials scrambling for solutions--and excuses. More seriously, they have raised serious questions about the Indian educational system's ability to function as a meritocracy.

"A couple of my friends who had studied very hard for the exam were devastated" by the leak, says 17-year-old Nitya Asavari of New Delhi. "Mentally it was really a setback to them. I think it makes the whole system lose credibility. There is no guarantee. This leak got published in the newspaper, but there must be thousands of others," she adds.

Another student, 17-year-old Chitwan Mittal, was one of those due to take the cancelled pre-medical test. "People who pay the money can easily get through," she says. "It's happening every year." The corruption in the system also makes it even harder for poor students--whose parents cannot afford to buy placements--to get a good education. "It's absolutely not fair," says Mittal. "People just throw money and they get seats. Seats are literally sold to students."

Cheating is big business in India. For the latest leaked paper, the Central Bureau of Investigation--the federal investigative agency--says the accused sold exam questions to students and their parents for 700,000-800,000 rupees ($15,400-17,600), and may have had up to 400 customers. Even by the most conservative estimate, the alleged theft would have brought in 50 million rupees--more than $1 million--for a single exam. "The money involved is enormous," says Dependra Pathak, of the Delhi Police Crime Branch. "That generates temptation." The temptation to cheat is just as strong on the side of the buyers--the students and their parents--in a country where college places, particularly in areas like medicine and engineering, are like gold dust.

This spring's late-night raid ahead of the pre-medical test was a major coup for Delhi's police. But the fact that the leak happened in the first place discouraged many officials--and outraged many ordinary Indians. Among the main reasons for the dismay: The authorities thought they had solved the problem with the arrest of Ranjit Kumar Singh, or "Ranjit Don," a Bihar doctor who allegedly masterminded last year's leaking of the admission test for the IIM.

Singh, who has not been convicted of any crime, is in jail awaiting trial in his home state. To some there he's become something of a Robin Hood figure, despite news reports claiming he has a personal fortune of 2 billion rupees. But the latest exam leak shows that the methods attributed to him, at least, live on, as Pathak of Delhi's crime branch explains: "They called the students to a central location, they gave them handwritten question papers, they didn't let them go out until the morning," he says.

At the time of Singh's arrest, police said as many as 70 similar gangs might be operating around the country, though G. Mohanti, spokesman for the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, now calls that figure an exaggeration. The investigative agency also said it suspected that the school board's pre-medical exam had likely been compromised for at least five years.

Among those calling for an explanation is advocate Raj Kumar Gupta: Earlier this year, he filed a public-interest suit with India's Supreme Court, requesting that the country's major educational authorities, as well as the CBI, make public their findings on the reasons why the testing system is vulnerable to leaks and what they have done to correct the problem. In May, the Supreme Court issued a notice in support of Gupta's demand.

"The leakage of question papers is affecting the psychology of students and their parents," Gupta argues. "Students who are real hard workers are getting demoralized and depressed. Above all, it has a great negative impact on the whole education system." The despair of students is understandable: After the leaking of the 2003 pre-medical exam, allegedly by Ranjit Singh, around half of the 1,200-or-so medical school placements awarded went to students from his home state. Another "natural inference" from the rash of exam leaks over the past year, according to Gupta, is that the authorities haven't learned any lessons from previous failures.

That may be only partly true. The Central Board of Secondary Education, or CBSE, said its chairman was too busy to grant an interview. But the CBI and police say the source from which the alleged perpetrators of the leak obtained the pre-medical exam paper suggests that most of the usual gaps in security have been filled. In 2004, the alleged source of the leak was a computer operator working inside the CBSE's "confidential" exam section. Police say that means that the traditional weak link of the chain--the printers who are entrusted with producing the exam papers several days before the test--has been strengthened.

So far, the authorities have arrested a dozen people allegedly involved in leaking and selling the 2004 exam paper. But to some, suspicion concerning N.K. Thaploo, a professor, and Suchdir Sachdeva, owner of Sachdeva New P.T. College--a coaching institute with a history of producing exam "toppers"--is greater cause for concern. Police say the two agreed to buy the leaked exam for 5 million rupees. The authorities have arrested Thaploo, who maintains he is innocent. Sachdeva, currently on bail, says he will cooperate with the investigation but has made no comment on his guilt or innocence.

"What is their [the coaching institutions'] role?" asks S.C. Tripathi, secretary of higher education at the Ministry of Human Resource Development. "Why is it that students are tempted to go to coaching institutions, and some coaching institutions are able to model their coaching programmes in such a way that over a period of time they are able to claim that children or students who come to their coaching programmes have a better rate of success?"


India has thousands of coaching institutes, three or four to every mid-sized town, Tripathi says, and many charge high fees. The question becomes: Do students cheat because they don't believe the system is a meritocracy, or have they lost their faith in meritocracy because of cheating? Student Asavari, though just 17, already talks like a cynic. "In every leak," she says, "the coaching centres are majorly involved."

Until a better answer arises, the IIM selection boards--shocked by the first-ever leak of their admissions test last year, but also concerned that coaching institutes skew exam results--have resorted to an old-fashioned solution. They use the test only to select the students for the second round of the admission process, a combination of one-on-one and group interviews designed to test the candidate's subject knowledge, as well as evaluate his or her personality. "Suppose someone has managed to get a high score in the written test that does not reflect the true abilities of the individual," says Bakul Dholakia, director and a professor of IIM Ahmedabad. "This is something that gets spotted in the interview process." Perhaps for that reason, so far nobody has raised doubts about the quality of IIM graduates.

But can the same be said for India's medical schools? Quite a few exam cheats "muddle through medical school," says S.K. Vohra, a respected New Delhi doctor with 50 years' experience. While he says the established medical colleges are up to standard, at some less reputable institutions, poor systems and inferior teachers are reflected in the quality of the graduates. One of the question papers leaked in 2000 was for the gynaecology and obstetrics exam for final-year medical students at the University of Bombay. That's a graduating class you don't want to meet--at least not in a professional capacity.

saving the raja's horse

British horsewoman Francesca Kelly brings India's fiery Marwari to the United States in hopes of reviving the breed.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in June 2004).

When Francesca Kelly took her first trip to India—for a luxury horse safari in 1995—a friend told her, "You'll either love it or you'll hate it." Francesca was one of those who fell in love, and hard—first for an exotic and desperate Indian horse, the Marwari, and then for its sprawling desert home.

But when Kelly bought her first Marwari with the intention of bringing it to the United States, the horse was on a long list of threatened breeds illegal to export. With Indian scientists then estimating that only 500 or 600 Marwaris remained untainted by crossbreeding, the odds against getting the Indian government to reverse its position looked insurmountable.

Many people would have given up. Not Kelly. A 49-year-old woman with a slightly square jaw that hints at a streak of stubbornness and impatience, Kelly grew up the stepdaughter of Sir Harold Beeley, the United Kingdom's ambassador in Cairo from 1961 to 1964 and again from 1967 to 1969. Some of her fondest childhood memories were of midnight gallops in the sands surrounding the family's Egyptian desert retreat, a large Bedouin tent filled with colorful hangings and rugs. Nearly three decades later, looking into the eyes of Shanti, her untamed Marwari mare, was like looking into that past. She wasn't about to give that up. But first she would have to go toe-to-toe with some pretty tough opponents—among them, the Indian government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her battle lasted five years. By the end, she'd not only won—bringing six Marwari horses home with her to Massachusetts in 2000—she'd launched a remarkable drive to preserve one of the world's oldest horse breeds.