By Manoj Pande
Stories of alleged malpractices in recruitment have been regularly figuring in the headlines of local newspapers for the past few days. There have been arrests and suspensions of some of those involved. Many more are sure to follow. The whole process is now under scrutiny, the newspapers tell us.
Any job is precious. A ‘sarkari’ job is even more precious, as it gives security of employment and a host of other benefits. No wonder, there is an increasing number of applicants for each job in the Central or State Government, howsoever low paying it may be.
India’s economy has expanded, and job opportunities have grown in many sectors, but a ‘sarkari’ job has not lost its allure. This is reflected in the vast number of coaching institutes even in small towns, promising to prepare youngsters get that coveted Government job.
Unscrupulous elements and dishonest practices have also grown, as is evident in the recent burst of allegations of malpractices in various recruitments made in the state of Uttarakhand. Investigations will reveal how widespread the malaise was, but the fact remains that the recruitment agencies must be alert, aware and consistently ahead of the crooks who deprive the deserving candidates and bring less meritorious persons into Government jobs. And if someone has entered through dishonest means, how can he/she be expected to be honest and conscientious in his/her career as a Government servant?
It is the youth who appear for such examinations, and it should be the primary duty of officials concerned and agencies to ensure a fair, transparent and quick process for filling advertised vacancies so that not only are their aspirations met, but also that the best among them get selected. The agencies themselves must be manned by those with foolproof integrity. A botched-up process can also ruin the reputation of the agencies entrusted with the confidential work and those who work in them, apart from inviting legal action.
Written Test: In the Armed Forces, physical fitness is the main criterion to shortlist the applicants. But for most ‘civil’ jobs, it is a written examination, which is the first step to shortlist the candidates. In view of the large number of candidates, usually an objective type test is held, where the candidates have to choose one correct answer from amongst four options given. The candidate records the option that he /she considers correct in an Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheet, which is separated and sent for evaluation.
Examination is usually held on a single day, across the state (or the country) with one or more sets of question papers. This is the first area of concern.
As the number of centres is large, the papers have to be printed in bulk. Thus, there is a possibility of leakage at the stage of the printing (as the arrests of officials of the printing agency for Uttarakhand has shown), during transit when the papers are transported from the press to the various examination centres or where they are stored prior to the examination date.
Paperless Process: This is the age of technology and like most major examinations, the pen and paper system should be done away with. All examinations should be held online. This will save huge amounts of paper, stationery and transportation costs. It will be environment friendly, too, as it will save thousands of trees. It will also end the problems associated with disposal/destruction of the used and unused question paper booklets, which occupy a huge space.
Railways shifted to the paperless system a few years ago – the complete process including applications, fees and downloading of admit cards is online. It has worked satisfactorily. It is a misconception that those in the hinterland would not be able to access such websites. People are very savvy and the process itself is quite simple. Often, the coaching centres themselves help the candidates to fill up the forms and upload them.
There is a possibility of lax supervision when smaller schools or institutions are made examination centres. Often candidates sit very near to each other in cramped rooms. The computer-based test (CBT) should be held only in institutions with enough computers and good connectivity. These days, many cities have dedicated examination centres with multiple nodes. In a CBT, as the questions will be random, it is not necessary to hold the test on a single day. This is a well-established system now.
Here, the most important task will be to choose an agency with proven track record and credentials.
Outwitting the Crooks: In the days of yore, there was a satirical magazine ‘MAD’, published in the USA, which had a comic strip ‘Spy versus Spy’. There were two spies who kept finding newer and newer ways to outwit each other. Recruitment too, is such a process. Crooks keep finding devious ways to outwit the process. This brings us to another area of concern- impersonation.
Like in the movie Munnabhai MBBS, dummy candidates may take the test in place of the correct applicant. This is done by deliberately uploading a fuzzy photograph with the application. Thorough checking at the application stage is the first step. Even if it escapes attention, biometrics at the examination centre, photographing and making a video of each one appearing should be the next step. When a selected candidate is called for physical document verification, his/her application, his/her photo while appearing for the examination should be compared. Many frauds can be prevented in this manner. A control centre on the day of the examination can be set up to see direct feeds of the ongoing examination in various centres. Where it is not possible, WhatsApp video calls can be made.
And then we had this bizarre case in the news, where an exam aspirant peeled off his thumb skin, and placed it on the fake candidate’s hand. The candidate was from Bihar and was appearing in an examination in Gujarat. It was detected during verification process before the examination.
One more way to establish genuineness can be for the candidate to write a small passage in his/her own handwriting and upload it. Many candidates circumvent it by using capital letters. Such applications should be rejected, or the candidate asked to submit a fresh application. In case of Uttarakhand, writing a sentence, both, in Hindi and in English can be insisted upon.
Two Stage Examination: In examinations, where the number of candidates is large, a two-stage examination reduces possibility of irregularities. As a computer-based test leads to quick results, even if normalisation across different exam dates is involved, this will be acceptable to genuine candidates. This is especially relevant for technical posts, where subject specific knowledge is essential.
Technology has its flip side, too. Often Bluetooth and other means are used to communicate between a candidate and an ‘expert’ located outside who conveys answers as the exam continues. A shorter duration examination and constant invigilation can prevent such irregularities.
Interviews are another grey area. These were dispensed with in Central Government for Group C posts, many years ago. There is no element of discretion anymore. And, of course, the process is also speeded up.
Railways’ Experience: In 2018-19, Indian Railways held probably the world’s biggest recruitment examination for 63,000 posts in the erstwhile Group D Category (Level 1). It was a completely paperless process in which 1.89 crore candidates applied. About 1.17 crore appeared in the computer-based tests held in 165 cities, in 152 shifts over 51 days. And this was not all. The paper was in 15 languages.
Candidates’ copy and the master answer key were also uploaded, objections received, examined and the candidates answered, before declaring the final result of the written exam. There were no allegations of leakage of question papers or malpractices. Such a system can be introduced in any further recruitment that takes place in Uttarakhand, also.
Faith and trust in administration increases with a fair, quick and transparent recruitment process. The State, too, benefits from better quality of employees. Hopefully, the spate of recent cases of reported malpractices in recruitments will lead to process reform and increased use of technology.
(Manoj Pande was Member – Staff, Railway Board, and ex-officio Secretary to Government of India. He is now based in Dehradun.)