‘Why Cheat India’ and the ‘Filter’ of Public Examination

Can weeding out corruption help higher education, when there is a mismatch between number of aspirants and the number of opportunities that are available? 

Jeevan ke race mein aagey badh rahein hain, Aajkal bachey taiyyari kar rahein hain
Zindagi kal shuru hogee, aaj mar rahein hain
(Children are moving ahead in life's race, they are preparing these days
Life will start tomorrow, today we are dying)

A recent Hindi film, Why Cheat India, lyrics from which are quoted above, addresses the theme of corruption and cheating in competitive entrance exams, which determine students’ access to seats in higher education institutions. The aim of this article is not to discuss the moral dimensions of cheating and suggest ways to control it but to use this film as a vehicle to comment on the position and role of such examinations in a deeply divided and unequal society. The endeavour being to understand reasons for both its unassailable legitimacy and anxiety on part of students and their parents to somehow succeed in it.

The plot revolves around a conman who sees himself as Robin Hood and redistributes the economic wealth from those who have excess to those who have little, in exchange for talent. So the talented poor get to write a competitive exam for a not-so-talented rich in exchange for a hefty “fees.” It is a win-win situation for all, including the middlemen who facilitate such an exchange.  The “cheating” that the film refers to in this film is with reference to the coveted few seats in professional courses such as in engineering and medicine. The plot works on the premise that there is a double coincidence of wants: the poor have the talent and the rich have the money and both want what the other has in excess. The protagonist (portrayed by Emraan Hashmi), an unscrupulous man recognises this perfect match and shrewdly uses it to his advantage. By making references to Kota in Rajasthan where such coaching industries are thriving, the film makes a commentary on the nexus between coaching classes, parents and the middlemen.

The Central Board of Film Certification's discomfort with the earlier rather title, “Cheat India,” forcing the film-makers to revise it to, “Why Cheat India,” was done probably with the intent of having a title which is indicative of what the film seeks to do, that is, examine the reasons for a flourishing cheating industry. To be fair to the film, it does depict the murkiness of this world and predicts the self-destructive journey that such talented students (who appear as proxy candidates) embark upon. It also briefly comments on the nature of learning by “rote”, and more importantly, traces the root of corruption where there is a complete mismatch between number of aspirants and the number of opportunities that are available. The film ends up justifying cheating by showing the conman prospering and not behind bars, which may give an the impression that the film condones cheating. However, when looked at from another perspective, it highlights how merely tackling the menace of corruption is not enough as it is just a symptom of a deeper malaise in the system. 

Public examinations

First and foremost, it is important to understand the nature of such exams, their origin and defining characteristics. They are distinct by virtue of the fact that they are:

Omnipresent: These exams are present both in the school system as “board exams” and outside of it, as entrance exams.

External authority: They are conducted by an external authority (for example, Central Board of Secondary Education, Union Public Service Commission and others), that is, the sites of teaching-learning are totally de-linked from the sites of assessing.

Standardised and minimum eligibility: The exams are centralised, uniform and standardised across socio-demographic variations among candidates. They are based on open competition for which there is a minimum eligibility criteria. Performance in them is linked to reward and punishment- in school, to promotion and detention in the academic ladder, and, outside of it, to admissions and jobs.

Impartial: The identities of candidates and assessors are hidden from each other, making these exams conceptually impartial. 

The following sections examine the veracity of these assumptions.

Indispensability of Examinations: Curb social discontent

A discussion on examinations in a pedagogic context alone, ignoring its social underpinnings would be incomplete. The institution of public exams, be it during the exiting of the school system or to enter a professional space, has been well established in the Indian educational system. The interest in standardised, public examinations and the need to make rewards and punishment contingent on its results was recently manifested in the Parliament's decision to re-introduce board exams as early as Class V and reverse the policy of non-detention of children (provisions which were mandated in the Right to Education Act, 2009) (IANS 2018). Provisions of no board exams and not detaining any child despite failure in school-based assessments till elementary school years, did not go down well with a large number of parents, teachers and politicians/policy-makers. The rationale presented for rolling back non-detention was that it allegedly removed fear of consequences of not- learning  from the school and brought down levels of learning of students to a significant low. Though the Annual Status of Education Report had been highlighting learning gaps in rural children since 2005, it was claimed that the gap between what children knew and what they should know had increased after the act was implemented. The hysteria against this non-punitive measure rested on the belief that the fear of failure/repeating a class was what made children learn. This begs a question, by holding children responsible, has the education system (both public and private) conveniently shifted its responsibility to those who have the least say in the system? 

Public exams can be traced back to colonial education policies which positioned them outside of school, away from the influence of teachers and students and thereby establishing them as fair and valid ways of screening students for professional opportunities. The exams were based on an objective criteria which was difficult to challenge, being oblivious to the differences in the social positioning of candidates and in that sense, fair. The exams were uniform and therefore unbiased and they tested everyone under similar conditions for similar skills/knowledge with enormous secrecy maintained around them. Everything associated with public exams, such as, setting  question papers, transporting them, opening the envelopes at the sound of a bell, strict screening [1] of the students as they enter and the presence of multiple invigilator in the room provided it grand stature. and invigilating the room added to it grand stature. 

However, the real challenge confronting the Indian economy has always been that there are not enough opportunities and jobs for everyone. The public examination system became an efficient filter to weed out large numbers of candidates in a manner that everyone (both successful and not successful) accepted its verdict without question. Public examination results individualise both failure and success, pushing discontent and frustration to the realm of the individual and not state [2]

Universal Acceptability

By bringing together diverse sections of society on a common platform, the public examinations came to be accepted by more or less everybody, despite huge differences in their social  locations. One may argue that it is grossly unfair to compare children from unequal backgrounds, both in terms of the schools/colleges they study in and economic, social or cultural capital that their families are equipped with. Even a rough analysis of the backgrounds of children who succeed in such exams may show that majority of them are from privileged backgrounds. At the same time, stories of children from disadvantaged backgrounds being successful and first generation learners tend to have a legitimising effect on the perception of public examinations. The system is lauded as one that (seemingly) provides equal opportunities to all students and is able to distinguish the able from the not-so-able, with absolutely no consideration of where they came from.

Even social reformers like Jotiba Phule's submission to the Hunter Commission helps us acknowledge his perception of the colonial education, of which examinations were an important part, as promoting equity and fairness in a sharply stratified society. 

"The withdrawal of Government from schools or colleges would not only tend to check the spread of education, but would seriously endanger that spirit of neutrality which has all along been the aim of Government to foster, owing to the different nationalities and religious creeds prevalent in India" (Phule, 1882, 9). 

Selection or Elimination: Role of Coaching Institutes

In a situation where opportunities aspired for are really limited, the boundary between the selected and rejected candidates is a simple cut-off score. The boundary is porous in terms of the location of talent and merit but the cut-off mark is decisive and final. It is not unreasonable to imagine that while those selected are “deserving,” there could be deserving candidates even among those rejected[3]. Theoretically exams give everyone an equal chance, linked directly to aspirations for social mobility, the anxiety and desperation to clear them is very high. The arrival of a large number of aspirants, almost 70,000-1,00,000 to Kota city every year for shadow education (Srinivas 2017) and huge amount of resources spent on them by their families is a testimony of their keenness to crack the exam. 

These coaching centres focus on techniques of cracking the exam, time management and frequently conduct a series of mock exams to  churn out “exam-smart” students. The climate of cruel competition is instilled in both schools and coaching centres, whereby students are taught to view their classmates as rivals (Majumdar 2019). 

Cheating, despite being unethical, is similarly perceived as an effective short-cut to passing the exam. Desperate parents also go to any extent to see their children emerge victorious in this game, the picture of parents climbing wall of an exam centre in Bihar to pass on cheat sheets to one's ward is etched in everyone's memory (Baral 2018). 

Centrality of Fear

In the Indian educational set-up and context, the element of fear underlies most activities associated with learning and assessing. The presence of fear is often justified as being important for learning and is unabashedly used to scare, threaten or intimidate children. Fear associated with consequences of not-learning' takes precedence over the “joy of learning” and use of danda (stick) for facilitating learning is justified--as exemplified in a Marathi Balgeet--"Chadi laage cham cham, vidya yeyi gham gham" (the harder the stick beats, the faster is the flow of knowledge).

Sociologist T N Madan has written about the fear he experienced when after five years of home-based education, he was to join school  in Class VIII. As he was presented before the inspector of schools in his office,  he sweated and trembled with fear. "I was packed off to school a month before the dreaded examination to get a feel of the classroom teaching/learning ... I was however, oppressed by the fear of the upcoming examinations ... the entry into school ended my childhood, bringing with it many anticipated joys, but also unknown fears, including the examination blues" (Madan 2010: 192-3). Incidentally, not just exams per se, but the time of the year they are held acquire a particular air of seriousness, dullness and anxiety. Since these are one-off events and the students' future depends on them, any illness, even a mild cough also has the potential to jeopardise their future. "Exams take away the meaning of springtime in our youth. It is ironical that in the month of March, when everything is blossoming, you are about to sit for an exam and life is hell" (Kumar 2007: 8).

Is There a Way Out?

It can now be said that public exams by virtue of their externality, uniformity and impartiality curb social discontent in an unequal society by justifying/individualising both success and failure. Given the sheer numbers of people applying for limited seats, these exams are more about elimination than selection, thereby enhancing the importance of coaching. Fear is a key component of such exams as implications of success and failure in them are severe. What are the possible solutions available? 

Alternate methods: Alternative, perhaps more humane way of examining students' aptitude and competence needs to be identified. However, if the root cause of the problem is left unaddressed, then decontextualised pedagogic solutions alone are unlikely to solve the problem.

Entrepreneurship skills: Students should be helped in honing their entrepreneurship skills

Meaningful choices: Make education more meaningful that supports students to make choices that are not influenced by their social prestige (like engineering and medicine) and more importantly, be given opportunities and supported to develop different facets of their personality.

Responsive education: Make education responsive to employment skills required. However, a unilateral relationship between education simply responding to market needs will do more harm than good.

More jobs: Establish more public institutions of high quality and create more job opportunities.  Clearly the state needs to take this responsibility and the private sector, despite their enormous contribution cannot be relied upon for an equitable economic growth of the country.  In the neo-liberal environment, where private is celebrated and public, condemned, further withdrawal by the state will only intensify the struggle for a large majority of people and one will have to continue to contend with paper leakages, cheating and student suicides etc.

This article has been corrected. It was updated on 7 March, 2019.

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