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‘Parties must crack down on exam paper leaks’

ByDhrubo Jyoti
Apr 30, 2024 04:52 AM IST

In Agra's Nagla Teen, Abhishek Kumar prepares for govt exams amidst chaos, dreams of stable job. Facing challenges of paper leaks, caste bias, he aims to vote for change.

Agra In the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Nagla Teen is a world away from the gleaming marble benches frequented by heads of State, people’s princesses, and the richest men on Earth. Here, off the eastern extremities of the beloved mausoleum, electrical wires dangle off the road in a dangerous yet delicate embrace even as e-rickshaws bursting with office goers and schoolchildren zip underneath. Children turn the barely paved alleys into cricket pitches with two mounds of bricks, and every shop has a cemented nook where patrons can catch up on neighbourhood gossip with packets of milk, biscuits or eggs in their hands.

Abhishek Kumar is preparing for govt recruitment exams (HT Photo)
Abhishek Kumar is preparing for govt recruitment exams (HT Photo)

Somewhere in this Agra neighbourhood is a cubby hole where Abhishek Kumar is preparing for his next government recruitment exam, the lines on his gaunt face getting deeper as he ignores the constant wail of auto-rickshaws and motorbikes that waft into his room from the chaotic streets of Nagla Teen. Sitting under a portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar, Kumar, pores over a book and test papers for an average of 11 hours a day in his quest to crack a competitive exam.

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He has been at it since 2021. Around him are peers who began exam preparations with him but have since drifted into the private sector. Kumar, however, is clear that for a boy from a middle-class neighbourhood, the stability and certitude of a government job still trumps other options.

Read more: Engineering entrance exam: STF arrests 2 for VIT question paper leak

“Our upbringing is that we cannot afford private college or afford their fees. If we want to be settled, the only option is a government job,” he said, adding that the private sector jobs that his friends have been able to secure are mostly gig work. “They had responsibilities so they had to get the first job they could. But no one is happy.”

Kumar is one of hundreds of thousands of young people across India who spend years preparing for the bouquet of recruitment examinations that state governments conduct, spending anywhere between three to eight years to secure a position as a police constable or primary schoolteacher. Their toil and determination is often eclipsed by the more high-profile pursuit of IIT or medical college seats, only making them appear on the national stage at rare moments such as one earlier this year when 550,000 people applied for 60,000 Uttar Pradesh constable positions.

He is also part of an 18-million-strong group of young voters who will exercise their franchise for the first time in the ongoing general elections, their aspirations and concerns shaping the battle for the 18th Lok Sabha.

The 23-year-old with a seemingly endless supply of graphic black tees isn’t afraid of hard work. He wakes up every day at 6am to study, breaking at 12pm for lunch and a short nap, before moving to another subject till 6pm. After a short game of badminton and dinner, at 7.30pm, he is back at his study table till 10.30pm.

Read more: Akash Anand assails BJP over paper leaks, says it is time to teach a lesson

“I have to divide and conquer. General studies takes about two-and-a-half hours, English 3-4 hours, and Math 4-5 hours every day. There are video lectures, tutorial papers, and textbooks. And then you have to revise, revise, revise,” he said.

He hasn’t succeeded yet, but isn’t daunted. “Whenever I get demoralised, I look at the portrait of Babasaheb. Ek time khana khakar unhone samvidhan likh dala (he survived on one meal a day and ended up writing the Constitution),” he said.

Still, the developments this February gave him pause. That month, Kumar and scores of his peers from a local coaching centre were walking to an examination centre one morning for the Uttar Pradesh Police Recruitment Examination, when rumours started swirling on their student WhatsApp groups — the ones usually crammed with motivational stickers and YouTube video links of short-cuts for complex Math problems — that the paper had been leaked.

“The vacancy had come after years and we had stayed up every night for at least 45 days. And in a minute, it was all down the drain,” he said. The exam was eventually cancelled and a retest ordered in six months, with the police pointing to a sophisticated syndicate.

“This keeps happening, especially in smaller exams. If the test is in the evening shift, the paper is leaked in the morning and then the bharti is cancelled. The youth is distressed. Our dreams keep getting dashed.”

The son of an employee in the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Kumar has a packed schedule ahead of him this year — the revised police constable examination, the Delhi sub-inspector exam and the SSC exam in October. Whatever little time he gets to his own is spent idolising his favourite cricketer — MS Dhoni. “He is a small-towner who made it big on his talent and labour. I want to do the same.”

Read more: Police recruitment paper leak: Delhi cop held for arranging resort for aspirants to read & solve papers

Yet, he wants to take out time and vote in the Lok Sabha elections on May 7 because he feels political parties need to take the asks of young people such as him seriously.

“The competition gets tougher every day and the questions more complicated. With every exam that gets cancelled, another generation of aspirants join the queue and getting on the merit list becomes impossible. Political parties don’t seem to understand this,” he said.

He wants to vote for a party that will take strict action against syndicates that put the futures of millions like him into jeopardy, institute a transparent and strict system, and punish the guilty.

“Many of our seniors live in constant terror that they’ll become overage. What can we students do? We just feel hamari mehnat mitti mein mil gayi (our hard work has turned to dust).”

But beyond the immediate, there is another reason animating his desire to vote — to participate in a democratic system set up by Babasaheb, whose teachings have guided his family for generations. “He taught us that education was the only permanent way to change our lives,” Kumar said.

It is not an easy path. In Agra, where Kumar lives, caste bias may have retreated into the shadows, but it lurks under the surface, forever ready to bare its fangs. In school or at the coaching centre, the young man always has his guard up for hostile responses when his once-friendly peers and teachers figure out his caste background. “Their behaviour completely changes. They start calling us quota-walas, trying to suppress our voice, our identity,” he said.

Some of his exam training needs guidance from mentors, but many of them are steeped in dogma and hurl jibes at him, alleging he’ll need fewer marks to make the cut. “They make us feel less. Does belonging to quota mean we don’t work hard?” he asked.

Kumar’s education has made his responses sharp – he is clear that reservation is a necessary tool in a caste-blighted society, that Dr Ambedkar worked for the upliftment of several communities, not just his own, and that conditions that bred caste discrimination continue to fester, from classrooms to boardrooms. He knows that this is not something that elections can change, but politics and society will need to if they have to progress.

“They want to demoralise us, but we have Dr Ambedkar’s ideas to fight against them,” he said. “We won’t step back.”

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