Why cracking down on cheating in India's Bihar state is tough

Cheating in Saharsa Image copyright Dipankar
Image caption Cheating is common in exams in Bihar

On Friday, 14 students in eastern India's Bihar who topped school examinations will face three teachers in an office in the state capital, Patna, to be retested.

The examiners will be checking the handwriting of the students and will be asking questions to find out whether they cheated in their examinations.

The decision to arrange this unprecedented retest was taken after a local TV channel broadcast footage showing two of the top-scoring students struggling to answer basic questions posed by the reporters.

Ruby Rai and Saurabh Shresth topped the school-leaving class 12 examination, in which more than a million students took part. On paper, they are the cream of the crop.

Blacklisted

But Ms Rai, who scored top in the humanities stream, told the channel that political science "was all about cooking", while Mr Shresth, who can first for science, named aluminium as the most reactive element in the periodic table, when it is in a less active group.

Interestingly, both the toppers come from the same school in the state's Vaishali district. More interestingly, authorities had blacklisted the college for encouraging cheating last year. The principal of the college, who has been under a cloud, continues in his job.

Remember these pictures from last year? Brave - and desperate - parents, relatives and friends of students are seen climbing school walls in Bihar to pass on answers to the students inside.

"When you go elsewhere, no one will believe your degrees. If you can't clear exams, why don't you just fail them and retake them till you pass?" a frustrated Bihar leader, Laloo Prasad Yadav, had said at the time.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Brave relatives could be seen scaling the walls
Image copyright AFP
Image caption More than a million students took the school exams in Bihar

Bihar suffers from an epidemic of cheating, but these pictures went viral and embarrassed the government. So the authorities put up CCTV cameras, deployed 70,000 officials and policemen and imposed a fine of 10,000 rupees ($148; £103) on students caught cheating during this year's school examinations.

The upshot: more than half of the 1.4 million students who took the Bihar Board Examinations - or the class 10 test - this year failed. Last year 75% of them had cleared the exam. A Bihar minister admitted that this year's exam results showed the "actual merit of students".

Cheating in school exams has been going on in Bihar for as long as one can remember. A mafia, comprising teachers and school authorities, connives with parents of students who bribe them to rig entire answer sheets.

Failed tests

Sometimes teachers will complete exam papers for their students, while the students sit at home. Another example: a colleague, who studied in Bihar, told me that when she went to school more than a decade ago, teachers would often write answers on the blackboard during exams.

These days, an official in Bihar tells me, a rigged first division score answer paper can set back parents by 40,000-50,000 rupees ($594-$743; £411-£514), while ensuring that you get the highest score in a state can cost 100,000 rupees.

Something is clearly rotten when it comes to education in Bihar, one of India's poorest states.

Education is a way out of poverty for the poor and promises upward mobility to the middle class, which is bristling with ambition. So enrolment has risen sharply and a growing number of students are appearing for exams - 1.34 million students took the class 10 exams in 2014, up from half a million students in 2004, for example.

But once the authorities cracked down on cheating this year, the pass rate declined sharply. More than 70% of the examinees passed the class 10 exam in 2014 and 2015. This year, barely 50% passed. In the class 12 school-leaving board exam this year - which Ms Rai and Mr Shresth topped - 56% and 67% of the students passed in humanities and science, as against 86% and 89% last year.

What could be the reason? Reading levels have improved, but clearly the quality of teaching is appalling. Absenteeism among teachers is very high. A sting by a local channel on school teachers in the state last year was revealing. One teacher spelt Shakespeare as Shakspear. The maths teacher spelt his subject Mathmates, and looked puzzled when asked about Pythagoras.

"Our teachers hardly come to teach us," is a common refrain among students in Bihar.

What will happen on Friday when the students are tested? If they are caught out, what will the authorities do? How many students can you penalise when you really don't know how many have cheated? Or, as IndiaExplained tweeted, in jest, will parents have to climb the walls again?

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