What next, Sirji? Rs 1,000 cr Maharashtra fake students scam

If your ward comes home with an indelible ink mark on his finger between Monday and Wednesday in Maharashtra, it does not mean he or she has been a voter in some sudden expansion of democracy to include underage prospects.

The ink mark only means the student’s name is on the rolls, and that any name on the register which did not find a matching student was bogus.  Such extra names would be fake entries by the managements to mulct the government of more aid than they are entitled to.

Take a deep breath: after 2G, CWG, illegal mining, and what-have-you, prepare for another gigantic scam — the fake students scam, which is conservatively expected to be worth Rs 1,000 crore in Maharashtra alone.

Since other states do not necessarily have more conscientious governments, one can imagine the scale of the scam all over India. Especially at a time when we have schemes like mid-day meals, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act funnelling crores of taxpayer money into education.

Back to Maharashtra, which is doing some early sleuthing in this regard. The chances are that when officials inspect schools for the veracity of their records after a head-count of each and every school and teacher, the fake numbers could be astounding, perhaps running into seven to eight digits. If it did, it would be a shame because it would expose one of the biggest rackets being run in the private sector where schools have been cheating the exchequer for an indeterminate number of years.

The checks, which are being run in Maharashtra using employees and officials of all departments except education (for obvious reasons), confirm that the exchequer has been taken for an expensive ride by schools.

Students eat their lunch inside a classroom constructed from mud and old cement bags at the Aman Setu school in Pune. Reuters

In one pilot inspection in Nanded district, as many as 1,35,000 fake students were unearthed. Extrapolated to the state’s 35 districts, even if the extent of malpractice were only a quarter of what was detected in Nanded, one could imagine the implications.

The government’s calculations after the Nanded revelations, which involved only 3,475 schools inspected by 346 squads, are that the fake claims led to grants towards salaries to the extent of Rs 1,000 crore, if these numbers are extrapolated to all 35 districts. Add to this the funding of mid-day meals, also on a per capita basis – which, in any case, is a disaster by itself - then the magnitude of the scandal further enlarges.

Secondly, it also means that all numbers mentioned in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are a fraud. Because there are children out there to be hired for a short time because they don’t go to schools.

But, the racketeers are not easily laid low. They do their best  – or worst? – to ensure they are not detected. The Marathi press, especially those with their ears to the ground and who report extensively on what the urban press believes is the boondocks, has been replete with stories of how the intent of the ongoing inspections are stymied.  The school managements’ attempt has been to hide the truth somehow or anyhow so that their rackets can continue.

One of the ways resorted to has come to light in Solapur, where school staff were deployed to hunt for any stray child of school-going age because, as against 252 students on its rolls, only 70 existed.

In another instance, the school management ferried children from across the border in Karnataka to match the numbers on the benches with those in the records. Anticipating a sealing of the borders, they were imported a day earlier.

In Nanded, where government first got its inkling about a widespread racket of falsified names and strength to claim state aid that went to pay salaries and expenses towards mid-day meals, child labourers were tempted into attending school during the inspection. They were offered a month’s wages just so they could pass the state’s authenticity test. Nashik saw a school management hiring buses to bring kids from illegal, unregistered schools to fill their classrooms.

It is to avoid such a rotation of students, the authorities decided to use indelible ink.

Maharashtra’s professional colleges – medical, engineering and pharmacy, many of them run by ministers and politicians – have developed the fine art of bringing faculty on “loan” from other institutions during the period of inspections by the All India Council of Technical Education or the Medical Council of India. Not doing so exposed a school in Udgir, which claimed 100 students when it actually had only 19 on board. It had failed to find enough impersonators.

Apart from the fake students racket, there is still the mid-day meals scandal waiting to be unearthed. Mid-day meals are of poor quality, with teachers often being forced into cooking them and students ending up with half-filled plates of grub. The savings are often creamed off by managements.

It is also a reality that despite grants, teachers are paid less than the prescribed salaries but the figures mentioned in the ledgers are as per the scales. The education sector – including poor quality government schools – seems to have done everything to destroy its very purpose.

Most aided schools have a politician as owner, or as patrons. With their political clout they have managed to ensure that the official machinery turns a blind eye to doctored rolls amounting to serious frauds.

Obviously, these frauds have been going on for some time to have acquired such enormous dimensions.  So hold your breath and wait for the unveiling of a potentially huge scandal. Unless, the inspecting staff, of course, are bribed into misstating that the records are fine and Nanded was an exception. You can never tell.