How the West Bengal school job scam unfolded

Going by the 8,000 figure mentioned in the SC, a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest a rip-off of at least Rs 400 crore (8,000 x 5,00,000).
Representational image.
Representational image.

KOLKATA: Days after the Calcutta High Court invalidated the fraudulent appointments of 25,753 teachers and non-teaching staff by the state's School Service Commission (SSC) in state-run and state-aided schools, SSC chairman Siddhartha Majumdar said the number of irregular hires was around 5,300 or 20.5%.

In the affidavits the SSC filed before the high court bench, it quantified the illegal appointments as 4,327, which works out to 16.8%. When the order's challenge was heard in the Supreme Court on April 29, the figure on questionable appointments mentioned by the state government's counsel was 8,000 or 31%. So, what is the actual size of the fraud?

Sources in the state government claim the illegal appointees paid bribes in the range of Rs 5-15 lakh. Going by the 8,000 figure mentioned in the SC, a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest a rip-off of at least Rs 400 crore (8,000 x 5,00,000).

Representational image.
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A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud refused to stay the high court order canceling all the appointments but asked if it was possible to segregate the valid and the invalid recruitments. The matter will come up before the bench on May 6 when the state government is expected to respond.

What went against the Bengal government in the eyes of the high court bench was the complete lack of cooperation by its agencies and institutions like the SSC and the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education.

Whatever has been unraveled so far is because of writ petitions by the aggrieved, the pesky judiciary and the Central probe agencies. Not all dodgy recruitments flagged by the courts have been acted upon by the SSC yet. In sum, the SSC is yet to take the trouble of cleaning up the recruitment process on its own to instill faith and confidence in the system.

To most of the writ petitions on rank jumps and illegal appointments, its affidavits claimed they were inadvertent errors due to oversight. Unintentional errors in 16.8% or 20.5% or 31% of the recruitments, whichever figure you choose to go with, would mean some really careless chaps are handling hiring without oversight. Is there an internal system of accountability?

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Around 4,000 teachers who lost their jobs because of the sweeping judgment despite figuring on the rank list demonstrated at the Shahid Minar Ground in Kolkata.
Around 4,000 teachers who lost their jobs because of the sweeping judgment despite figuring on the rank list demonstrated at the Shahid Minar Ground in Kolkata.

Grain and chaff test

The high court division bench of justice Debangsu Basak and Md. Shabbar Rashid was constituted following a direction from the Supreme Court. It heard 350 petitions and appeals before delivering its judgment. The judges knew their verdict was unusually harsh because thousands of candidates who had sailed through on merit were also rendered jobless. Cancelling all appointments is unacceptable if it is possible to separate the grain from the chaff, the Supreme Court has ruled on multiple occasions. But the high court bench said applying the grain and the chaff test in the present case was impossible because the entire selection process was tainted and compromised.

For starters, the selection process involved a written test for four categories of candidates - Group C, Group D, assistant teachers for classes 9 and 10, and assistant teachers for classes 11 and 12. All candidates had to fill up Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) answer sheets for the written test in 2016. The SSC destroyed the original OMR sheets a year later after their mirror images were captured by an outsourced agency, M/s NYSA. The SSC claimed it had a copy of the mirror images. But a CBI probe could not find the mirror images in the SSC server.

Yet, when RTI requests came up from candidates for copies of their OMR sheets, the SSC provided them, as the processing was done by NYSA. The CBI recovered from NYSA staffer Pankaj Bansal at UP's Ghaziabad three hard disks that had original scanned images of the OMR sheets and the evaluated marks. Their veracity is not disputed.

NYSA, the company hired for scanning and evaluating the OMR sheets, outsourced the job to another company, Data Scantech. But SSC's chairman told the court he had no knowledge of Data Scantech's role in the selection process. Who authorised NYSA to engage Data Scantech is yet to be disclosed.

Representational image.
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All OMR sheets were scanned at the SSC's office. That is again not disputed. How the SSC allowed Data Scantech to work out of its premises without authorisation for the physical scanning, raises serious questions about the integrity, sanctity and validity of the entire selection process, the bench observed.

Besides, the choice of NYSA as the evaluator was opaque. NYSA was appointed without an open tender. The SSC did not disclose the parameters/qualifications required to participate in the bidding process despite the court's request. The conduct of the evaluator affects the validity of the evaluation process, the bench reasoned. The non-cooperative attitude of the SSC, the state and the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education added to the hassle.

"The entire selection process is shrouded in such mystery and in such layers that it is difficult to fathom the quantum of illegalities performed. That illegalities had vitiated the selection process of M/s. NYSA stands established," the bench observed. "The plausible inference from the materials made available on record and the conduct of the relevant parties is that the entire machinery was devised for the purpose of effectuating a scam which will be hard to discover and even if discovered difficult to prove," it said.

"Fraud perpetrated and perpetuated is deep and pervasive. Any attempt to shift the proverbial grain from the chaff would be an unprofitable exercise, prolonging the agony and would put premium on dishonesty," the high court bench added.

Around 4,000 teachers who lost their jobs because of the sweeping judgment despite figuring on the rank list demonstrated at the Shahid Minar Ground in Kolkata.
Around 4,000 teachers who lost their jobs because of the sweeping judgment despite figuring on the rank list demonstrated at the Shahid Minar Ground in Kolkata.

Blank OMR sheets

Some candidates had submitted blank OMR sheets, yet the evaluator's score showed they did sufficiently well in the test and were recruited. The CBI found ample evidence of OMR sheet manipulation besides fraudulent rank jumps of candidates. The exact number of such illegal beneficiaries is yet to be quantified but according to the SSC's own admission, as many as 45% of Group D appointments were questionable (see table).

Political football

Coming as the verdict did bang in the middle of the general elections, the job scam turned into political football. "The corruption witnessed in school recruitment under the TMC's watch is deplorable. Numerous deserving and genuine candidates have suffered due to this scam. I have asked the Bengal BJP unit to create a separate legal cell and social media platform to provide help to genuine candidates and teachers. No matter even if the elections are on, the party would extend all help to the genuine candidates," Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said.

In her riposte, Trinamool Congress boss and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said, "The BJP snatched away the jobs of school teachers in West Bengal. The party is now saying they will help those who lost their jobs. Now because of elections, the prime minister is making such remarks. It is the BJP which was part of the court case that took away the jobs. Now they are making false promises."

Senior Trinamool leader Abhishek Banerjee said, "Just as we've heard of match-fixing in cricket, what is happening now is 'fixing of orders', a collaboration between a certain section of the judiciary and the BJP to inflict suffering on people. The recent joining of an ex-judge to the BJP further validates our claims," he said.

Bag panel

In 2021, a different high court bench appointed a panel headed by retired Justice Ranjit Kumar Bag, former judge of the high court, to monitor and supervise the probe into the Group C and D recruitments. Its findings tally with those of the CBI. For example, it found that as many as 609 Group D vacancies were filled by preparing false recommendation letters. Of them were 318 candidates whose names did not figure in the Group D panel for selection or in the waiting list. In other words, they flunked the test.

The dodgy candidates made their first move by seeking re-evaluation of their OMR answer sheets through the RTI Act. Then the rigged system took over. None of these candidates appeared for the mandatory personality test, nor were they part of the counseling process. Their false recommendation letters were sent from the SSC office “using fictitious memo numbers of the Regional Commissions and by affixing scanned signatures of the Chairpersons of the Regional Commissions while keeping them in the dark after the expiry of the selection panel”.

How the scam broke

Separate panels of the successful candidates in the four categories of jobs were published in 2017 and 2018. But candidates could only see their individual score and rank online after entering their roll number and date of birth. It didn't give them a sense of transparency. Some of them moved the high court seeking the full list of successful candidates together with their scores and ranking. The high court consented, forcing the reluctant SSC to publish the list on June 20, 2019 after hauling it up for contempt of court. But before releasing the full list, the SSC changed the ranks of the dodgy candidates despite the high court fiat to publish it as is.

Can of worms

The full list opened a can of worms as it showed candidates with lesser scores getting jobs over better performers. A section of the aggrieved candidates went to court. The rest is history.

In August 2022, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested former education minister Partha Chatterjee and his close aide Arpita Mukherjee in the case. Several SSC officials, including Trinamool Congress MLA Manik Bhattacharya were also arrested. In its first chargesheet filed in September 2022, the ED said it traced cash, jewellery and immovable property worth Rs 103.10 crore linked to the duo. All the shady appointments were made by a five-member committee approved by Partha Chatterjee. The panel was tasked to supervise, monitor and guide the SSC on the recruitment process.

Justice Gangopadhyay

After the initial writ petitions were assigned to Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay, the trickle of litigants soon turned into a torrent. In May 2022, Justice Gangopadhyay ordered a CBI probe into the job scam. The West Bengal government challenged it in the Supreme Court, which directed a bigger bench of the Calcutta high court to address the matter. Later, the CBI got to probe the case and reveal the dirty secrets.

It was Justice Gangopadhyay's dogged pursuit that helped unravel the scam. He ranted and raved against the Bag probe panel before he realised it was equally committed in ferreting out the truth, picked quarrels with brother judges and violated judicial discipline, but also successfully coaxed the government through various means to spill out the facts.

Gangopadhayay resigned from service on March 5, joined the BJP two days later and was fielded from the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat in East Midnapore district.

Reacting to the verdict, Gangopadhyay said, "The real culprits are sitting in top positions of state administration and hiding behind their security bubble. If they have the courage and any shame left in them, they should quit their positions of power, shred their protective cover and face investigations."

Supernumerary post

Instead of going after the candidates who got jobs through the back door by fraud, what was appalling was the SSC seeking the court's permission to create a supernumerary post for them. Supernumerary posts are created for a limited period to accommodate government employees with retrospective effect when no regular post is available. As for the state government, it did not oppose the request. Documents placed on record suggested that the West Bengal government, at the level of the Cabinet, had approved creation of the supernumerary posts to accommodate these illegal appointees. The Principal Secretary shared with the Justice Gangopadhyay bench a Cabinet note and a Cabinet memo on creation of the supernumerary post.

The high court in its sweeping verdict had also directed the CBI to probe the role of the West Bengal government officials in the scam and those involved in approving the creation of supernumerary posts for the illegal appointees. It gave the CBI the freedom to consider custodial interrogation of such individuals, if needed. However, the SC last week stayed the CBI probe order.

The high court also said that those appointed outside the officially available 24,640 vacancies after the expiry of the official date of recruitment, and those who submitted blank OMR sheets but were hired, must return all their remuneration and benefits with 12% interest per annum within four weeks.

"It is shocking that at the level of the Cabinet of the state government, a decision is taken to protect employment obtained fraudulently in a selection process conducted by SSC for state-funded schools, knowing full well that such appointments were obtained beyond the panel and after expiry of the panel, at the bare minimum," the high court verdict said.

Unless "there is a deep connection between the persons perpetuating the fraud and the beneficiaries", efforts to create supernumerary posts to protect illegal appointments is inconceivable, the division bench observed. The division bench directed the SSC to initiate a fresh appointment process within a fortnight from the date of the results of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

Illegalities in the selection process

  1. SSC appointed M/s NYSA for scanning and evaluating the OMR sheets by closed-door tender in violation of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution of India

  2. NYSA engaged another agency, Data Scantech, to scan the OMR sheets

  3. Scanning was done at the office of SSC. But SSC claims it never engaged Data Scantech to scan the OMR sheets or authorised NYSA to engage Data Scantech or any other agency

  4. SSC destroyed original OMR sheets; claimed scanned mirror images saved in its server

  5. CBI did not find any scanned mirror image of OMR sheets in the server of SSC

  6. OMR sheets had been destroyed without the scanned mirror images being preserved in the server of SSC

  7. But SSC provided scanned OMR sheets to RTI applicants from 2018 to 2023 claiming that such OMR sheets were from its database although CBI did not find any OMR sheets in the server of SSC

  8. Appointments higher than the declared vacancies had been given in all 4 categories

  9. Appointments given to persons who were not even in the panel who cleared the test

  10. Appointments given to persons who submitted blank OMR sheets

  11. Appointments given to persons after the expiry of the panel

  12. Persons placed lower in rank given appointment in preference to persons placed higher in the pecking order in the merit list

  13. Counseling held even after the expiry of the panel

  14. Total beneficiaries of the illegalities yet to be identified because of non-cooperation by the SSC, Board and State

  15. SSC had applied for permission to create supernumerary posts to accommodate the illegal appointees

  16. Recruitment rules governing the four categories never adhered to

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