It had all the makings of a movie thriller. Students who paid a few lakh rupees were supplied with vanishing ink. Answer papers were intercepted on the way and corrected.
No one would have been wiser had the perpetrators of the exam scam not gotten greedy.
Tamil Nadu is widely known to be one of the better governed states in the country, so it came as a shock that in this so-called better governed state, you could actually buy a government job through manipulating state public service examinations.
Now how this came about is a tale of Machiavellian ingenuity that could rival any movie story in recent times. The only reason the perpetrators got caught was greed; if they had kept the number to a limited number of students they would never have got caught.
Their mistake was to rope in 99 students who have since been barred for life from qualifying for the TNPSC.
The modus operandi was simple. Those candidates who wanted to pass the exams had to pay a broker Rs 8 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. They were then told to select Rameswaram or Keelakarai, both in Ramanathapuram district, as their examination centre.
This happened in the Group 4 exams last year for jobs like junior assistant, bill collector, typist, etc. The candidates were given a pen with special ink with which to mark the answer paper. An hour later this ink vanished.
Since it was all objective questions with multiple choices for answers, they had to just shade the correct answer.
The answer papers had to travel from Ramanathapuram to Chennai by road, which would take a good 12 hours.
En route the seals were removed, and the selected answer papers, which were now blank, were now marked with a regular pen for the correct answer.
The scam came to light when other candidates who had written the exams pointed out that most of the toppers were from one district. Questioning of the top 50 resulted in the scam coming out into the open.
It was also noticed that among the top 100 in the Group 2 TNPSC exams in 2017, 37 candidates were from the same two centres in Ramanathapuram.
The same gang is said to be behind both scams. While some had been given the magic ink pens, others had been told to answer only the questions about which they were sure of the answers. The rest they had to be left blank.
Again, the seal was broken, answer sheets corrected, the seal put back and then delivered in Chennai. And nobody was wiser till the scam came out in the open.
The alleged kingpin, one Jayakumar, has surrendered and 32 people have been arrested so far, but it is not the end of the story.
Every exam conducted by the TNPSC in the last few years will be examined with a fine tooth comb and one can expect more skeletons to tumble out.
R Nataraj, was chairman of the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission from January 2012 to January 2013.
"We must keep an eye on coaching centres and always be a step ahead of them," Nataraj, a former state DGP and now an MLA from the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, tells A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff/com.
I am surprised that the tampering of the seals was not detected immediately. The answer sheets are bundled, packed and sealed. They must have removed the seals and put them back, how this was overlooked must be investigated.
All examination centres must have CCTV cameras and linked to the control room so that we can watch every centre from one central place.
There have to be roaming monitors who visit each centre all over the state and report any discrepancy immediately.
Once the exams are over the time, they leave the centre must be recorded and relayed to Chennai, and the vehicles can be tracked with GPS.
It will be even better if the papers are taken to the nearest airport, booked as cargo and one member of TNPSC travels with them to Chennai. On an aircraft the papers will be in the cargo hold and out of reach of anyone.
The answer sheets should be treated like ballot boxes. Nobody goes home till all of them are here in one place.
Once the results are out, students should be able to ask and view their answer papers if they think they have not got what they deserved.
The place where the interviews take place should also have cameras. The results of the interviews should also be posted online immediately so that there is no room for any manipulation.
Transparency is why we could pinpoint that Ramanathapuram district was the problem case (because the results were online and showed where the toppers were from). Transparency must be maintained at all times.
The syllabus is known and model papers are available. Every year questions must be framed to make the students think and answer. Though the syllabus is known, the questions do not have to be the same.
We must keep an eye on coaching centres and always be a step ahead of them.
Even if they used vanishing ink, there has to be a difference between the ink used to write the name and number of the candidate and any ink used later. The trained eye will spot it if they are looking for it.
Always keep in mind that the thief has to reform himself, no law will change him. Only if the detection and punishment are severe will he not attempt to cheat.