In 2003, the Supreme Court of India banned a rampant practice that private colleges in India had developed into a well-oiled system- collecting lakhs of rupees as capitation fees from students.
Six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, little had changed. In 2009, when I was the Chennai Bureau Chief of Times Now, the father of an aspiring medical student came to my office asking for help. His son, who had scored exceedingly well in the medical entrance exams, had not been able to secure admission in a medical college. The father, unlike many others, could not shell out exorbitant sums for a seat. He was dejected and wanted justice. He had watched a sting operation by us on the ‘paper chasing’ scam in Madras University, and thought we could expose this racket too.
The story on Madras University exposed errant officials, but none of them were brought to task.
Disappointed with the outcome of the previous investigation, I instead offered help in filing a legal case. He was unhappy with that, and returned unhappy.
Just two days later, Pushpa Narayan, a colleague and senior journalist at Times of India, Chennai, woke me up and said, “Let’s expose capitation fees.”
This time, I agreed.
In the days that followed, Pushpa and my Times Now team that included video journalists Manish Dhanani and Y Jayaprakash went from college to college in Chennai to catch officials in the act. Equipped with pen and bag cameras and dictaphones, we started early.
It was perhaps the easiest piece of investigation we had ever done. We just had to walk into a college pretending to be students, and the colleges would demand what had to be paid as capitation fees.
Caught on camera was Subramanian, Deputy Registrar of the prestigious Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research and Institute (SRMC) in Chennai. He told the undercover student and parent that they had to donate a sum of Rs 40 lakhs to get a medical seat. He added that a BDS seat could be given for Rs 3.5 lakh.
Our next stop was the Balaji College owned by then Union Minister and DMK leader Jegathrakshakan. Here too, we recorded a college official and an agent demanding Rs 15 lakhs for a medical seat.
They were like the mafia, clearly trained. They never mentioned the word “capitation”, constantly parroted the word “donation” and were categorical that the payment was to be made only in cash and that there would be no receipts.
Times Now and Times of India simultaneously broke the story, shaking up the state and its medical establishment. The Medical Council of India made new guidelines and ordered an enquiry. The Tamil Nadu government sent notices to both colleges and finally the CBI started a probe.
Since Times Now was willing to be a part of the CBI investigation (Times of India wasn’t), members of my team were included as witnesses. We had many rounds of interaction with CBI officials, but there was always a sense that they were powerless. At one point a CBI officer asked me if I could prove the money trail as the sting only showed an ‘intent’ and there had been no actual financial transaction. I was baffled and retorted that if that was the case, I should have joined the CBI and not been a reporter. We told them emphatically that not a single medical seat was given without capitation fee and the CBI simply had to dig into loans taken by parents. We assumed the CBI would track the source of the money. But no raids were conducted on the colleges or anyone connected.
On March 29, 2011, the CBI filed its chargesheet. SRMC’s Deputy Registrar Subramanian was charged only under Section 2(c) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. CBI did not invoke any sections under the Indian Penal Code including cheating and breach of trust or the Tamil Nadu Educational Institutions (Prohibition of Collection of Capitation Fee) Act, 1992.
We were never asked to depose before the court.
SRMC meanwhile claimed that they had nothing to do with the demand and the Registrar was acting on his own behalf.
In June 2014, Justice Aruna Jagadeesan of the Madras HC set aside the chargesheet saying that Subramanian could not be considered a public servant and hence provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act could not be invoked against him. Subramani was a free man, it was business as usual at SRMC.
Since then, news channels like Times Now and NewsX have done similar sting operations, exposing the capitation racket in dental and engineering colleges. While Vikram Gopinath of Times Now exposed the dental college admission scam, Sreekumar oof News X got students who suffered to speak up. But despite all this, little has changed.
Today, 7 years after our exposé and 13 years after the Supreme Court’s ban, capitation fee is once again in the news. TR Pachamuthu, the Chairman of another powerful educational group in Tamil Nadu, the SRM group that runs the SRM Medical College, has been arrested by the Crime Branch of the Chennai police. This arrest comes after more than 100 students complained to the police that they had paid several lakh rupees for a medical seat and SRM had not admitted them as the NEET controversy had derailed the admission process.
Pachamuthu has been arrested after his aide Madhan, a film producer and an alleged agent for SRM went missing, having written a letter stating that he was going to kill himself as he could not return the money to parents, taken from them for admissions in SRM. SRM has claimed that they had nothing to do with Madhan’s racket, and he had collected money on his own - the same pattern that Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research and Institute followed with its Deputy Registrar Subramanian to wash its hand off its role in the capitation fee scam.
The police have invoked IPC sections 402 (cheating) and 406 (criminal breach of trust) against Pachamuthu. In both the cases, SRM and SRMC, money laundering was never included. Though the apex court had recently said that private universities are culpable under the Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act as they are accountable to the public, the Chennai Police’s case has not invoked the PC Act.
Pachamuthu has distanced himself from Madhan. What stands in his way are accounts by parents that clearly state that he had met them and asked them to handover money to Madhan.
The question to be asked is not if the police will ever be able to prove that SRM medical college took capitation fee, but if the police will have the will to crack the case.
Why have student movements in Tamil Nadu never taken on this corrupt practice seriously? Why don’t parents come together and fight instead of simply giving in year after year?
If NEET hadn’t derailed admissions this year, would those parents who coughed up money for a medical seat ever spoken out against Pachamuthu?
No. Everyone is part of the rot.
The process just fills one with disdain for the system. Even as I wonder if the investigating agencies will let us down again, I am reminded of what Times of India’s Legal Editor A Subramani, a journalist I have immense respect for, told me, “We do our duty without thinking about results. Even if the results are bad, we need to move on and do more stories.”
I can move on, but I hope students, parents and the law don’t