Was Anna University’s internal inquiry into answer paper scam a mere sham?

Sacked employees, a senior professor, and the VC speak to TNM about the inquiry that led to the termination of 38 employees from the university.
Was Anna University’s internal inquiry into answer paper scam a mere sham?
Was Anna University’s internal inquiry into answer paper scam a mere sham?
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It was a major scam that rocked the premier technical university in Tamil Nadu leading to the suspension of the then Controller of Examinations, GV Uma, and 38 other employees. In August 2018, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) filed an FIR against 10 academicians for their alleged involvement in the answer paper scam at Anna University, which happened in August 2017.

The DVAC, during one of its surprise checks, had found evidence of the scam, which involved getting bribes from students to award more marks during revaluation of answer papers. Popularly known as paper chasing, the scam involved agents receiving money from students to trace their answer sheets and altering them in order to score more.

The colleges affiliated to Anna University are divided into many zones for the purpose of valuation of answer sheets. Each zone has a zonal coordinator and a zonal officer, usually professors in the university, who lead a team of contractual workers comprising professional assistants to peons to drivers and labourers.

After the university management suspected that a scam was going on, 38 contractual staff members were fired in several instalments from early 2018. The last batch of the employees were let go in March 2019, after the university conducted an internal probe into the issue. All those who have been sacked are daily wage employees whose contract lasts for six months at a time. A few of them have approached the court seeking justice for their wrongful termination.

Speaking to TNM about the ordeal they had to face in the name of inquiry, Arun*, one of the employees who was fired, says that an inquiry committee was formed months after he was fired by the university. “We all got fired in different months, then in December 2018, the management called all of us for an inquiry at the university. But then the committee consisted of only university staff and no external members,” he says.

The internal committee set up by the management consisted of the new Controller of Examinations, Dr M Venkatesan, Dr S Muttan from the ECE department, Dr K Sivakumar from the Science and Humanities department, Dr S Lakshmi from the Civil engineering department, and Professor S Sanjeevi from the Geology department.

Inept inquiry?

Vijay*, another employee who was sacked for his alleged involvement in the scam, tells TNM that the inquiry committee was not thorough. “The first issue about that committee was the timing. The university started transferring employees and shifting out zonal officers and coordinators recklessly since April 2018, immediately after Dr Venkatesan took charge as the CoE. If they suspected us, they could have asked us then itself. Why wait for seven months to question us?” he asks.

Arun further says that none of the fired employees could possibly have been involved in the scam and that Dr Venkatesan too accepted it at one point. “Venkatesan told us that we did not do anything wrong. He said that they tried reasoning with the syndicate to leave our names out of the list of accused since they knew we were innocent. But he said that the syndicate was adamant and hence he could not do much about it,” he adds.

Pointing out that the internal committee basically had a conflict of interest with the duty it was tasked with, Arun asks, “How can they say that their own colleagues were the ones who committed the mistake? This is why we do not believe this inquiry committee and its findings.”

Arun also alleges that the inquiry committee asked all of them to give some names of those who might have been involved in the exam paper scam. “But how can we implicate and name someone randomly without even knowing anything about it? So we refused. We finally just wrote our thoughts on the matter and that we were not involved in any malpractice and gave it to them. However, the termination letter we were given says that the termination was based on our acceptance of the malpractice,” he explains.

What the employees claim

The employees’ main allegation is that the committee that fired them in an unfair manner did not take any action against their superior officers. “We were all administrative staff who took care of a range of duties like administration, final tallying of marks, auditing, data entry, etc. We were not even allowed to handle answer sheets apart from doing totalling,” says Arun.

Shedding more light on Arun’s claim, Vijay says that though a few professors were stripped off their positions as zonal coordinators and officers, their position in the university has not changed. “These positions of zonal coordinators and zonal officers were additional charge for the professors. After the news of this scandal broke, though the professors were stripped off their zonal designations, their role in academics remains intact. In fact, a couple of them actually got promotions after the scam came out. The only people whose livelihood and reputation is affected is us,” he rues.

A senior professor from the university, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledges this claim and adds that the staff members who were fired for this could not have functioned without an order from a superior officer. “When such is the case, why are these employees alone being punished and why are their superior officers let go?” he asks.

The professor also says that the employees who were sacked were in the lowest rungs of the organisational hierarchy and were hired on a contractual basis. “I see this as an instance of exploitation of the vulnerable portion of employees. Apart from this grade of staff, their immediate superiors all come under the direct payroll of Anna University. This issue must be probed thoroughly with the help of impartial, external committee members,” he says.

Prima-facie evidence present: VC

The Vice Chancellor of Anna University, MK Surappa, meanwhile denied any irregularities in the inquiry conducted so far. Speaking to TNM, Surappa said that the sacking of the 38 employees was based on prima-facie evidence confirming their involvement in the scam.

When asked about the apparent conflict of interest in the internal inquiry committee set up to probe the matter, Surappa said, “That is the university’s procedure. First we probe the issue internally and then appoint an external committee to substantiate the findings of the internal committee. I cannot give you a timeline of when that will happen though, since we are in the middle a lot of other things in the university.”

Responding to the employees’ claim that they were not given space to explain their side, Surappa said that the employees who are not satisfied with the probe can write to him directly and that he would ensure they get justice in the case.

Meanwhile CoE Dr Venkatesan refused to offer a comment on the matter when TNM contacted him on Thursday.

*Name changed

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