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Legislative Analysis: Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024

On June 19, the Education Ministry announced the cancellation of the UGC-NET exam following reports from the Ministry of Home Affairs indicating that the exam's integrity had been compromised. The University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) is administered by the National Testing Agency (NTA). This decision comes amid ongoing controversy surrounding the NTA due to irregularities in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical and allied courses.[1]

The question paper for the UGC-NET exam, held on June 18, was reportedly leaked 48 hours before the test. Sources from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) informed NDTV that the exam paper was sold on the dark web and encrypted social media platforms for ₹6 lakh.[2]

In response to the controversies around the NEET and UGC-NET exams, the Centre has implemented a strict new law to prevent paper leaks and cheating. The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, was officially notified on 21 June 2024, just one day after Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan indicated its imminent implementation.[3]

Objective of the Legislation:
The primary objective of the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, is to prevent and penalize unfair practices during public examinations, including cheating, paper leaks, and other forms of malpractice. It aims to maintain the integrity and credibility of the examination process while protecting the rights and interests of all stakeholders involved, including students, examination authorities, and service providers.

Applicability of the Act:
The Act applies to public examinations conducted by or under the authority of the central government. This includes examinations overseen by various national-level examination bodies such as:
  • Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)
  • Staff Selection Commission (SSC)
  • Railway Recruitment Boards (RRBs)
  • National Testing Agency (NTA)
  • Any other examination authority specified in the schedule of the Act.[4]

While the primary focus is on central examinations, the framework could potentially be adapted or referenced for state-level examinations if state governments choose to implement similar provisions. However, the current Act specifically addresses central examinations.

Key Provisions:
  • Title and Commencement (Section 1):

    The Act may be cited as the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024. It shall come into force on a date appointed by the Central Government through an official notification.  
  • Definitions (Section 2):

    • Candidate: Refers to a person who applies or is registered to appear in a public examination, including those authorized to act on their behalf.
    • Unfair Means: Broadly defined to include acts like leakage of question papers, unauthorized possession of examination materials, tampering with answer sheets, and manipulation of examination processes.
  • Acts Constituting Unfair Means (Section 3):

    • Leakage and unauthorized access to question papers or answer sheets.
    • Collusion to facilitate the leakage of examination materials.
    • Tampering with examination-related documents or processes.
    • Direct or indirect assistance to candidates during examinations.
    • Violations of security measures and manipulation of examination logistics.
  • Penalties and Punishments:

    The Act imposes stringent penalties, including imprisonment of up to seven years and fines up to ten lakh rupees, for those engaging in examination malpractices, aiming to deter such activities robustly.

    Service providers found guilty of facilitating unfair means face fines up to one crore rupees, highlighting the act's stringent stance on ensuring accountability across all stakeholders involved in the examination process. Enhanced penalties for repeat offenders underscore the act's commitment to preventing recidivism. However, while the severity of these penalties is intended to deter misconduct, it is crucial to maintain proportionality and fairness to avoid excessively harsh punishments for minor infractions. Effective implementation, consistent enforcement across regions, and robust oversight mechanisms are essential to address potential challenges and ensure the act's efficacy in maintaining the integrity of public examinations. 
  • Protection of Honest Efforts (Section 4):

    • Ensures that genuine and sincere efforts of candidates are protected and that they are not unjustly penalized under the Act.
    • Candidates will continue to be covered under existing administrative provisions of the public examination authority.
  • Role of States (Section 5):

    • The Act serves as a model draft for states, encouraging them to adopt similar measures to protect the integrity of state-level public examinations.
    • Aims to prevent criminal elements from disrupting state-level examinations.
  • Delegated Legislation (Memorandum):

    • Empowers the Central Government to frame rules and regulations for the procedural aspects of the Act, ensuring flexibility in implementation.
    • The delegation of legislative power is stated to be of a normal character, focusing on procedural and detailed matters not practical to include in the Act itself.

Need of the Act:
  1. Prevalence of Examination Malpractices: Increasing incidents of cheating, question paper leaks, and other unfair practices have compromised the credibility of public examinations. This not only undermines the meritocratic principles of the education system but also affects the future of honest students.
  2. Technological Advancements: With advancements in technology, new methods of cheating have emerged, including the use of electronic devices and cyber-related malpractices. Existing laws have been inadequate in addressing these sophisticated forms of cheating.
  3. Uniform Standards and Accountability: There is a need for uniform standards and stringent measures across states and examination authorities to prevent and penalize unfair practices effectively. The Act aims to provide a comprehensive legal framework that can be adopted nationwide, ensuring consistency and accountability.
  4. Deterrent Effect: The Act introduces severe penalties, including imprisonment of up to seven years and fines up to ten lakh rupees for individuals, and fines up to one crore rupees for service providers involved in malpractices. These stringent penalties are intended to act as a strong deterrent against engaging in unfair means.
  5. Protecting Honest Candidates: Ensuring that honest candidates are not unfairly penalized and that their efforts are rewarded based on merit is crucial for maintaining trust in the examination system. The Act aims to create a fair environment where genuine efforts are recognized and protected.
  6. Addressing Organized Cheating: The Act targets organized groups and institutions that indulge in examination malpractices for monetary or wrongful gains, thereby disrupting the examination process. By holding all stakeholders accountable, including examination authorities and service providers, the Act aims to dismantle such organized networks.

The "Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024" is a timely and essential legislative measure in light of recent controversies surrounding public examinations in India, such as the ongoing National Testing Agency (NTA) paper cancellations and the NEET exam scandal. These incidents have highlighted significant vulnerabilities in the current examination system, leading to widespread public outcry and a demand for stricter oversight and accountability.

The Act addresses these issues by providing a comprehensive legal framework to combat various forms of examination malpractices, from traditional cheating methods to sophisticated technological fraud. By imposing severe penalties, including imprisonment and substantial fines, the Act aims to deter individuals and organized groups from engaging in unfair practices. Moreover, it ensures that examination authorities and service providers are held accountable, thereby promoting a culture of integrity and transparency.

By safeguarding the interests of honest candidates and maintaining the credibility of public examinations, this Act is a crucial step towards restoring public confidence in the education system. The recent NTA paper cancellations and NEET exam controversies underscore the urgent need for such robust legal measures, making the enactment of this Act a pivotal moment in the ongoing efforts to uphold the standards and fairness of public examinations in India.

  4. The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024

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