A massive scam worth some $1 billion (Rs6,300 crore) is unfolding in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
While shady deals aren’t exactly unusual in Asia’s third largest economy, the Vyapam scam—or the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board scam—is getting murkier and scarier by the day.
Since 2007, thousands of applicants in Madhya Pradesh have allegedly paid bribes to manipulate examination results for government jobs and medical colleges, according to police. A number of government officials, businessmen and politicians are currently serving jail terms. The total arrests in the case exceeds 1,900.
India’s opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has called it the “most sinister scam of India,” and asked the prime minister to take “moral responsibility for what is happening” in Madhya Pradesh, a state ruled by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Close to 45 people—some estimates say the number could be 156—linked to the case have died in road accidents, or from illnesses, or other unknown causes over the past four years, and many whistleblowers are purportedly under threat. These numbers come from a Special Task Force of the state government that is investigating the case, along with information from whistleblowers and media reports. But there is no clarity on who is killing these people, and who all the assailants are trying to protect.
(The numbers in the above chart may not match the estimated death toll because only selective information is available about the victims.)
In the past week alone, four individuals with links to the scandal have died.
On July 4, a TV journalist, Akshay Singh, who was investigating the scam, joined the long list of those who have mysteriously died. After an interview, Singh, 38, reportedly began coughing and foaming at the mouth. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors said he had suffered a heart attack.
This incident comes after the death of assistant veterinary officer Narendra Singh Tomar, a suspect who was being held in Indore jail. While authorities claim Tomar, 29, also died of an heart attack on June 29, his family believes otherwise.
Most recently, on July 5, the dean of Jabalpur Medical College, who had apparently provided hundreds of documents to the officials investigating the scam, was found dead—allegedly after a night of drinking—in a New Delhi hotel room.
“There must be a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) probe,” Prashant Pandey, a forensic expert and one of the whistleblowers in the case, told The Hindu newspaper. “It is not a coincidence that all the accused are dying of one ailment or another. There is something more to it.”
So far, the state government has shown an unusual reluctance to let the central agencies, such as the CBI, take over investigation in this case.
“As far as these sudden cardiac arrests of various people associated with the case are concerned, I suspect a poison was used to murder them,” said Dr. Anand Rai, another whistleblower in the case. “There should be an immediate attempt to arrange for the security of those associated with the case.”
To pull off the scam, middlemen arranged for high-scoring students to impersonate applicants during the exams, while paying officials and invigilators to look the other way. In some cases, invigilators were bribed to allow certain applicants to sit next to impersonators so they could cheat easily. In other instances, applicants apparently left their answer sheets blank, to be filled up later on the basis of the marks they were given.
“There is so much information with the investigators that it could bring the government down,” Ashish Chaturvedi, 26, one of the whistleblowers, told The Washington Post. “But so far they have just gone after students, middlemen and lower officials. They are not even probing the roles of the big fish in the state.”
According to reports, bribes to rig the results varied from Rs15 lakh ($23,000) to Rs50 lakh ($79,000).
“Everybody was making money,” said Vivek Tankha, a lawyer representing the whistleblowers in the Supreme Court. “It is no wonder that we are now witnessing one of the biggest cover-up operations in Indian corruption history.”