With every fiasco, the State Education department seems hell-bent in touching a new low in public perception. The fire at Sankardev Semiry High School in Jorhat has once again laid bare how the Board of Secondary Education, Assam (SEBA) goes about its business of conducting an examition that comes but once a year. There was no coordition worth the me between the SEBA zol office, the school inspector’s office, the school authority and the Jorhat district administration overseeing the examition process. As many as 58,738 scripts packed in 459 packages were sent by the SEBA to be stored in the evaluation centre, but the district police apparatus did not seem to be in the loop at all. The purported strong-room should have been guarded by adequate numbers of security personnel as per SEBA’s own guidelines. Instead there was only a night watchman in temporary capacity living in the school premises, who worked elsewhere in the day. About one-fifth of the packages containing over 10,000 scripts on eight subjects were charred completely in the fire. The Jorhat deputy commissioner after a prelimiry investigation, has raised the possibility of sabotage. Reportedly no sign of any short circuit has been detected in the gutted strong-room, so the prima facie cause seems to be arson with inflammatory material lobbed inside through an open window or ventilator. The Education minister has already voiced suspicion that the mischief may be an ugly fallout of ongoing conflict between the headmistress and a section of the school staff. But such dark goings-on do not absolve the SEBA and district education officials of their major share of blame. Such a fiasco was in fact waiting to happen, given the near non-existent security. The negligent officials were asking for big trouble, and got it.
So what became of the recommendations supposedly given by a SEBA reforms committee constituted after the Goalpara incident in 2012, in which cows devoured HSLC answer-scripts inside a strong-room? Surely lessons should have been drawn from that bizarre incident and some sort of ‘standard operating procedure’ devised to safely transport and store large numbers of answer scripts. Even reliable evaluation of scripts has frequently been beyond the SEBA’s capability, exposed by its goof-ups in previous years. About 3 lakh 90 thousand students are sitting for the HSLC this year — it is beyond belief how lackadaisical some concerned officials can be with a board examition requiring huge logistics. Was there any prior thorough inspection of the strong-room set up at Sankardev Semiry school, whether it had the required facilities to properly store large consignments of answer scripts? The Education minister now says that the number of watchmen will be increased to two and CCTV cameras installed in each evaluation centre. It is a knee-jerk reaction after the damage is done, a feeble attempt to deflect criticism. Such a shocking incident should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. SEBA bigwigs are now trying to make amends by showing their readiness to re-conduct the examition for affected students this month itself, and declare the results ‘as per schedule’. In effect, the examinees are being told to grin and bear the harassment visited upon them. For those students who may not agree to reappear, strange formulas are being trotted out — like awarding them average marks for each lost paper by calculating that average from papers already appeared for; or making them sit for any one paper of their choice, and awarding the mark obtained for other lost papers as well. Where does that leave the hapless examinees in an intensely competitive milieu, where the difference of a single mark may spell the loss of an educatiol opportunity and desired career? Such are the confusions and tragedies that can result from a fiasco entirely avoidable, had the SEBA bothered to learn its earlier lessons.