Only time will tell how Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal’s ‘zero tolerance’ war against corruption will play out in the long run, but symbolically speaking, his crusade passed a crucial milestone on Wednesday. The unprecedented scenes of newly appointed State civil, police and allied service officials being produced before court on charges of buying their jobs through bribes, will surely give hope to future aspirants planning to take the APSC selection exams. For over two decades now, the sheer despair among youths in Assam preparing for few and far between government jobs, had to be seen to be believed. Sickened by the all-pervasive culture of extortion and graft which made a mockery of merit, those who dared to dream simply turned their backs to the State and left. We have been taking pride in more and more youths from Assam cracking the gruelling UPSC exam over past few years (as well as other tough entrance and recruitment tests), but it would do well to keep in mind how hard they struggled and the sacrifices they made to achieve success from Delhi and other faraway places. All this while, Assam’s public recruiter APSC foisted its own nefarious culture on the State, slamming the door shut to meritorious aspirants who could not afford to buy the jobs on offer. Instead, people of the State were often treated to the sight of the progeny of the high and mighty walking nonchalantly into government jobs. It is ironical to see three such new VIP recruits, among the 25 ACS/APS/allied recruits arrested or under scanner, on the run from the police. Public officials, some connected to politicians and babus — going missing for months on end whenever investigations are launched — clearly show how utterly ‘the system’ has been compromised. This atmosphere of bribes extorted to render government service and selling government jobs to the highest bidders has done incalculable harm to the rising generation in Assam. The candidate who blew the whistle on the skulduggery in APSC amply illustrates how a few good men and women have to brave such situations. On taking the APSC selection test for dental surgeons, she encountered a tout (a government engineer) who first demanded Rs 10 lakh to land her the coveted job, and later doubled his ‘price’. After this tout let slip that he was on the hotline with the APSC chief himself, the candidate approached the police to let loose a rousing chain of events. APSC chairman Rakesh Paul now stands disgraced and is behind bars, two members and some officials are out on bail, while the APSC itself is presently undergoing a painful overhaul.
It is to Chief Minister Sonowal’s credit that he has unflinchingly taken a hardline against corruption, the cancer that has struck deep roots into the State’s body politic and administrative machinery, the evil that has made good governce well nigh impossible here. He has been a refreshing change at the top, a welcome contrast to his predecessor Tarun Gogoi who used to frequently point to other parts of the country and abroad as being no strangers to the graft culture. So far, Sonowal has given a free hand to the CM’s Vigilance Cell, the police and other investigating agencies to go after corrupt officials ‘and spare none’: hopefully, there would be no let up to this momentum. It is exceedingly hard for a leader to try push a largely corrupt system to reform itself, but then he has the people’s mandate for bringing about change. There can be no governce, let alone development, when the country allows itself to be sunk under a morass of corruption. And few States in the country have suffered like Assam for letting its public service commission go to the dogs. The investigations into the cash-for-job scam in APSC have revealed how favoured candidates were allowed to take the test again in secret locations, how they were awarded generous marks, and how duplicate answer scripts were then substituted for the origil ones inside the APSC strongroom at night when other staffers had left for home. After an arrested APSC official confessed, Dibrugarh police maged to get hold of a set of 25 such answer scripts and get these examined at top forensic labs around the country. Thanks to forensic verification, we now know that separate answer scripts for APSC tests were printed clandestinely and sigtures of invigilators forged by corrupt APSC officials themselves. The damage they inflicted to the APSC by their shenigans is unforgiveable and will take years to repair. There are suspicions that many more candidates got through APSC selection by corrupt means when Rakesh Paul & Co was at the helm. There have been earlier instances of chiefs of public service commissions of Punjab and Bihar going to jail for recruitment rackets, along with other officials and touts. But the Assam government has set a precedent by beginning to arrest candidates who secured jobs through bribery. This needs to be commended, and it is hoped there will be no let-up in taking the investigations to their logical conclusion.