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Setting aside Central RTI panel ruling on fake degrees 'hurting' Indian job seekers abroad

By Rosamma Thomas* 

On April 18, 2023 Bloomberg carried a news report about the proliferation of useless educational degrees in India, causing Indian youth to fail to find decent employment, and undermining the national economy. Australia and Canada have taken action against higher education applicants from India, who forged documents. University Grants Commission has periodically released lists of fake universities.
Questions have been raised about the genuineness of the degree certificates of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Among those raising such questions is Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was recently fined by the Gujarat High Court for seeking information that the court asserted was already in the public domain.
Neeraj Sharma, a resident of Delhi, had earlier sought information from Delhi University about all students who had appeared for the Bachelor of Arts degree examinations at Delhi University in the year 1978, the year when prime minister Modi is supposed to have earned his degree from DU.
Sharma wanted to know how many students took the BA examinations in 1978, how many passed, how many failed, and the results of that year, with roll number, students’ names, father’s name of each student, marks and result – whether passed or failed.
“I had not sought any information pertaining to any particular student. My plea was for the result for a particular year. In 1978, there was no internet – the university would publish results of examinations in newspapers, and these were also displayed on notice boards of the different colleges. The information I sought was already in the public domain, I just needed the answer from the university,” Sharma told this reporter.
However, he was denied this information because the examination branch of the university claimed that the results had been sent to the colleges, so the applicant could get them from the colleges. Sharma in his appeal before the information commission submitted the University’s examination result from 2013, which was freely available on the website of the university. To reduce the demand on the university, Sharma also later reduced the scope of the information sought to just the results in the political science department for that year, 1978.
Sridhar Acharyulu, who served as Central Information Commissioner at the time, issued an order in this matter on December 21, 2016, which could serve as a resource for curbing fake courses and fake degrees in the higher education sector.
“Like registration of transfer of land or registration of a society, the registration of graduation details/degree details forms part of public record… the purpose of register is to maintain a public record, and whenever there is a need, refer the register and the details could be accessed. Acquiring education qualification through process of registration, from admission to graduation with an authorized university is similar to acquiring property through authorized registration process. Like land or property documents, the degrees and related information is also in public domain,” the judgment explained.
The judgment cited the precedent of a ruling by Justice AR Dave and Justice L Nageswara Rao of the Supreme Court in 2016, when the election of Manipur Congress MLA Mairembam Prithviraj was quashed for falsely declaring in his nomination papers that he held an MBA degree. The Supreme Court held that the right to vote would be meaningless unless citizens were well informed about the antecedents of candidates.
When educational qualification is marker of eligibility for a post, it can't be considered personal information to which access can be denied
The 2016 ruling by the Central Information Commission on Neeraj Sharma’s petition held that since the degree is conferred through a convocation ceremony, and the grant of degree is publicly celebrated, there is nothing that affects the individual’s privacy in the declaration of his degree. When educational qualification is a marker of eligibility for a post, it cannot be considered personal information to which access can be denied.
“Registering itself means notice to public in general about a public activity,” the ruling said. If information is not disclosed under Section 8 of the Right to Information Act, which pertains to information that might affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, then such non-disclosure must be suitably justified, the judgment noted.
The Commission directed the university to facilitate free inspection of the relevant register where complete information about the result of all students who passed in Bachelor of Arts in the year 1978 was available.
Delhi University challenged this order in the Delhi High Court, even though activists pointed out that what was sought was already in the public domain, and not private information. Soon after he passed those orders, Sridhar Acharyulu was divested of the charge of the Human Resources Development ministry within the information commission.
This lack of transparency in matters of public importance, and especially about information that belongs in the public domain, contributes to the proliferation of institutes offering dubious degrees, and the erosion in value of the Indian degree. One way to stem this tide is to expand the websites of universities so that they contain information about all examination results declared, with proper archives so that even past results can be easily accessed.
This would be an invaluable resource to firms seeking to verify qualifications of candidates seeking employment. It would also go a long way in preventing fraud through forgery of certificates.
---
*Freelance journalist

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