GK LOUNGE: Transparency, fairness key words; meritorious candidates core of JKSSB endeavours: Chairman Rajesh Sharma

JKSSB chairman Rajesh Sharma
JKSSB chairman Rajesh SharmaSpecial arrangement

2022, now almost on its last leg, has been a “watershed year” for Jammu and Kashmir Services Selection Board (JKSSB), a premier recruitment agency of the Union Territory (UT).

Though the agency hogged the limelight for all wrong reasons for a major part of the year yet the dark chapters also brought some defining moments for it, providing it a much desired opportunity to go for “self-assessment” so as to interpret “transparency and fairness” in their real essence for it.

In an exclusive free-wheeling interview with Shuchismita of Greater Kashmir, JKSSB chairman Rajesh Sharma was quite forthcoming in responding to all prickly questions.

Yet, throughout, he remained cautious so as not to enter into the zone which could breach the legal or administrative sanctity, in the backdrop of ongoing court proceedings and CBI investigation.

Candidly, he admitted that recent developments related to allegations of irregularities, followed by scrapping of few exams hurt the reputation of JKSSB.
Also, in all sincerity, he shared endeavours being made by the Board to restore what it  lost in recent developments, i.e., trust of the youth of J&K.

He details about many “firsts” which the SSB is bringing to J&K as innovative moves to make exams and selection/recruitment process fool-proof, leaving no scope for saboteurs. Twin Admit Cards, ‘third party audit’, installation of jammers and dominance of technical persons in the entire process including monitoring, he shares everything. “Transparency, fairness” are the cornerstone of this “makeover exercise” which has youth (candidates) as its core, the JKSSB chairman reassures.

Here are excerpts:

GK: Being one of the premier recruiting agencies of J&K, SSB holds a big responsibility to maintain transparency and retain the trust and confidence of youth, how are you maintaining that and performing on this crucial aspect?

 

RS: Yes, JKSSB is a prime recruiting agency and being at the helm, we fully understand that we have been entrusted with a crucial responsibility which we have to perform with utmost sincerity. Sole objective is to maintain absolute transparency in the recruitment process to earn trust and confidence of youth in its functioning. Hence we follow a simple three-pronged line of functioning, in agreement with the working of other leading and primary recruiting government agencies at the central level and in other states.

Firstly, appointments/recruitment or selection done by JKSSB should be fair and transparent. Secondly, there should be no deviation from the rules in vogue and should meet all the defined parameters in place on this account. Thirdly, and more importantly, the process should be free from interference by the external agencies or elements with vested interests, always looking for an opportunity to sabotage the process and override the merit.

I need to emphasise here that recruitment is a very interesting and a very challenging subject (process) because there are many stakeholders and they (not all of them) can go to any extent to compromise (with) the process of recruitment, to sabotage it to get their desired candidates selected. Recently you would have read and seen in the news reports that a Russian hacker was nabbed at the airport (outside J&K). He was involved in hacking the prestigious JEE exams being conducted by the National Testing Agency. So you can well imagine the quantum and the stakes and the interests - the people are showing to interfere with the process (not just in J&K yet elsewhere also).

So in every case, a procedure is adopted, for example in the recent examination, which we are holding presently, we have tried to follow certain things that are being implemented in the Staff Selection Commission and the National Testing Agency. But we cannot be static. We have to be updated and two steps ahead of the prospective saboteurs. So our functioning is now a continuous process of updation to win the cat (JKSSB) and mouse (saboteurs) race.

 

GK: Will you please elaborate on the functioning of JKSSB to elucidate this point.

 

RS:: As is known to everyone, JKSSB is entrusted with the job of making selection against non-gazetted posts. Recently we have also been entrusted with the task for making selection against Class-IV posts, which were earlier with the Deputy Commissioners. One such drive has just been concluded. Similarly in the recent past, Jammu and Kashmir Police also referred the posts of Sub-Inspectors to JKSSB for selection. These were earlier with J&K Police Recruitment Board.

JKSSB has to make selection as per the recruitment rules (of the Service) and as per the requisition forwarded by the concerned department. This is the procedure in vogue which guides the functioning of the Board. In case a department provides that they have to conduct the type or computer test, for example, for selection of stenographers or junior assistants, then we have to necessarily go for that.

Similarly if a service (department), like Jammu and Kashmir Police, provides for physical test, as it is also required for Forest Guards and Forest Inspectors, then mandatorily we have to go for that coupled with the written test. However, there are certain services for which there is no mention of how you make selection. In that case, we have standing orders from the General Administration Department that we have to go for a written test. Once a selection is made through these written tests; then we implement the formulas (rule blueprint), reservation rules, prepare selection and waiting lists. These are referred to the concerned department which further makes appointments. So the job of JKSSB is confined to recommending selection. Hence, the Board is recommendatory in nature. It is up to the government or the concerned department to act upon it (recommendation) or not.

GK: Very recently JKSSB found itself mired in controversies, leading to a lot of clamour, on account of irregularities in the conduct of exams, including that of JKP SIs, FAAs, and the selection process. This raised a question mark over JKSSB functioning and also exposed the government to a bout of criticism. How and why did that happen?

 

RS: See, the issue is under investigation by the premier central agency (CBI). Hence it would be wrong on my part to answer in detail as to how and why it happened. But there’s one assertion I would like to make that the call to cancel JKP Sub-Inspectors (SIs’) exam and scrap recruitment of Finance Accounts Assistants (FAAs) and Junior Engineers (JEs) Civil by the government of the day and order investigation by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was an “unprecedented and a daring move” which reflected sincerity of its resolve to give a precedence to merit only, come what may.

GK: General perception is that it was the clamour made by the aggrieved candidates supported by all opposition parties and other sections of society vis-a-vis irregularities that compelled the government to scrap the JKP SI selection and recruitment of FAAs and JEs (Civil) in Jal Shakti Department and order CBI investigation. How will you react to this charge?

 

RS: This is a very interesting question. Rather, I will take it as an opportunity to clear the mist on this account. What is happening at present is that few people are trying to take credit for the scrapping of these exams or the selection process. You need to remember if the papers are cancelled, they have been scrapped by the government after setting up a high level inquiry committee. Why should the government constitute the inquiry committee? It did so as it sensed that there was something wrong and found merit in the complaints it received. Scrapping was recommended by the committee.

I will request you to look upon this issue from another angle which will also be a rational answer to your question and you will be able to sift facts and segregate propaganda. Going by the basic recruitment rule, in the normal course, the ratio (of posts and applicants) will be 1:10, sometimes even more than that. For example, if we have 1000 posts for selection, we will have one lakh candidates. At the end of the day, selection will be made of 1000 candidates so the rest of 99000 candidates will be aggrieved. If not all of them but the majority would like that the selection process should get derailed. So whenever the result is declared, clamour is always there.     

I admit that some candidates and media had brought this matter (irregularities) to our notice. But then the decision to not to continue with the wrong process or ignore irregularity was that of the government. It was a bold move which reflected its resolve as well as clear conscience. The government was responsive to the calls of genuine and meritorious candidates hence it acted with alacrity. One must appreciate this fact that the government gave precedence to the interest of meritorious candidates over its own reputation.

 

GK: Yes, that’s true but the government on its own did not scrap the exams. It acted following complaints and that’s the grouse.

 

RS: No, this is partially true. See, in case of JKP SI exams, the result was declared on June 4, 2022 which happened to be Saturday. There is always a procedure (for government agencies) to be followed. The process was initiated at the government level after getting inputs (complaints). Here also, the decision was taken at the highest level. The Lieutenant Governor made an announcement to scrap the exam during the Passing Out Parade at Udhampur on June 7. It was not that he came to know about it through somebody during the parade. The matter was being reported. JKSSB does not report to the Lieutenant Governor directly. It reports to the General Administration Department (GAD), which is under the Chief Secretary, who reports to the Lieutenant Governor.

As the result was announced on Saturday, the next day i.e., Sunday being a holiday, the issue finally came to the fore on Monday through media and other channels. But at the backend, what exercise had been done that led to the decision (scrapping), as a government officer holding a post of responsibility I cannot reveal all the details.

However, I can safely tell that the exercise was already done at the back-end (at the government level). So it will be unfair to discredit the government.

 

GK:  Recent past has witnessed a sea-change across J&K in every sphere of life, how has JKSSB transformed itself to be the partner of this change?

 

RS: We have to remain updated and keep pace with the methodologies adopted by the major recruiting agencies of the country like the Staff Selection Commission. We also take cues from the recruitment agencies of other states which are successfully conducting the exams. As far as the attempts vis-a-vis leak and sabotage the selection process are concerned, all the major recruiting agencies (across the country) have faced these challenges, allegations and investigations.
So the option left with the recruiting agencies to avoid such instances is to update their selection methodologies. You can understand this by having a look at the selection procedures in vogue in the past.

 

GK: How is JKSSB functioning differently when compared to the past practices?

 

RS: Earlier there used to be interviews and written examinations, while prior to that we used to award marks on a pro-rata basis vis-a-vis educational qualification, which would be followed by an interview. Subsequently written tests were introduced. So our functioning is an evolving system. However in 2018, the government totally shifted to the written test, up to a certain level i.e., Level-V posts and even beyond that. The government has kept a provision that the GAD may exclude some other posts also like Stenographers, Junior Engineers. Recently we have got approval from the GAD regarding exemption from interviews with respect to the posts of JEs, which are presently under the advertisements. Incidentally, this has been undertaken by the present team of Board members and that has been agreed by the government. So we will not be conducting interviews for JEs also.

GK: The steps you are mentioning or the evolution process you are talking about, may resolve or pre-empt the issues (or allegations of irregularities) pertaining to the process of interview. But this time, clamour was related to the written exams, in case of JKP SIs. Major irritant was- why was the agency, which had a dubious track-record, roped in for conducting the written exam?

 

RS: See, basically that company had been holding the examination for the Board (JKSSB) since 2013. It had conducted all the exams satisfactorily as there were no adverse reports about it, till that time (when it was roped in). So the Board thought it appropriate to go ahead with that agency only, which was a tested agency. Since the matter is with the highest investigation agency of the country i.e., CBI, I will not deliberate further on that issue because this aspect is also being probed by them. So it would not be prudent on my part to comment upon that. But the basic intent was that which I already explained to you. Adverse report about it (agency) came to the fore following ONGC exams in the month of May this year however, by then the exams here had already been conducted.

 

GK: There was another nagging point that if the government, itself, had become convinced following complaints that the allegations related to irregularities needed to be probed, why did it not scrap all three exams/selections (JKP SI, FAAs and JE Civil) in one go?

 

RS: Initially, the issue came to the fore as complaints reached the government following the result of the JKP-SIs’ exam. Immediately an inquiry was ordered. That inquiry by the committee headed by the Additional Chief Secretary Home was, basically, limited to the conduct of the exam of JKP-SIs. Subsequently, the same committee was entrusted with the job to enquire into the conduct of exams of JEs Civil and Accounts Assistants of the Finance Department also. Since the committee had already taken the initiatives for conduct of inquiry of JKP-SIs, it first submitted this report (related to SIs) and made the recommendation that the case be handed over to the CBI after the cancellation of the exam. Subsequently the report with respect to JE and FAAs came with a similar recommendation.

Questions were raised about the list of SIs and later the students agitated against recruitment of FAAs, hence the decision was taken at the highest level to scrap them too.

 

GK:  After the issue of scrapping (of exams) was over, JKSSB landed in yet another controversy related to conduct of Computer-based test. How was the agency with dubious track record roped in for conduct of exams, inviting even the wrath of judiciary?

 

RS: There are issues being raised regarding the recent selection of the company for holding the Computer based test, introduced recently to replace OMR based exam for greater transparency. This matter is sub-judice. So it will not be proper for me to answer what you want to know. However, as the exam process is on, so to comfort those candidates appearing (in exams), I assure you as well as them (candidates) that the selection (of company) is purely as per the rules. The committee, constituted by the General Administration Department, is headed by the senior-most member of the Board.

Only endeavour of all the members of the Board in that committee and even from other departments was to have it (selection of company) through a very transparent method, following all guidelines as provided under General Financial Rules (GFR) of the Government of India. They have not deviated from these rules. Still the matter has landed in the court of law so I cannot answer in detail your all queries.

For me, it would be enough to say with regard to the issue raked up that it was a black-listed company – Yes, it was black-listed in the past. But that period was over in May, 2022 and our tender was floated in the month of September, 2022. The company had already completed that (blacklisted) period. So the Purchase Committee constituted by the GAD acted in a very transparent manner. Whatever it recommended was absolutely provided in the General Financial Rules. So presently we are conducting examinations. Some candidates were not happy with that and they approached the honourable High Court. Since the issue is there (in the court of law), I will not elaborate further. But definitely we are conducting exams through that company presently. However, what we are doing (steps being taken) in that examination that definitely I can share with you as it will restore the confidence of the candidates vis-a-vis the Board.

GK: Do you not think that it has shaken the confidence and trust of the youth in JKSSB?

 

RS: Yes, I admit that this has come as a serious setback to the credibility of JKSSB because misplaced facts do create suspicions in the mind of genuine candidates.

But let me reassure everyone, the Board (every member of it) is totally committed to ensure free, transparent examination and make selection of genuine candidates. It is heartening that you have raised this question because we too get a forum to make our intentions clear to the candidates as at the end of day, it is their satisfaction and trust, which matter the most to us (the Board and the government). They are the main and only stake-holders for us.

 

GK: How are you going to do that (restore the confidence of youth) and undo the damage to JKSSB’s reputation? What are the safeguards you have adopted?

 

RS: To restore the confidence of the candidates, the Board has introduced certain innovations, bringing many firsts to the J&K, in the examination process.

For example, Admit Cards are being issued at two stages. First Admit Card is being issued seven days prior to the exam whereby the candidate comes to know about the city where he is going to appear. Second Admit card is being issued three days prior to the exam. It provides the name of the centre i.e., the specific (designated) centre.

We identify these computer centres where these exams are to be conducted. The company provides us the list and we undertake some kind of investigation in collaboration with the concerned agencies to ensure that the centres with credibility and unblemished track-record are allowed to conduct the exams. These are some of the steps being taken by us to restore the sanctity of exams.

 

GK: Do you think that it is enough to undo the damage caused to the reputation, credibility of the Board?

 

RS: No, as I’ve told you earlier that these are just a few steps being undertaken (by the Board). Instructions from the top are very clear that in no case, merit (meritorious candidates) should suffer.

So coming back, over and above the steps already mentioned, we have hired another agency The Ernst and Young LLP, which is auditing the overall process (procedures) of this company (Aptech Limited hired for conducting exams) at all stages. This is the “Third-party audit.” This arrangement has been opted by JKSSB for the first time, taking a cue from national level recruiting agencies. So this is another check. Besides that at each Centre, the General Administration Department has deputed observers. They are Deputy Secretary-level (and above) senior officers. There will be one observer for each centre. Then the Deputy Commissioners have also appointed one person at each centre and this is also for the first time that they have appointed technical persons. They are having computer knowledge, holding MCA or M Sc (IT) degrees. There will be one such technical person at every centre.

Again, there are attempts (to use unfair means) as the candidates try to take mobiles or use blue-tooth devices, to foil them (attempts), we have installed jammers at each centre. Again it is for the first time in J&K and for that we have obtained the permission of the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Once the exam starts, after five or ten minutes, the jammers are put to use and all the mobile network stops functioning.

I am personally monitoring each and every centre, visiting there and checking the working of these jammers. Besides, we have deployed our officers to coordinate so that all the agencies entrusted with different responsibilities don’t end up in chaos. One SSB officer will be there at every centre for coordinating purposes. Four to five junior level officers, being headed by one senior member, will be there further supervising their coordination. Thus, with these multiple-checks in place, we are trying to make the process fool-proof.

Another significant measure which I would like to share with you is that the Information Technology (IT) department has deputed some people, both at Jammu and Srinagar. We have also constituted flying squads, again they are technical people. During the exam, the flying squad is moving from centre to centre, both at Srinagar and Jammu. So we have tried to introduce these things as checks to ensure free and fair exams.

 

GK: Is it deviation from the past practices?

 

RS: Yes, these are improvements, notwithstanding the shortage of manpower at our disposal.

GK: Share some statistics about the strength of candidates for whom these arrangements have been put in place.

 

RS: After hiring this company, we went ahead with two examinations on November 29, 2022. First was the Horticulture department examination and we had 1553 candidates, who were supposed to take that exam. Out of them, 953 candidates turned out. In this case, the selection was against 198 posts. In the second shift, on the same day, 289 candidates, out of 292 candidates who were supposed to appear for 217 posts of Junior Stenographers, appeared. Both these exams were conducted successfully. On December 5 and 6, we undertook Junior Engineers (Civil) Jal Shakti Department exams, which were earlier cancelled. This exam was conducted in four shifts, two shifts per day. This too was conducted successfully. In this exam, the total candidate count was 18136, who had applied. These were the same candidates who had applied earlier. We did not re-advertise it because otherwise some candidates could have become over-aged. Secondly, it could have increased the competition also (as compared to the earlier instance). Out of over 18,000 candidates, around 12,000 appeared. The selection is to be made against 163 posts.

For 1200 posts of Sub-Inspectors in JKP, the exams started from December 7, 2022 and lasted up to December 20, 2022. They were conducted in 22 shifts- two shifts per day. And per shift, the count of candidates was around 5100. However, the count of candidates per centre varied. Maximum, we had 400 candidates at one centre. There were centres, which might have 100 candidates but not below that because then we would have to put extra men and machinery.

In all, SSB has completed the recruitment process of properly advertised 15,000 posts since 2020. Selection process for 8000 posts is presently underway and around 2000 other posts in various departments will be advertised very soon.

 

GK: Will one technical person or so be able to manage and monitor a count of 400 or so candidates at one centre?

 

RS: Since we have multiple agencies and people involved in the monitoring process, it is manageable. Our flying squad also comprises technical people. I also keep on moving with other members. So multiple-checks are in place at the centres across the Union Territory. All these checks will be in addition to the invigilators.

 

GK: Do you think that you have been able to undo the damage by the recent developments to the reputation of the Board and restore its credibility?

 

RS: I must admit that recent developments have caused great damage to our reputation. So far we have been able to undo the damage to a very small extent. We will keep on improving. But there is a significant development which I must share with you on this account. By December 13, eight shifts of the exams of Sub-Inspectors were concluded. Against the (number of) registered candidates that was around 46,000 for these shifts, 28,000 candidates appeared. This ratio was almost the same as it was with regard to the paper, prior to its cancellation. So it's more than a reflection that the candidates have developed faith upon the Board. Having said that, I reiterate the process for us is a kind of “cat and mouse” chase (between the Board and the saboteurs). We will have to keep evolving ourselves to remain always ahead of those who remain hell bent to derail the process to serve their own interests. I wish that the candidates have trust in us and we live up to their expectations.

It is a continuous endeavour. We will try to keep on introducing new innovations vis-a-vis the conduct of these examinations.

 

GK: What will be that one main thing that the Board will do to prevent the recurrence of such instances (irregularities leading to cancellation of exams)?

RS: We will be extra-cautious in all our endeavours and we will try introducing all measures that can help us make the (exam) process fool-proof and selection fair and transparent.

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