Whether the online evaluation of Group-1 Exam is valid or not: Andhra Pradesh High court

Candidates who appeared in Group-1 Exam 2019-2020 have challenged the digital evaluation system that was adopted for the evaluation in the main examination paper. The digital method of evaluation was challenged and it was argued that the conventional method should have been adopted.  A single-judge bench comprising of Justice D.V.S.S.Somayajulu adjudicating in the matter of Rompalli Shakara Rao v. State of Andhra Pradesh (Writ Petition No.11000 of 2021)

The counsel argued that the Public Service Commission should be an independent and autonomous body and it should discharge its duty in a fair manner. It was argued that the Chairman was not discharging his duties in consonance of the APPSC rules and procedures. The procedure adopted is totally contrary to the rules and regulations as the chairman was not at all involved. The candidates of the examination were informed that they would be selected for an appointment based on merit in the main written examination (which is conventional) followed by an oral interview. The syllabus is very extensive and only a person with in-depth knowledge can evaluate the paper which has such subjects. He argues that “generalists” cannot correct the paper.

Despite many letters written by the candidates and apprehensions expressed by the candidates, but nothing was done in its response. Also, the counter remained silent about the method of selection of evaluators and the manner of evaluation.  The entire method of paper evaluation was given to third party without any exercise being conducted about their expertise or skill.

It was further submitted that in the meeting dated 28.10.2020 arbitrary decisions were taken. Also, in the meeting quotations were invited from A.P. Online and “Data Tech” to evaluate the papers. Therefore, it can be concluded that even before the meeting was held that a decision was taken to invite the quotations for digital evaluation. In the meeting, no references were made regarding the allocation of the subjects even when the Chairman has the discretion to place the matter before all the members of the committee. Hence it can be concluded that the whole shift to the digital evaluation is flawed and available material does not show that the due procedure was followed. Also, it was submitted that the fundamental aspect that the respondents have overlooked is the question of examiner ‘variable’. He submits that some examiners may be liberal in awarding marks while others may be very strict. Therefore, to neutralize this, the system of moderation is adopted.

Further, it was contended He pointed out that even a small error in evaluation can make or mar a candidate’s future and even one mark can decide whether a candidate will become a Police Wala / Officer or a dabbawala. He points out that the expertise of the third party, qualifications of the evaluators etc., are not disclosed even now and that the power given to the APPSC is a constitutional duty that cannot be delegated. He points out that in the main examination, the written component carries the largest amount of marks while the interview carries a very small percentage. Therefore, he submits that a greater duty was cast on the APPSC to carry out the evaluation by itself. The credibility of the third party and their capability to evaluate these subjects is not disclosed as per him. He also points out that the practical aspects of scanning etc. should be safeguarded. It is submitted that if no interim order is granted and the proceedings are stayed most of the candidates would also lose their chance due to age bar and would be barred from the further examinations if orders were not granted.

The court made the following consideration:-

  • Clause 15 (2) of the notification issued in this case on 31.12.2018 clearly specifies that the selection shall be on the basis of merit in the main written examination followed by an interview. It is specified that the main written examination will be held in a “conventional method”. Though, the commission reserves the right to alter the terms laid down in the notification by duly intimating the details thereof to all the concerned. The first point that arises, is whether this was followed in letter and spirit. The rules and procedure of the APPSC are filed as a material paper. The Chairman has been given the power to refer a matter to one or more Members or to the full Members of the Commission for their decision.
  • This Court is of the prima facie opinion that the digitalization and its advantages are definitely apparent. However, the questions that arise in this case are whether the procedure stipulated has been followed or not. The reasons for the absence of the Chairman is not clear from the minutes. Apart from this, the Rules with regard to awarding of any work by the State or State instrumentalities is no longer res integra. The decision-making process can be examined by the Court to see if State is properly allocated or given. No details are forthcoming as of now to show how the third party was selected and what was the criteria fixed for engaging their services. It is not clear if the same was by open tender / or any other lawful method. The name of the third party is disclosed during the arguments, but the question that arises is if they have necessary qualifications/expertise for evaluation this sort of answer sheets. The procedure followed to assess the “capability” of the evaluators, their domain knowledge, expertise etc., is not spelt out even broadly.
  • The other issue that requires further examination is, whether the paper publication dated 08.01.2021, which is reproduced earlier. This press note was given in January, 2021, whereas the examinations were held on 14.12.2020. In addition, APPSC has also relied upon a web note dated 12.12.2020 to argue that information was given. This web note dated 12.12.2020 is after the meeting dated 28.10.2020. There is no reference in this web note to the fact that the system of digital evaluation is being adopted. It is the system of digital evaluation that is the crux of the issue now. The change in the method of evaluation and the various issues raised by the learned counsels including examiner bias; the need to avoid examiner variability “the need to adopt moderations etc.,” were all raised in the writ affidavits filed. The applicants will have a legitimate expectation that their papers will be evaluated properly and by qualified people. However, it is not yet clear “who” has evaluated the papers. Their expertise is also not spelt out
  • That even in digital evaluation some mistakes have occurred earlier cannot be doubted and the same is borne out by the judgments of this Court, also which are filed by the petitioners as material papers too. In fact, in some judgments, this Court directed the re-evaluation of the papers by the digital mode in view of the mistakes committed during the course of digital evaluation. Prima facie, this Court holds that the “rules of the game” were changed after the game has begun.
  • The last question that survives for consideration at this stage is, whether any interim order should be given or not. As mentioned by this Court, the petitioners have made out a case for further investigation and detailed hearing. If the interviews that are scheduled from tomorrow are held, there may be a chance that genuine candidates may be deprived of the right to go for the interview/further selection. The procedure in this case started with the notification for recruitment in December 2018. This Court is, therefore, of the opinion that the petitioners have made out a prima facie case and the balance of convenience is in their favour. Greater harm will be caused to them if the interviews are allowed to go ahead. The loss will definitely be “irreparable”. Postponing the interviews for now will not cause irreparable loss to the short-listed candidates. This is the “stitch in time” that is needed in this case. In the opinion of the Court, the long submissions about the ‘Secretary’ of the APPSC are not really made out through the pleadings and the material filed

 Therefore, there shall be an interim order in favor of the petitioners as prayed for staying all further proceedings including the interviews.

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