The brouhaha over the merit of the toppers in this year’s class 12 examinations conducted by the Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB) should not come as a surprise to those who have witnessed the gradual decline of the government-run academic institutions in the state over the years.

The remarks of an arts topper, who referred to political science as “prodigal science – a subject that teaches cookery” in a television interview bears ample testimony to the depth of mediocrity the education system has sunk in Bihar.

But the controversy, at the same time, gives Nitish Kumar an opportunity to clean the Augean stables in the education department and the BSEB in particular.

The BSEB has already suspended the results of the two toppers after they failed to prove their mettle in a retest last week but a thorough probe by a competent investigating agency is required to restore the credibility of the school examinations in Bihar.

And whoever is found guilty of running a racket to influence the results must be sternly dealt with. The sooner it is done, the better it will be for the bona fide students who are suffering for no fault of their own.

The BSEB does not conduct examinations of elitist schools in Bihar. Almost all schools affiliated to it are government-run institutions set up to provide free education.

Their students are mostly from poor families but many are talented enough to excel in examinations without resorting to unfair means. Any stigma over the genuineness of their results, therefore, will be a gross injustice to them.

Students are vertically divided into two categories in Bihar: those who are enrolled in private institutions and those who have to study in the government schools.

The schools of the first category are affiliated either to the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) or Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE).

Their students generally have access to better facilities; classes are held regularly and the merit of their toppers is never suspected.

The second category schools, affiliated to the BSEB, are from a diametrically different world, though.

These schools are run by the education government with the best of intentions. Students of these institutions are provided scholarships, mid-day meals, free books and uniforms and even free bicycles as incentives to pursue their studies.

The Nitish Kumar government, in fact, has spent the most from its budget on education for many years now. Its efforts have helped bring down the dropout rate from 12.5 per cent to 0.86 per cent in the past ten years but, as the recent fiasco over the Intermediate toppers suggests, the entire system remains in a big mess.

Even after the herculean efforts of the government, anybody able to afford the cost of education at private institutions shies away from enrolling their wards in government schools which have come to symbolise the rot that has set in the education system.

There are primarily three reasons for the alarming decline in the overall standard of government schools.

First, a majority of them are devoid of infrastructure required to run a good academic institution. Let alone computers and science labs, hundreds of schools do not have proper buildings even today.

Second, large-scale appointment of teachers on a contractual basis on poor salaries in the past few years has hardly benefited the students.

Third, there is no sense of commitment and professionalism on the part of authorities manning the mammoth education department.

This is, however, not a new phenomenon.

The degeneration in the primary and secondary education system had set in much before Nitish, or for that matter, Lalu Prasad took over the reins of the government. Widespread use of unfair means in examinations, suspension of classes for prolonged periods and the absolute lack of political will to improve the scenario gradually forced guardians to enroll their wards in private institutions. This gave rise to the mushrooming growth of private schools all over the state.

Many experts believe that government schools were willfully allowed to crumble by vested interests over the years to pave the way for the emergence of the so-called “education mafia” in the state. Whatever be the reason, the private and the government-run institutions subsequently came to be identified as the schools for the “haves” and the “have-nots” respectively in Bihar.

What is a matter of concern is that a large number of students are still dependent on government schools, regardless of their shortcomings.

This year, more than 16 lakh students appeared in class 10 (Matriculation) examinations alone. Needless to say, a majority of them belong to the poor families who are left with no option but to study at the sarkari (government-run) schools.

This is why the state government needs to take urgent steps to restore the credibility and punish those who are playing with the future of thousands of students.