NEW DELHI - Fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Payali knew she was doing wrong when she scribbled mnemonics on her hands before entering one of India's thousands of examination rooms.
But like many other students, the pressure to pass her annual exams was too intense and so she used the memory prompts to cheat.
Failure would jeopardise her chances of climbing out of poverty which had long shackled her family.
"There's too much to memorise and pressure from parents, teachers and even competition with friends," said Payali, who did not want to use her last name, as she walked home from school in New Delhi.
"If you can't handle it all, you fail," Payali, now 17 and one year from graduation, told AFP.
Using methods ranging from old-fashioned crib sheets to high-tech spy cameras, cheating is common in India, where government schools place an extraordinary emphasis on exams in all grades, according to experts.
Television footage last month showed dozens of relatives scaling school walls to try to give information to students in northern Bihar, one of India's poorest states.
Staff and police officers were seen ignoring relatives who passed cheat sheets through the windows of exam rooms.
The footage made international headlines, forcing embarrassed authorities to round up parents and issue them with fines, but education experts said they were unsurprised.
Cheating underscores the poor state of many of India's schools which are overcrowded and underfunded, their classrooms packed with children learning mostly by rote.
'System fails students'
Arjun Dev, former head of a government body that plans and promotes schools, said an "endless overemphasis on memory-testing exams" has stubbed out creativity and logical reasoning.
"The system has failed students. It doesn't equip them with necessary qualifications and then overplays the importance of exams, whose certificate is hailed as the ultimate ticket to success," he told AFP.
"Until the system changes, cheating will remain a common feature during exams. It's as simple as that." Anxiety levels soar in the months leading up to the exam season - this year's has just ended - with students pinning hopes on high scores: the only way to get a decent job or a place in college.
With the system stacked against them, many poor families feel compelled to do whatever they can to help their child get a foothold in a better life. This - along with India's all-pervasive culture of corruption - have been largely blamed for the cheating.
Rakesh Kumar, who left school in 2008, makes no apologies for his efforts, including smuggling notes into the exam, hidden under his watch and in his socks.
"There weren't many teachers or chairs, sometimes no electricity. I lost interest slowly, so I didn't study," Kumar, from Bihar, told AFP.
"Sometimes the invigilators wouldn't care much, they turned a blind eye... that helped. Honestly, I had no choice. I had to cheat," said Kumar, who earns 25,000 rupees ($400) a month running a store in east Delhi selling traditional Hindu ayurvedic health products.
For better-off students, cameras hidden in buttons, ties, pens and bras accompanied by Bluetooth technology are available online and in shops tucked away in the backstreets of Delhi's old quarter.
"Sometimes kids come by to check out the items," shopkeeper Rocky Binwal said, adding that his policy is "not to ask" questions.
No sense of shame
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power last May, has called for a paradigm shift in education - from rote learning to modern, skills-based training.
"Our education apparatus cannot be one that produces robots. That can happen in a laboratory," Modi said at a university event in December. "There has to be overall personality development." Education Minister Smriti Irani has vowed to increase spending on education from nearly four to six per cent of GDP and pledged a new national policy by December that will link "education to employability".
Experts applaud the promises but fear for the millions of young people on the verge of pouring into India's job market.
Indian education research group Pratham published a survey in January that found half of 570,000 students surveyed could not read simple sentences or solve easy arithmetic after six years of schooling.
India has a literacy rate of 65 per cent, lagging far behind neighbouring China, where the rate is 95 per cent.
"We have students who don't know the basics and that is frightening," Ranajit Bhattacharya, Pratham's communications head, told AFP.
Anand Kumar, who teaches maths to students from poor families in Bihar, said plenty of students were working hard against the odds, rather than resorting to cheating.
In a blog on the NDTV channel website shortly after the Bihar scandal, Kumar said teachers needed to work harder to help neglected students.
"Also, there needs to be a sense of shame that accompanies cheating - and not just when the person gets caught. It should not be considered the done thing."