Nobody knows exactly when or why the witnesses and small-time crooks caught up in one of India’s biggest-ever corruption scandals began dying under mysterious circumstances. But in the past two years, that’s what’s happened to more than two dozen people implicated in a $1bn test-rigging scheme.

Even by standards in India, where corruption is routine, the scale of the scam in the central state of Madhya Pradesh is mind-boggling. Police say that since 2007, tens of thousands of people have paid hefty bribes to middlemen, bureaucrats and politicians to rig test results for medical schools and government jobs. Around 2,000 people have been arrested and more than 500 are on the run. Hundreds of medical students are in prison – along with several bureaucrats and the state’s education minister. Even the governor has been implicated.

Police have had their hands full racing to meet a deadline in the criminal probe. And now they are faced with the deaths of more witnesses and suspects. Last week, police said, one of those accused died after having chest pains in prison, another drowned in a village pond and a third died of a liver infection.

Last Saturday, television reporter Akshay Singh died while investigating a suspect’s death. Singh sipped tea during an interview and began coughing and foaming at the mouth, according to media reports. He was rushed to hospital, where doctors said he had suffered a heart attack. Police said the initial examination did not reveal anything “suspicious”.

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