The environment is volatile and seeped in emotions ranging from anger to disappointment. A young life succumbed to unfulfilled ambitions and a marked failure of the state. The crusader who had initiated the battle perished.

Background

The incidents started in 2013 when clearing the National Eligibility and Entrance Test or NEET, as it is more commonly known, was made the basic benchmark for seeking both under-graduate and post-graduate medical admissions. The entrance was mandated for both public and private institutions sparing a few such as All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, Postgraduate Institute for Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh and Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research (JIPMER).

NEET necessitates the allotment of eighty-five (85) percent seats to candidates having domiciles in the respective states, where the medical colleges are located, and the rest fifteen (15) percent to students hailing from other states. Court stay orders in some states including Tamil Nadu kept a few institutions out of the NEET purview. However, all such institutes have eventually come under the NEET radar. For the first time in 2017, NEET was conducted in eight (8) vernacular languages in addition to English and Hindi.

The results for the entrance examination, which was conducted on May 7 this year, was put on hold by the Madras High Court after a medical aspirant pleaded that the question paper in the vernacular languages were not uniform. The Supreme Court heard the plea by CBSE, which conducts the examination, against this stay order by Madras HC and subsequently allowed the results to be declared. Amidst this turmoil, the future of the aspirants was hanging by a tiny chord.

Conduct

The mere conduct of the exam was criticized. There were widespread reports of humiliation of students. Both male and female candidates were told to remove parts of their clothing in order to prevent the adoption of unfair means.

Students from the state board faced huge difficulties as the question papers were framed by the CBSE. There were huge disparities in standards and students from the rural backgrounds found it an uphill task to cope up with the standards. It is important to understand that equality is not established just by providing uniform test papers, equality is established by providing the same grounds for preparation, which the children in many states including Tamil Nadu lack. The low scores lead to losing out on admission to medical colleges, which would have been otherwise attainable though the marks obtained in the board examinations. Thus, commenced the agitations and litigations!

Youth Involvement

Widespread protests started erupting, first on social media and then in college campuses throughout the state. The youth that had realized their power through the recent protests for causes they believed in, have jumped the gun for this too, albeit on a much smaller scale. The state is cautious about not letting protests swell in proportion, and has thus locked down the epicenter of protests – Marina Beach. A sense of disregard for Tamil Nadu as a state and Tamil as a culture by the Centre is the underlying feeling in the hearts of almost all citizens of the state, claiming repeated disrespect towards the local sentiments by other sections of the country. NEET is an additive catalyzed by the demise of a studious child claiming equality. As any other social cause in Tamil Nadu, political parties and film personalities have involved themselves into the protest.

Multiple media organizations reported the suicide as that of a ‘Dalit’ girl. This emphasis on caste was unnecessary on all fronts, as her claim to justice was neither on caste nor on reservation. It was a case of failed journalism. This too angered many, especially the youth, who have slowly emerged out of the caste shadow. The cause was something greater, which many failed to notice. The lives of an urban convent-educated child and that of a rural government school-educated child are entirely different, probably even poles apart, even without considering the economic status. This was the reason the child took such a drastic step, although nothing should justify the step.

Failure

Education is a subject in the State List. But it is mandated that decision from the centre will prevail over it.

Improvement is needed, but not a replacement. The test is not as big a problem as much as the limited number seats in medical colleges is. Without necessary infrastructure, even the seats cannot be increased. Admission to private colleges is unaffordable for a majority of the population irrespective of the score. The only solace for the poor is to dream about a medical career through the government colleges. When that very dream is snatched despite best efforts and due to a careless tweak in the state machinery, people do lose hope. One such lost hope was that of Anitha’s.

Through NEET, there has been an attempt to establish a uniform ground for students to attain admissions across the nation and thus spread diversity. But the state has failed to notice the huge disparity amongst people in terms of economic prowess and access to quality of education at the school level. The system itself has been limited to a narrow funnel that only a few with certain permits can pass. This has restricted diversity to the higher strata of the society.

Education transforms lives and generations, and the education in the field of medicine is all that and more. The progress towards such a sensitive change should have been through equalizing the quality and content of education across all mediums and boards. Propagating a common syllabus of preparation specific to the exam can be something of a middle ground. Yet again, this is accessible by only a few on time and capital basis.

The Supreme Court, after dismissing the plea to cancel Tamil Nadu’s order on reservation, had said “We request the High Court to expedite the hearing in the case”, adding that the matter is very urgent as counseling for the admissions is about to begin. Assuming that this gave a ray of hope, litigations were pursued. However, on August 22 this year, the Supreme Court gave its fateful verdict that the Medical Colleges in Tamil Nadu will have to use a national and common entrance exam as the only basis for admissions. The court said that all admissions for aspiring doctors have to be based on NEET. Tamil Nadu, which had sought exemption from being bound by NEET for this year, at least in government-funded colleges, encountered the final blow.

The Centre too said it would not support the ordinance that the Tamil Nadu government sought to pass with Presidential approval, reportedly because it would encourage other states to ignore the call for a common entrance examination. Obviously, there was more at stake here in the form of a rigid Union structure.

The Other Side

On the other side, Tamil Nadu government passed an order reserving 85 percent of the seats in MBBS and BDS courses for the state board students and only 15 per cent for those of other boards, including the CBSE. The act switched reservations unfairly. CBSE students score relatively less subject to the lesser marks validated overall. NEET was meant to bridge the gap. Removing NEET would mean they lose their admission. These children cannot be made to suffer for the ‘greater good’, for an exclusionary tactic is not how democracy works. Discrimination to address discrimination can’t be the way out.

Protests of late

Peaceful protests were initiated at the Marina Beach on September 7 through a gathering seeking to meditate. However, the police intervened and locked the place down. The Supreme Court has directed the Tamil Nadu government to ensure that no agitation takes place over NEET. The judiciary is meant to grant justice and intervene in injustice, but the sort of judicial overreach seen here is exemplary. The right to protest over an issue has been snatched and a directive issued. Such disciplinary rigidity will provide all the more reasons to agitate for the public even when there is no agitation.


By – RAJASEKHAR K,

Special Correspondent, Team Edinbox