For the third time in less than five years, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a Bill today demanding that the State be exempted from the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to undergraduate courses in medicine since the test stood in the way of the socially deprived classes accessing the courses.
The special one-day session of the Assembly was necessitated by the action of Governor R.N. Ravi sending back to Assembly Speaker M. Appavu the NEET exemption Bill passed by the Assembly on September 13, 2021, after sitting on it for 142 days. “The reasons given by the Governor for sending back the NEET Bill are not acceptable,” Chief Minister M.K. Stalin told the Assembly. “NEET is against social justice… NEET is against equity…. It is against all the basic principles of the Constitution…. NEET is [the practise of] untouchability in the cloak of eligibility,” he added, and detailed the reasons for seeking the exemption from NEET yet again to counter the points raised by the Governor. “The Bill is being sent to the Governor today itself,” Appavu informed the Assembly before adjoining it sine die .
Four members belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party staged a walkout soon after the Bill was introduced by Health Minister Ma. Subramanian. In February 2017, the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government adopted a NEET exemption Bill. The then Governor sent this to the President for his consideration. S.P. Venkateswaran (PMK), speaking in the Assembly, said that the earlier Governor had sent the NEET Bill to the President, and wanted to know what had changed between then and now for a new Governor to send the Bill back to the Speaker. The President did not give his assent to the Bill at that time.
Pointing this out, Stalin said that the AIADMK government could have introduced the Bill again and sent it to the Governor. But it did not do so. After the DMK came to power in May 2021, it formed the A.K. Rajan committee to study the impact of NEET on the socially backward communities. It was after getting the report of this committee and examining it through a High Power Committee that the government drafted a Bill and presented the same to the Assembly in September 2021.
He pointed out that the Sarkaria Commission had clearly laid out directions on how a Governor should handle a Bill adopted by a State Assembly if the subject of the Bill was in the concurrent list, and said that Article 254(1) was created for this very purpose. The Governor should not act on his accord, and was bound by the advice of the Cabinet. This is exactly how the Karunanidhi government enacted a law against entrance examinations after it came to power in 2006. At that time, the Governor had sent the Bill to the President, who signed it into law. “At least now I expect that he [Governor] will do his duty,” Stalin said.
Stalin said that the DMK had emphasised to the Governor many times that he send the Bill to the President. Apart from he himself taking it up personally with the Governor, he pointed out that DMK general secretary and senior Minister Durai Murugan had met the Governor to press for this. Later, a team of Members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu tried to meet the President and handed over a memorandum to his secretary. The MPs also met the Union Home Minister to press for this demand.
All the parties represented in the Assembly –barring the BJP, which walked out–spoke in favour of the enactment of the Bill: “This act of the Governor is against the Constitution,” said Nagai Maali, MLA, belonging to the CPI (M). “This is against the interests of the students, against the interests of Tamil Nadu, and against the concept of federalism,” he added. The party wanted an Assembly resolution moved for the recall of the Governor. T. Velmurugan, MLA, contended that only those attending tuition classes paying very high fees, some as much as Rs.5 lakh, were able to get into medicine courses. This was against the poor and students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Former Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar, striking a note of caution, said the government should examine the Bill carefully because it had already been rejected twice. In his view, he said, it would be better if the government took the legal route to get an exemption. The Leader of the Opposition and AIADMK leader Edappadi K. Palaniswami made it clear that his party would support any effort of the government to get the exemption.
“The Governor, pointing to a Supreme Court verdict and contending that the State should not enact a law, is against the Constitution,” Minister Subramanian informed the Assembly. Instead of sending the Bill, passed unanimously by the Assembly, to the President, the Governor has sent it back, he said, and added that the Governor was wrong in his understanding that the NEET Bill was based solely on the recommendations of the A.K. Rajan Committee.
Earlier, as the session commenced, the Speaker advised MLAs not to criticise the Governor at a personal level. He requested them to speak on the reasons the Governor put forth while speaking on the NEET Bill. The Tamil Nadu Assembly secretariat had circulated the Governor’s note to the MLAs ahead of the session.