NEET 2024 controversy: Unanswered questions and flawed solutions

Can a retest for 1,536 students restore faith in the system amidst allegations of paper leaks and arbitrary grace marks?

Published : Jun 19, 2024 10:09 IST - 6 MINS READ

Students protest against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG examination results and demand re-examination, in Kolkata on June 10, 2024.

Students protest against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG examination results and demand re-examination, in Kolkata on June 10, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

The NEET-2024 fiasco is a stark reminder of the AIPMT 2015 debacle. In 2015, as soon as there was a whiff of paper leak, students took to the courts for redressal, and before their protest could spill to the streets, the apex court took up the matter urgently, ordering the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) to not declare the AIPMT (All India Pre-Medical Test) result. Later, while ordering a retest within four weeks, the court made a perceptive statement: “The examination stands vitiated even if one student is being benefited illegally.”

The NEET-2024 (National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test) controversy mirrors a similar sequence of events, except that the students’ outrage is quite massive this time. As many as 67 students have topped the exam. To solve the tie-breaker, such as in the admission to 56 seats at AIIMS-Delhi, the National Testing Agency (NTA) has added a new criterion in this list: the candidate filling out the application will first be given a preference if all others fail. The concept of grace marks has been introduced to compensate for the loss of time using a judgment that categorically excluded medical and engineering exams from its purview. The rise in merit has been a whopping high, despite a question paper with comparable difficulty. And political leaders, wanting a share of the limelight, are indulging in heated debates.

Also Read | Medical education: A case against NEET

The Supreme Court’s tearing rush compounds the problem further. It remained insistent that the results should be declared as per the schedule—and even counselling should begin from July 6, despite the next hearing being scheduled for July 8. In its most recent decision, which ordered the scrapping of grace marks or a re-test for only 1,536 students, it addressed only the tail of the elephant.

Students heaved a sigh of relief at the decision. But if examined closely, this faulty decision does nothing more than turn grace marks into a villain and detract attention from far more pressing issues. One of them is the probable news of a paper leak in Patna. The police officer self-attested a detailed FIR in which he mentioned a tip about ‘disruption of chain of custody’ leading to the arrest of three people. The NTA and Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, however, refuted any such claim.

This is not to say that erroneously awarded grace marks, which have gone as high as 140, aren’t a problem. The result card of a Gujarat girl who secured 705 marks in NEET is making rounds on social media showing that she failed her board exams. Besides, six students from the Jhajjar centre, in Haryana, have topped the exam. Their roll number sequence indicates that they were seated close to each other. What is even more strange is that none of them has been claimed by any coaching institute, nor have they used a second name on their application. This is suspicious, to say the least, and warrants a thorough probing, considering that Roop Singh Dangi, the mastermind behind the AIPMT 2015 paper leak, along with other offenders belonged to Haryana. While the grace marks might be a problem, questioning the arbitrary process used to grant them might reveal basic contradictions.

NSUI activists protest the alleged discrepancies in the NEET exam results, in New Delhi on June 15. 

NSUI activists protest the alleged discrepancies in the NEET exam results, in New Delhi on June 15.  | Photo Credit: ANI

For one, grace marks were conceived de novo for this year’s exam with no prior notice. Only after mathematically implausible scores were questioned did NTA feel a need to come up with an explanation. In the press note released after the exam, the testing agency, which seems to have overseen the proceedings of the exam through a centralised CCTV system, mentioned Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, as the only centre with certain issues. Hindi medium students were given the English set; the students protested, after which a retest took place on the same evening. But with a barrage of writ petitions from students reporting similar issues at six centers from four States, NTA decided to grant grace to all those who complained.

There are fundamental flaws with such a stance: if NTA had a good surveillance system in place, what was the reason for buckling under such pressure, and that too, without disclosing it initially? The 2018 Supreme Court judgment devised for the online CLAT exam shouldn’t have been used in the first place because NEET-UG is an offline exam. But even that has been used ad libitum. The order mandated the formation of a committee that would not only address writ petitions but also invite fresh complaints from the students through a dedicated email. A 200 per cent rise was seen when online complaints were asked for. None of this was implemented this time, and the students who were compensated had filed a writ petition. This goes against the fundamental right to equality—only students who have money and resources to go to court could get grace marks.

Also Read | NEET: Rajan Committee submits report, ball in Tamil Nadu government’s court

Moreover, even if the grace marks might explain the clustering of students in the top bracket partially, it still fails to explain the steep rise in merit: students securing marks of 650 or above were 6,803 in 2023, but it shot up to 21,724 this year, a herculean leap of 319.33 per cent. Almost 1 lakh government medical seats fill up at the 590-600 mark, which is unheard of in the exam’s history. Even the perfect score of 17 students, who didn’t get any grace, evades any logical explanation, especially when not even a single student could touch the magic score of 720 on several occasions.

NTA’s activities have been suspicious from the start. This time the registration window opened multiple times. There was a one-week extension in March after the initial window closed. But then there was a mysterious opening in April on two occasions: first from 9–10th, and later from 11–15th. Even the results were announced almost 10 days before the expected date, June 4, which most believe to be a tactic to mask discrepancies among the hubbub of election results.

Illusion of justice

The retest for a handful of students couldn’t be considered a remedy for the gnawing suspicion among many. More so, why should only those students suffer when they were the ones given a different set of question papers only to be snatched away half an hour later and given a new set? What if they couldn’t pull it off this time because a multiple-choice question exam is a different ballgame than just knowing a particular topic? What if the paper this time is more difficult, a sentiment echoed by students after second NEET exam in 2016? Would the failure of this bunch be used as a way to create an illusion of justice?

The prospects of getting a medical seat in India are, as such, dismal. If the competition is not fair, what options does a hardworking middle-class student hailing from a small town have? The government’s topmost priority should be to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the situation and use this year’s lessons to develop a solid framework for future exams. Only then can we hope to win back the faith of students toiling hard to realise their dreams. 

Kinshuk Gupta is a doctor and writer of Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaja.

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