Legal challenges

Published : Sep 13, 2017 12:30 IST

ON February 1, the Tamil Nadu Assembly unanimously passed two Bills seeking permanent exemption from NEET. The Tamil Nadu Admission to MBBS and BDS Courses Act, 2017, aimed at continuing admission on the basis of marks obtained in the Plus Two examination, and the Tamil Nadu Admission to Postgraduate Courses in Medicine and Dentistry Act, 2017, sought to perpetuate admission on the basis of marks in the undergraduate examination. “This is to save rural students from facing the trauma of writing the competitive examinations,” said Health Minister C. Vijaya Baskar while piloting the Bills. But the Centre resorted to subterfuge. It did not forward the Bills to President Pranab Mukherjee for assent. This fact came to light in a reply sent by the President’s Secretariat to a letter from T.K. Rangarajan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Rajya Sabha, to the President in April. Rangarajan had, with a covering letter, forwarded a copy of the memorandum prepared by P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System-Tamil Nadu (SPCSS-TN), on the two Bills to the President (“Testing times”, Frontline , June 9, 2017).

It was April end, and with the date for NEET, May 7, fast approaching, the Edappadi Palaniswami government was desperate. On June 22, it notified a Government Order (G.O.) providing for 85 per cent reservation for State board students in undergraduate medical seats available under the State quota. The remaining 15 per cent would be for students from other boards such as the CBSE and the ISC. This violated the NEET system, in which students from any stream or board could compete for 85 per cent of the MBBS and BDS seats which the State governments could fill up. The remaining 15 per cent was all-India quota, where the Centre would provide the names of successful candidates to the State.

PMK leader Dr S. Ramadoss said this 85 per cent reservation, under a G.O., created an unreasonable expectation among State board students that they would be admitted to the majority of MBBS and BDS seats. Confusion and uncertainty prevailed as admission to MBBS and BDS courses was already under way in other States under NEET.

C. Darnish Kumar, a CBSE student, challenged the G.O. in the Madras High Court. He said the NEET system did not distinguish between CBSE students and their counterparts from the State boards.

On July 14, Justice K. Ravichandrabaabu struck down the G.O. of June 22. The judge said: “Upon considering all the facts of the case, there is no difficulty for this court to come to the conclusion that the reservation amounts to discrimination among equals and thus it violates Article 14 of the Constitution.” The G.O. meddled with the object and process of NEET and it amounted to compromising on the merits of selection, Justice Ravichandrabaabu said.

The State government appealed in the High Court against the single judge’s ruling. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Ministers made several trips to New Delhi and pleaded with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Central Ministers to send to the President the two Bills that sought permanent exemption to the State from NEET. Chief Minister Palaniswami too met Modi on July 25 to convince him to allow MBBS and BDS admissions based on Plus Two examination marks for this year.

The State government received another blow on July 31 when a Division Bench of the Madras High Court stood by Justice Ravichandrabaabu’s order, striking down the G.O. The bench said that once the students had written NEET, the objective of providing equal opportunities and a level playing field for everybody had been established. The State government was aware that admissions should be made only on the basis of NEET scores as long as the President’s assent was not received for the two Bills passed by the Assembly on February 1, the bench said.

The Palaniswami government faced another setback when the Supreme Court upheld the order of the Division Bench of the Madras High Court striking down the G.O of June 22. On August 11, Justices Dipak Misra and A.M. Khanwilkar ruled that there could be no classification on the applicability of NEET. “It is very difficult to carve out a separate principle,” the judges told the Tamil Nadu counsel. Justice Misra asserted that the Tamil Nadu G.O. defeated the very philosophy of NEET, which was merit-based.

Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman got into the act now. She suggested that the Centre would “cooperate” with the Tamil Nadu government to get a one-time exemption from NEET-based examination through an ordinance. The Palaniswami government clutched at this straw. A team of officials led by State Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan made a beeline for New Delhi and submitted a copy of the draft ordinance to the Union Law Ministry.

A group of CBSE students challenged the draft ordinance in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. On August 17, a bench of Justices Misra, Amitava Roy and Khanwilkar asserted that the Supreme Court would not at any cost allow NEET to be “demolished”. On August 22, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that although the Union Law Ministry had cleared Tamil Nadu’s ordinance, the Centre had rejected it because it would bestow undue advantage on one particular State. The Supreme Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to complete the counselling process for medical admissions on the basis of the NEET merit list by September 4.

The Centre, however, seems to have a fight on its hands. The Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, decided to suspend admissions to its MBBS and super speciality courses for 2017-18. The CMC said it was doing so because it was unable to follow its established admission system after NEET became operational. The CMC Council decided on September 2 that it would admit just one student in MBBS and another in a super speciality course owing to its prior commitment. Consequently, 99 seats in MBBS and 61 in super specialities would not be filled, the Council decided.

T.S. Subramanian

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