Print edition : September 29, 2017

A rally by students in Vellore on September 6 against NEET. Photo: V.M. MANINATHAN

S. Anitha, who committed suicide on September 1. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Protests against NEET spill on to the streets of Tamil Nadu following the suicide of a Dalit girl in the State who scored high marks in the Plus Two examination but failed to get an MBBS seat.

IF the suicide of S. Anitha, a 17-year-old Dalit student from Tamil Nadu, is anything to go by, the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) has been excruciating and traumatic for thousands of students of the Tamil Nadu Board of Higher Secondary Education. Anitha, who scored 1,176 marks (out of 1,200) in the State board Plus Two examinations, could score only 86 out of 720 in NEET, which is based on the tougher Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus. Unable to join the MBBS course, she hanged herself at her home in Kuzhumur village in the backward district of Ariyalur on September 1.

After the jallikattu issue in January 2017 when thousands of students massed on the Marina beach in Chennai, Anitha’s suicide became the rallying point for students and political parties agitating across Tamil Nadu with their demand to scrap NEET. As the protests gathered momentum, in a dramatic turn of events, the Supreme Court, on September 8, banned agitations against NEET.

In an interim order on a petition filed by the advocate G.S. Mani, a bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Mishra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud said the Supreme Court had ruled that NEET was the sole basis for admission to the MBBS and BDS courses and so protests and roadblocks against it and disruption of public life would amount to contempt of court. The court directed the State government to book anyone who instigated violence in the name of NEET.

Subsequently, the police denied permission for a large public meeting to be held in the evening of the same day in Tiruchi. But the organisers of the meeting went ahead with it, arguing that the Supreme Court had not banned peaceful protests against NEET. The meeting was organised by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Congress and the Vidulathai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) to condemn the Central and State governments which, they said, were responsible for Anitha’s death, to demand permanent exemption for Tamil Nadu from NEET and to shift education from the Concurrent List to the State List.

The past eight months have been agonising for State board students who attempted NEET on May 7. Not knowing whether the State government would succeed in its efforts to get a one-time exemption for students in the State from NEET for 2017-18, uncertainty and confusion prevailed. But hopes soared when the State Assembly passed two Bills unanimously on February 1 seeking permanent exemption from NEET for undergraduate and postgraduate medical and dental courses in the State and later, in August, when the Tamil Nadu government prepared a draft ordinance seeking a one-time exemption from NEET for 2017-18.

The draft ordinance was prepared following the then Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s promise of the Centre’s “cooperation” in this regard. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi at the Centre resorted to subterfuge by not forwarding the two Bills to the President for his assent. It also did a volte-face on the draft ordinance issue. Even after the Union Law Ministry had cleared it, Additional Attorney General Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court on August 22 that the Centre ultimately did not want to give an exemption to one State. After hearing the arguments for and against the ordinance, the Supreme Court on the same day directed the Tamil Nadu government to make public the rank list of students selected for admission to MBBS and BDS courses through NEET.

When the State Directorate of Medical Education released the NEET list on August 23 in Chennai, Anitha was disappointed. Despite poverty, Anitha had worked hard to score 1,176 marks, with centums in physics and mathematics. Her father, T. Shanmugam, worked as a load man in the Gandhi Market in Tiruchi, 50 km from Ariyalur town. Her mother had died when Anitha was a child. She and her four brothers lived with their grandmother at Kuzhumur.

With a score of 196.5, Anitha would have got admission in a reputed medical college in Tamil Nadu if the State’s earlier system for admissions was followed, that is, purely on the basis of marks in the Plus Two examinations. But that was not to be. She had impleaded herself as a respondent in a case in the Supreme Court against NEET. While in New Delhi to implead herself in the case, she told reporters: “I want to be a doctor. I will be assured of a seat if the admission is based on Plus Two marks.” However, with the Supreme Court mandating in its orders on April 28 and May 9, 2016, that NEET would be the sole basis for admission to undergraduate and postgraduate medical and dental courses, she had no choice but to attempt NEET on May 7, 2017.

As the CBSE syllabus is tougher than the State board syllabus, Anitha, who had no access to coaching centres financially or geographically, stood little chance of getting high scores in NEET. She was listless for several days after she found that her dreams were shattered. “I do not know what to do now,” an anguished Anitha kept saying. On September 1 she took the extreme step.

Anitha’s death enraged public opinion and sparked off students’ protests in the State. At the vanguard of the agitation was the CPI(M); its student and youth wings, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the Democratic Youth Federation of India; the CPI; the DMK; the Congress; and the VCK. The Tamil Maanila Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi also held protests. The Dravidar Kazhagam, the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, the Naam Tamizhar Katchi, the May 17th Movement, and Muslim organisations along with some fringe groups and film directors and actors also jumped into the fray.

College students boycotted classes and came out on to the streets. SFI activists burnt effigies of Prime Minister Modi and demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who is heading a tottering government in the State. The agitators demanded the resignation of State Health Minister C. Vijaya Baskar. They were sore that while the BJP had played a “double game” in the issue, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government had given students the “false hope” that it would manage to get a waiver from NEET for 2017-18. They alleged that both Modi and Palaniswami had committed a “breach of promise” and “betrayed” Tamil Nadu on the issue.

Cadres of political parties and students took to the streets with renewed vigour on September 2. A hartal was observed in Ariyalur district. Hundreds of CPI(M) cadres squatted on the busy Anna Salai in Chennai, near the Head Post Office. Demonstrations were held at as many as 32 places in Chennai alone. There were agitations in places such as Chengalpattu, Kancheepuram, Villupuram, Tiruchi, Madurai and Coimbatore. Protesters everywhere demanded that NEET be scrapped because it went against the interests of rural students and militated against social justice.

At various places demonstrators blocked trains, stopped road traffic, took out processions, carried aloft portraits of Anitha, paid floral tributes to her, and lit candles. In Chennai, they tried to picket the Chief Minister’s residenc and the offices of the BJP and the Directorate of Medical Education.

Despite the police having declared the Marina a no-go zone following the jallikattu protest in January, about 30 SFI activists gathered at the memorial to the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on September 6 and demanded that NEET be scrapped. The police removed the students forcefully and slapped cases against them.

M.K. Stalin, DMK working president, recalled Anitha’s visit to his party’s headquarters in Chennai to give him a memorandum against NEET signed in her blood.

CPI(M) State secretary G. Ramakrishnan called NEET an assault on the State’s rights. “The AIADMK government, which could not block NEET even for a year, repeatedly gave hopes [to students that it would get an exemption for the State this academic year] that were without any foundation. To cling on to power, it has let down Tamil Nadu’s interests. The plight of students now is the manifestation of the BJP government’s policies. It is the faulty approach of the Centre and the State that led to Anitha’s death,” he said.

VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan called NEET “an attack on Tamil Nadu’s infrastructure”. He said: “Tamil Nadu is the battleground for this fight for social justice. Unlike in other States, it is the State government which has built the medical colleges in Tamil Nadu.”

The State has 23 government medical colleges, about 15 private medical colleges and several deemed universities. “These government medical colleges were built with Tamil Nadu taxpayers’ money, and they are meant for our children to study there,” said one of the school headmasters who too maintained that NEET was an assault on Tamil Nadu’s enviable medical infrastructure. He and his colleagues feared that under NEET, students from other States would swamp the medical seats in Tamil Nadu.

P.B. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System-Tamil Nadu (SPCSS-TN), said NEET would hamper the State’s socio-economic development. The BJP “betrayed the people of Tamil Nadu” when its government at the Centre did a U-turn on its promise on the ordinance route to get exemption from NEET this year, he said.

Writ petition

It was after a non-governmental organisation, the Sankalp Charitable Trust, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a mandamus to direct the Centre to conduct NEET for 2016-17 that the court directed the Centre to conduct NEET with immediate effect. It was held for the first time in 2016 for admission to medical courses in government colleges, private medical colleges and deemed universities. Inexplicably, NEET is not applicable for admission to medical courses in the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER), Puducherry, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.

Under pressure from the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa (who died on December 5, 2016), the Centre passed an ordinance on May 24, 2016, exempting Tamil Nadu and some other States from NEET in respect of government seats in government and private medical colleges and deemed universities for 2016. All the States came under the purview of NEET in 2017.

Supporters of NEET argue that there were laudable motives behind ushering in NEET. For instance, it aimed at ending the sale of MBBS and BDS seats to the highest bidder in private medical colleges and deemed universities and stopping the commercialisation of medical education. It aimed at enabling “meritorious” students to become doctors. It apparently spared the students the agony of preparing for several examinations at different centres for admission to these courses.

All political parties in Tamil Nadu except the BJP oppose NEET saying it is loaded against rural students. Teachers said there were no coaching centres in small towns to prepare students for NEET. Besides, rural students would not be able to pay the exorbitant fees at the coaching centres. So the general fear is that urban, elite students who studied Plus Two under the CBSE stream and belonging to other States would corner the majority of MBBS and BDS seats available in Tamil Nadu.

Another argument against NEET is that it should have been brought into practice after due consultation with all the State governments because education is in the Concurrent List. G. Ramakrishnan demanded that education be brought into the State List from the Concurrent List.

Key statistics

A press release issued by the State government on August 31 reveals that more than 30 per cent of the medical seats in Tamil Nadu have gone to CBSE students. “Of the 4,546 MBBS/BDS seats allotted to the students till now, 3,112 seats had been allotted to students from the State board and 1,434 seats went to students from the CBSE and other boards,” it said. In admitting these students, communal reservation was followed, it added.

What these figures mean is that 30 per cent of the MBBS and BDS seats in Tamil Nadu had gone to CBSE students until August 31 when counselling was under way. This is a disproportionately high number because among 88,431 students from Tamil Nadu who appeared for NEET in 2017, there were only 4,675 CBSE students. The statistics did not reveal how many of these students were taking NEET for the second time this year. Rules allow a student to attempt NEET three times.

Headmasters and doctors speak in one voice when they say that there is no way but to “revamp and upgrade” the Plus Two syllabus of the State board to enable students to compete with their CBSE counterparts in NEET. The Plus Two syllabus of the State board has not been revised or upgraded for 11 to 12 years, they said.

While asserting that NEET would “definitely” go against rural students from Tamil Nadu who would have no access to coaching centres, T. Padmanabhan, headmaster of the Pennathur Subramaniam Higher Secondary School, Chennai, said: “If we are to prepare our students for NEET, we have to revamp the entire syllabus from the sixth standard to the 12th standard. You cannot expect a change overnight. After six to eight years of teaching in the new syllabus, you can expect results.”

However, John Benedict, assistant headmaster, San Thome Higher Secondary School, Chennai, and P.R. Roop Singh, who teaches mathematics in the same school, argued that NEET was not really loaded against rural students because scoring high marks in NEET “depended on the intellectual ability of individual students”. Benedict gave an example of how a girl from Kallakurichi, a small town in Tamil Nadu, had scored high marks in NEET and gained admission to MBBS.

Roop Singh said that although his daughter, R. Hannah Shiny, had studied in a State board school, she had joined the MBBS course in AIIMS, New Delhi, last year. State board students felt “overawed” by NEET with the incessant propaganda that they would not be able to tackle it because it was based on the CBSE syllabus, Roop Singh said.

However, the two teachers were in no doubt that the standard of school education in Tamil Nadu should be raised. Benedict said: “The pattern of question papers in the State board does not enable our students to face entrance examinations. The questions are only memory-based.”

A retired headmaster from a reputed school in Egmore, Chennai, was categorical that NEET was “loaded against the poor and disadvantaged sections because they will have no access to coaching centres and tutorial classes”.

If Anitha, who got a score of 196.75 despite being hobbled by her social, financial and rural background is denied an MBBS seat under NEET, then the system is no good, he argued. According to him, a uniform entrance examination would not work in India which had different State board syllabi with varying standards. If NEET aimed at ending commercialisation of medical education, “it will not happen 100 per cent”, he said.

Former professors of Tamil Nadu government medical colleges said that if the DMK, which first came to power in 1967, had been interested in the welfare of rural students, it could have upgraded rural schools by giving incentives to teachers to work there. The incentives could have been in the form of a salary hike, allotment of a house or a plot at government rates after the teachers completed 20 years of service in rural areas, and reservation for their children in professional colleges. If the State board syllabus had been upgraded from the 1970s, NEET would have posed no problem now, they said.

They blamed the DMK and the AIADMK governments for allowing the deterioration in the State board curriculum. These parties never thought students from other States would gain admission in such large numbers in medical colleges in Tamil Nadu.

However, there is no denying the fact that it was during the rule of the two Dravidian parties that a large number of government-run medical colleges were established in the State. Also, the State has a good track record in promoting public health.

One of the advantages under NEET is that many MBBS seats in private medical colleges, which charged exorbitant fees, are lying vacant and these colleges were slashing fees now, the professors said. The Tamil Nadu government had fixed a fee of Rs.13,600 for a year for the MBBS course in government medical colleges. But private medical colleges were charging Rs.15 lakh a year.

Meanwhile, in a letter to Modi on September 3, T.K. Rangarajan, CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member, flagged an inherent flaw in the NEET system. “If a performance secured after strenuous studies for two years in Plus Two is totally ignored and a new test with a strange syllabus is pushed on the students, the result is what you see in Tamil Nadu,” he told the Prime Minister in reference to Anitha’s suicide.

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