NEET: Rajan Committee submits report, ball in Tamil Nadu government’s court
With the A.K. Rajan Committee constituted to study the impact of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test on socially backward students submitting its report, the onus is now on the State government to get exemption for Tamil Nadu from the pre-medical entrance examination.
The Tamil Nadu government faces the unenviable task of asking the Supreme Court to reopen what has come to be known as the NEET case, in which the court has already ruled against the State government’s plea, and of convincing the Union government to accept its position that students in the State be admitted to medical colleges on the basis of their Class 12 marks rather than an entrance examination.
In 2017, the Supreme Court quashed the State government’s submissions on the conduct of NEET. In an order issued on August 22, 2017, a three-judge bench of Justices Dipak Misra, Kurian Joseph and Amitava Roy said: “[The] State of Tamil Nadu shall not make any kind of distinction or discrimination between the examinations conducted by various Boards; and admissions shall be effected as per the result of the NEET examination.”
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government, which was voted to power in the State in May 2021, had promised to repeal NEET and reinstate the system of admissions to medical colleges based on Class 12 results. On June 10, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin announced that a committee headed by former Justice A.K. Rajan would study the impact of NEET on socially backward students in the State. The committee was given a month to submit its report.
On July 14, the committee presented a 165-page report after considering suggestions from 86,342 persons who had sent in their views. After presenting the report to the Chief Minister, Rajan told presspersons: “A majority of the people said that there is no need for NEET…. There were views for NEET too. A few had suggested that we hold NEET this year; a few others had said that Tamil Nadu should hold it for two years, etc…. The report that we have given the Chief Minister is based on the data generated from the opinion of the people who wrote to us. It is not our opinion.”
Perhaps, the most important statement made by Rajan was that the nationwide imposition of an examination such as NEET affected the federal structure as envisaged in the Constitution.
“The Centre has no power to regulate admission to medical colleges in the State, it can only determine standards,” he told a television news channel.
He said the main object of introducing NEET was to eliminate capitation fees, but this had not been achieved. “Whatever fee they [institutions] want, they are now collecting. Originally, students had to get 50 per cent marks in each subject. But under the new system, after 2018, it is not the percentage that is calculated, it is the percentiles. As a result, even those who got 18 per cent or 22 per cent [in NEET] have been admitted to medical colleges,” he added.
In effect, Rajan said, “NEET drives away the poor, only the rich and the affluent garner most seats”. He said affluent students who became doctors were not going to serve in public health centres in remote areas. “They will go abroad to continue studies and look after their life,” Rajan told the channel.
On the argument that all States except Tamil Nadu had accepted NEET, he said: “Other States will soon join the demand. Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in many issues. Earlier only we protested against Hindi imposition, but now other southern States too are opposing [it].”
Rajan said the committee had clearly laid out the impact of NEET on the socially backward students of Tamil Nadu. When pressed further, he said that he was not in a position to reveal any more details and that it was up to the government to give details on the committee’s recommendations.
Union government’s stand
Getting the Union government to agree to the State government’s request is a tall order. In the case of NEET, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre is clear: it wants a pan-India, one-size-fits-all approach to entrance examinations.
In fact, soon after the formation of the Rajan Committee, a BJP politician approached the Madras High Court claiming that the panel was against the orders of the Supreme Court on NEET. Karu. Nagarajan, general secretary of the party’s State unit, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition seeking to declare the June 10 order of the Tamil Nadu Secretary, Health and Family Welfare (MCA-1) department, constituting the commission, as “unconstitutional, illegal, unfair and without legal justification”.
The Union government, which also filed an affidavit in the case, claimed that constituting a committee to study the impact of NEET on socially backward students was “out of the jurisdiction” of the Tamil Nadu government. In its affidavit, the Union government said: “The Supreme Court has already upheld the validity of NEET against the anvil of the Equality Code contained in the Constitution. It was held without a pale of doubt that the conduct of NEET examinations is not in contravention to Article 14 nor is it against the socio-economic polity of the country. In spite of the same, the Term of Reference of the Committee seeks to question whether NEET is an equitable method of selection. This reference is not only a slight against the status and privilege of the Supreme Court but is also an exercise in futility as the law declared by the Supreme Court is binding on all functionaries by virtue of Article 141 of the Constitution of India.”
The Tamil Nadu government, which had done away with entrance examinations for medical courses, wants to maintain the same system because it feels it is more equitable and allows all students access to medical education. Except for a few national parties, such as the BJP, all political parties in the State are united on the issue. The State government’s argument was that it was well within its rights to study the impact of any legislation or order on the people of the State.
On July 14, the First Bench of the High Court put an end to the controversy surrounding the committee’s formation by agreeing with the State government that it had the right to conduct such a study. It observed that the formation of such a committee did not violate the Supreme Court’s order on NEET. “Courts cannot rush in and interdict notifications or the steps taken with regard to its policy or garnering public opinion or the like,” the bench said while dismissing the PIL.
The bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy had two main questions: How is the constitution of the Justice A.K. Rajan Committee against any verdict of the Supreme Court? Why was it wrong for the State government to examine what impact NEET has had on the students so that it could argue its case better?
Welcoming the ruling, Stalin said: “This is a very important verdict…. This is a starting point for the Tamil Nadu government’s determination and efforts to fulfill the dreams of medical education aspirants.”
He accused the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the main opposition party in the State, of double standards on the question of NEET, and said that the verdict had exposed both. Stalin said the BJP had challenged the constitution of the A.K. Rajan Committee in court despite having supported the withdrawal of NEET in the Assembly, though conditionally. This showed the BJP’s “duplicity”.
However, by the time the verdict was delivered, the NEET schedule for the year had been announced. The government was in a bind because it is certain that another court process on Tamil Nadu’s exemption from NEET would not be completed before the examinations, due to be held in September. As such, NEET will form the basis of admissions this year.
Preparations for NEET
Despite the fact that the case was settled in Tamil Nadu government’s favour and despite public health experts warning of a third wave of COVID-19, the NDA government at the Centre stuck with its decision to hold NEET in September. Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Education Minister, announced that registrations for NEET (undergraduate course) 2021 had begun on July 13. He also stated that additional overseas centres were being established in response to requests from non-resident Indians. Kuwait City was to have the first such centre.
On July 22, the Union Education Ministry announced that an additional NEET centre would be established in Dubai this year. The Twitter message of the Indian Mission in the United Arab Emirates on July 22 says: “Important notification with regard to #NEETUG2021: Under the leadership of Hon’ble PM @narendramodi & Min of Education @dpradhanbjp For the 1st time, #UAE has been chosen as NEET centre outside India. Dubai will be the exam venue.”
The Union government sought to highlight two ‘achievements’. One, that NEET had become more inclusive with the introduction of more languages into the testing process, and two, that additional centres had been opened abroad to help fill seats, especially in private medical colleges. In a tweet on July 13, Pradhan said: “The NEET (UG) 2021 will be for the first time conducted in 13 languages with new addition of Punjabi and Malayalam. The languages now being offered are Hindi, Punjabi, Assamese, Bengali, Odia, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, Urdu and English.” He continued: “This is in line with Hon.PM Shri @narendramodi’s vision of promoting regional languages under NEP 2020.”
Responding to the tweet, Tamilisai Soundararajan, Governor of Telangana and Lieutenant-Governor of Puducherry, said: “Tamil, Telugu among 13 other regional languages in NEET as per #NEP2020 new education policy, a visionary initiative of @PMOIndia for FutureIndia. Mother tongue gets pride of place in respective States.”
With no way out of NEET for Tamil Nadu students this year, sane voices in the academia have urged them to prepare for the exam. Career consultant Jayaprakash Gandhi noted on Twitter that “since the NEET 2021 applications process has started, the Tamil Nadu government should consider reimbursing NEET application fee to all government school students. This request was made for the last two years.”
However, this does not mean that the question of inequity should be ignored, he said. Gandhi wanted the Union Education Minister to table a report on “the total number of NEET coaching centres in India, the revenue generated by them in terms of fee, the amount these institutions spend on advertising, and the number of students who gained access to a medical college because they went to a coaching centre”. This, in his view, will throw light on whether such entrance examinations will bring equity in the process.
According to him, reforms in Class 12 board examinations are a way of achieving a more equitable admission process. He said it was possible to make admissions on the basis of the Class 12 marks by making the examinations more competitive. “Why should parents spend extra on additional coaching? As many as 99 per cent students joined MBBS after undergoing coaching by spending lakhs of rupees,” he added.
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