Javaid Trali

NEET doesn’t promote opportunity; fails to ensure a level playing field for all aspirants

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The medical profession and education have become a business and now the regulation of medical education has also gone that way which is the nation’s tragedy, an anguished Supreme Court said on Tuesday (Oct 05, 2021), giving one chance to the Centre to put its “house in order” and take a call on reversing the changes made to the NEET Super Speciality Examination 2021 syllabus.

This order comes at a time when there is already a raging debate over the All India Quota for post-graduate seats in medicine under the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), which has created enormous angst among students, not only in Jammu and Kashmir, but there are quite a few other states as well that too seem to be opposing the move.

For instance, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin has written to his counterparts in 11 opposition (non-BJP) ruled states and Goa, seeking their support to oppose the NEET and restore what he terms “the primacy of states” in education. Stalin has also deputed his party MPs to reach out to the heads of such states to drum up support.

Now looking at the politics of it – it is obvious that different states seem to (and must) be reluctant to part with the share of power envisaged and accorded to them by the Constitution – that education is a state subject. So any move, including the NEET, is seen aimed at centralization of the power and authority, by taking it away (in bits and pieces) from the states and the UTs to put it at the disposal of the central government and its powerful bureaucracy.

Whatever the aim and agenda behind constituting the NEET, it is to be understood that this countrywide common and uniform entrance examination is not happening in isolation and is independent of other things that have been or are unfolding. So varied units of the federation have some really telling reasons to be wary of any move they perceive as going against the spirit of federalism and being violative of the constitutional balance of power between the centre and the states or UTs.

But other than the politics, there are some real concerns as well, which have been highlighted in the 165-page report of the Justice Rajan panel, constituted by the Tamil Nadu government to ascertain the impact of NEET in this south-eastern state. The report says that if NEET continued for a few more years, “the health care system of Tamil Nadu would be very badly affected and there may not be enough doctors for postings in Primary Health Centres or state-run hospitals and that the rural and urban poor may not be able to join the medical courses.”

The panel has also concluded that the NEET is not a fair or equitable method of admission since it “favours the rich and elite section of the society and is against the disadvantaged groups”, and recommended that “the state government may undertake immediate steps to eliminate NEET from being used in admission to medical programmes at all levels by following the required legal and or legislative procedures.”

Other states may not have done their share of exercise to ascertain the impact (positive or otherwise) of NEET, but this does not mean that elsewhere people do not have concerns. The fact of the matter is that India, a country of a billion and a half people, is too big to be run and managed effectively by one centralized authority or a coterie of bureaucrats (usually trained in generalized clerical culture). Unlike in the developed West where different departments are headed and run by the technocrats and subject experts, here bureaucracy is assigned portfolios (task, jobs and departments) on the basis of personal preferences of the ministers and other government functionaries, and sometimes because of their political leanings and loyalties – their subject-specific expertise and competence notwithstanding.

Then there are other discrepancies, in terms of access to the avenues of education, exposure and opportunity. In a vastly diverse country like India, people’s geography, their economic status, their language, and countless other (if not all) markers of their respective identities have a lot of bearing on the kind of opportunity and avenues available to them. Obviously then certain people have an advantage and edge over their counterparts (read rest) in almost every single sphere and sector of life. For instance, in terms of education, its kind and quality is not uniform across different markers of — say geography and economics.

The avenues used by those living in the cities and towns are not the same as available to the people in the countryside. The rich enjoy qualitatively and quantitatively better opportunities than the poor. Some people, given their placement on the socio-economic ladder, and geographical regions, have better access to the worldwide web of information superhighways, while others, caught in the mire and maze of making the ends meet, do not know how to wield and leverage knowledge and information effectively as the levers of power.

Any idea what proportion of the country’s children and youth are pushed to a position of a perennial disadvantage because of them not being exposed to the digital world (digital divide)? If the socio-economics of the people and communities, and their geographical location impact their access and exposure to the digital world in profound ways, it is also an unfortunate reality that the political and administrative executive also has a tap on this access, and its quality. The executive usually gets away with its decisions of imposing information blockades on certain areas and the people, the problems and hardships faced by the latter are never really admitted, acknowledged and appreciated by the former.

This is exactly where the people, and particularly the students of Jammu and Kashmir are located – in the ‘information shadow zone’ created by the political and strategic (or security) choices made by the executive. The students of Jammu and Kashmir – those studying medicine and aspiring to go for post-grad studies – are opposed to the move to pool MBBS and PG seats of J&K in the All India Quota (AIQ).

“Please don’t nip J&K medical students’ prospects in the bud. This move will expose J&K students to a greater disadvantage as compared to our counterparts from other states and UTs,” said a student leader from Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar. The students of GMC, Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Srinagar, GMC Rajouri and other medical colleges have protested the move.

Pertinently, earlier, J&K used to reserve all medical seats for local students, opting out of the AIQ.

Politics aside, the students here in Kashmir are trying to make a point that the frequent and prolonged internet shutdowns, particularly the month-long closure of the services in the aftermath of the abrogation of J&K’s special status in August 2019 have badly impacted their education (read preparations and competitiveness) by denying them access to the global knowledge pools of varied subjects. So, how could (and they should not) be treated and evaluated at par with the students elsewhere in the country, who have enjoyed uninterrupted log on to the sources of knowledge and information – both physical and digital. These reasons and contentions are visibly fair.

Following the abrogation decision, while the government imposed a shutdown on physical and digital spaces, including the closure of educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities — remained in place for months, drastically bringing down the people’s physical mobility and thereby limiting their access to sources of knowledge, the countrywide “Corona curfew” imposed in the month of March 2020 definitely proved the proverbial last nail for the students. See the irony: students elsewhere in the country could make the best of the pandemic-induced shutdown by sitting home to surf on the waves of knowledge and information available in digital formats, online classes by their respective schools and colleges and universities were extra add-ons.

Here in J&K, the internet shutdown continued despite appeals for its restoration even during the COVID-19 shutdown. So the shutdown of physical and digital spaces which actually began August 2019, days ahead of the abrogation of J&K’s special status and split into two separate Union territories, was continued till and throughout the COVID lockdown and even beyond.

Instead of acknowledging the challenges that hampered the preparations of J&K students for the competitive exams, they are being told to compete in the national level entrance exam. Is it fair to treat J&K students, one may ask, on par with their counterparts elsewhere in the country who face none of the challenges as the former?

If yes, then perhaps it’s time to do away with the Paralympics, and the reservations as well.

It is pertinent to mention here that after meeting a delegation of medical students at the Raj Bhavan here on Sunday (Oct 03, 2021), J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has said he would request the Centre to defer the pooling of MBBS and post-graduate seats of the UT in All India Quota from the current session. Now let’s see if the Centre heeds this request.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).



Supreme Court says regulation of medical education has become business, tragedy of nation

Tamil Nadu chief minister Stalin reaches out to 12 CMs, seeks support against NEET

NEET row: J&K L-G to seek deferment of all-India medical quota

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