Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Chennai: S Anita, the 17-year-old daughter of a Scheduled Caste daily wage labourer in Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, scored 1,176 out of 1,200 marks in her state board plus two exams. That score fuelled her dream of becoming a doctor. But the National Entrance and Eligibility Test (NEET) administered by the Centre through the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) for admission to medical colleges became a stumbling block. Anita approached the Supreme Court with a plea that her plus two marks be considered for a medical college admission. The court rejected her plea, and unable to afford coaching classes, Anita sat for the NEET exam in 2017 and scored just 86 out of 720. Her dream of becoming a doctor shattered, Anita ended her life on 1 September, 2017.
NEET has been a major bone of contention between the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government since it was first mooted in 2012. Then chief minister J Jayalalithaa challenged it on the grounds that it infringed on the state’s autonomy and she reportedly wrote to the Centre four times between 2013 and 2016 to register her objection to NEET. In the years preceding that, the late chief minister even abolished the common entrance test conducted by the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Exam (TNPCEE), a body constituted by the state government as part of Anna University for this specific purpose.
She claimed that the exam put students from rural schools at a disadvantage.
"It has become a traumatic experience for parents and children,” she said. “In particular, students from rural areas are affected as the entrance examination reduces their chances of gaining admission. If the plus two marks alone are relied upon, rural students would get their due share in admissions."
With the entrance exam abolished, medical admissions were then managed by the Directorate of Medical Education (DME) based on marks obtained in the plus two exams. Applications were processed on the basis of cut-off marks based on the plus two score and rank lists were prepared which became the basis for admission to medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. But as medical education falls in the concurrent list (which gives both states and the Centre to dictate education policies), the central government, in 2012, pooled all medical seats available in the country and introduced an all India entrance test, the NEET, for admission into medical colleges across India.
There was an immediate outcry against it from Tamil Nadu in particular, with the state government arguing that as it had done away with entrance exams for admission to professional courses, NEET infringed on the state’s rights. Tamil Nadu fought a prolonged legal battle to keep NEET out, but the courts denied the state’s pleas and the all-India NEET exam was held for the first time in 2017 and for the third time on 5 May.
Students have been left in the lurch as the state and Centre battle it out over the implementation of NEET. Mydeen Abdul Kathar
Students have been left in the lurch as the state and Centre battle it out over the implementation of NEET. State ministers, time and again, promised that NEET will not be implemented in Tamil Nadu, but in the end could not prevent its implementation. Anita's suicide evoked a strong response, with students, parents and citizens taking to the streets all over the state for over ten days to condemn the incident and blaming the ruling AIADMK for implementing NEET in a hasty manner.
Somasundaram a parent and a social activist in Madurai, said, “This has adversely affected rural and tribal students. We have already lost Anita and we are not willing to lose any more students. When students are proving their ability with their 12th grade marks, what is the need to hold this test? Whichever government comes to power in the Centre should cancel this test.”
Despite public anger and the AIADMK leaders insisting that the "interests of students will be protected", they could not prevent NEET from being conducted for the second consecutive year in 2018. Unable to take on the BJP government in Delhi due to its own political compulsions, the AIDMK set up free special coaching classes to enable state board students to meet the standards of NEET exam. These classes provided by the state government enabled this year’s NEET exam to be held peacefully. Students even said the questions were easier and more aligned to their syllabus.
"Tamil Nadu has highest number of medical colleges in the country with 2,500 medical seats available,” said Dr GR Ravindranath, general secretary, Doctor's Association for Social Equality, when asked about the impact of NEET on the state. "Till now, about 85 percent of the seats were filled by students from the state and 15 from the all-India quota. But after implementation of NEET, students from all over India can get admission in these colleges. This will affect the prospects of local students.” He also said that rural students will be affected as the NEET system has been implemented with no time given to rural students to prepare. "We are not asking for ban on NEET only for time to prepare our rural students."
Following the outcry over NEET in the aftermath of the suicide, Education Minister KA Sengottaiyan said the state government will set up free coaching centres. As per that, contracts were signed with 100 private coaching centres set up for students writing the test in 2018. Now, the number of centres has increased to 412 with students of classes 10, 11 and 12 being allowed to enrol. This year alone, 72,000 students were given free coaching through these centres and the state government has allocated Rs 20 crore for this in the past three years.
The issue found prominent mention in the main Opposition party DMK’s manifesto, which said Tamil Nadu will be exempted from this test if the party came to power. Both the DMK and its counterpart at the Centre and alliance partner, the Congress, have clearly stated in their respective manifestoes their intent to remove education off the concurrent list, allowing states to take their own decision regarding the implementation of NEET or any other exams.
Newly-minted politician and actor Kamal Haasan, whose Makkal Needhi Maiam party is also contesting the Lok Sabha election, made abolishing the NEET — symbolised by Anita’s photograph — a main issue in his front-page advertisement. The AIADMK has also, quite brazenly, made the same promise to do away with NEET in their manifesto, despite their own alliance partner’s stand on the issue.
When Union minister Piyush Goyal was asked about this during campaigning in Tamil Nadu, he said they had not received any such request from the state government: "The state government only requested that the test to be conducted in Tamil and we agreed to that.” Even that hasn’t quite gone off smoothly. Last year, 49 errors were found in the Tamil NEET question paper and when the Madras High Court ordered that students who took the paper in Tamil be given grace marks for each wrong question, the CBSE immediately got it overturned at the Supreme Court.
Goyal reiterated in Chennai that the Centre was firm in implementing NEET throughout the country without any exemption. while accusing Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, of wanting to re-introduce an old system where college management takes large capitation fees.
AIADMK minister Jayakumar, however, remains confident that the state will finally get exemption.
“We will not compromise on this,” said Jayakumar. “Congress is cheating the public with its promise.” He promised that NEET tests will not be held if the AIADMK-led alliance comes to power. In the meanwhile, the BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan has criticised the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for promising exemption of NEET when there is a Supreme Court order on the conduct of eligibility test for medical admissions.
Talking about this elephant in the room between alliance partners AIADMK and BJP, senior journalist Shyam said that the saffron party does not consider Tamil Nadu as a state that would contribute much to the party’s tally. “The BJP has continued to maintain this stand because they do not have a strong vote base in the state,” he said. “They have a larger stake in maintaining their voter base in North India and any special consideration to the south will create opposition among the voters there. So, they will not do anything that can jeopardise their position in the government.” He also said that though the Congress might face a similar situation, they have kept the southern voters in mind.
“At the same time, the AIADMK has announced that they will negotiate and get an exemption. BJP's announcement at this time has become disadvantageous for the ruling AIADMK. The NEET might also become a reason for the AIADMK to lose seats in the elections," he said.
Indeed, this incongruity in the alliance has made voters suspicious and weary.
"Both the AIADMK and BJP are playing games,” added Sasikumar, another parent. “The AIADMK has allied with the BJP knowing that it will not give exemption for Tamil Nadu alone, but say in their manifesto that they will get an exemption. How can AIADMK fulfil this promise? DMK and Congress too have made this promise. If their alliance comes to power, we believe that DMK can achieve what they have said."
But as much as NEET is a big poll issue this time, it might soon become irrelevant. There is already some support for NEET among some sections. Sreenivasan, a parent supporting NEET said, "The accusation that students from rural areas are affected is false. When they are qualifying for the IAS test, NEET is not difficult. There is objection is because of political reasons only. There are various benefits for both students and parents from this exam. If a student scores really high, they can choose among the best medical institute in the country. Also, as entrance happens through merit in this process, private institutions cannot loot money. They can only collect fees in accordance with the amount collected in government medical colleges. So, we should help students qualify for it instead of opposing it."
And for us admirably adaptive Indians, it perhaps isn’t long before NEET becomes the norm. Ultimately, when it comes to NEET, Tamil voters have two choices: a party that makes a promise it can’t possibly fulfill and a party that knows it won’t have to.
The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters