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NEET: Organised corruption in a planned manner challenging Modi government?

By Nava Thakuria* 

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Union Cabinet 3.0 readied to resume regular work, the unusual controversy relating to a nationwide entrance examination for selecting 10+2 standard students for admission in government run medical colleges in India broke out. Just some days ahead of the first Parliamentary session, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government in New Delhi faced a serious allegation of mismanagements in the centrally organised medical admission test, where nearly 2.4 million aspiring students participated.
Results of the examination named National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (Undergraduate), conducted by the federal government sponsored National Testing Agency (NTA) on 5 May, were declared on 4 June, 10 days ahead of initially announced. For reasons best known  to  the NTA, the nodal agency pre-poned the declaration of NEET-UG results coinciding with the vote-counting day of General Elections 2024, where the ruling BJP won 240 Lok Sabha seats (NDA secured 293 out of 543 election held constituencies) and the Congress succeeded in  99 seats where the opposition alliance got 234 seats in total.
Soon after the NEET-UG results came out, thousands of students across India hit the streets alleging huge anomalies in the process. With the continued protest demonstrations including in New Delhi, the students demanded to scrap the results and conduct  NEET-UG 2024  again.  The families of medical aspirants demanded  a high level probe under the monitoring of courts to find discrepancies and punish the guilty individuals under the law. Several individuals including students, teachers, consultants, touts, etc were arrested from different parts of the country suspecting their roles in exam-related irregularities and question paper leaks.
Suspicion grew as many candidates topped the list of successful candidates with additional marks, where amazingly  67 students scored 720 (out of maximum 720 marks). Some students even scored unusual marks like 718, 719 etc (which are otherwise impossible with the calculating system of 4 marks for each correct answer and negative 1 for every incorrect response) in the 200-minute long pen-paper test. A participant here needs to answer 180 questions based on regular subjects including Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology, taught in 11th  and 12th standard classes (endorsed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training), where the candidate has to highlight the correct answer out of four options.
Later it came to light that 1,563 students were offered grace marks to compensate for their time-loss during the exam procedures for any valid reasons.  As the NTA (instituted by the central government in 2017 with the mandate to conduct entrance and recruitment examinations) admitted about offering the extra marks to some candidates, severe criticism surfaced, why it was done without any pre-announcement. The autonomous body had neither disclosed the provision of extra marks in examination brochures nor divulged any criteria for the same. Moreover, it has not revealed if the same system was applied in NEET-UG 2023 or other tests.
This year, the NEET-UG was organised at 4,750 centres in 571 cities across the country which holds the key to around 0.18 million seats. An Indian 12th standard student must sit and score high marks in the largest annual entrance examination to get admission in government medical colleges (including All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education & Research, IMS-BHU, KMC (Manipal & Mangalore), CMC Vellore, etc) to pursue various medical courses. Needless to mention that Indian  medical professionals enjoy a heavy demand in the healthcare institutions based in Europe and America.
Earlier the process was completed by All India Pre Medical Test along with other entrance tests conducted by State governments and different medical colleges for the qualified students to pursue MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery), BDS (Bachelor of Dental Surgery), BVSc (Bachelor of Veterinary Science) and  AYUSH-UG courses like BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery), BHMS (Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine & Surgery), BUMS (Bachelor of Unani Medicine & Surgery), BNYS (Bachelor of Naturopathy and Yoga Science) and BSMS (Bachelor of Siddha Medicine and Surgery).
How can a test comprising multiple choice questions justify an aspirant to get enrolled for medical courses?
The matter has already reached the Supreme Court of India and the apex court directed to erase the grace marks given to those 1,563 students and go for a re-examination for them. The re-test recorded the attendance of only 813 students out of them and their results were scheduled to be released on 30 June.  The highest court on 18 June observed that a minor error and 0.001% negligence must be dealt with efficiently. The SC directed the NTA and Union government to ensure a complete transparent assessment considering the hard labour put by the students to prepare for the highly competitive test. It also observed that a student, after playing fraud in the examination becoming a professional doctor, will be harmful to the society.
Facing the heat of criticism, the centre sacked NTA director general Subodh Kumar Singh and assigned Pradeep Singh Kharola in his place. Meanwhile, a seven-member committee was  constituted to recommend on the functioning of NTA. A probe under the Central Bureau of Investigation was declared and the investigating agency had already started probing. Earlier, the UGC-NET was cancelled due to paper leaks and the NEET-PG and CSIR-UGC-NET were postponed. Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who initially denied any serious allegations floated against the process, had later admitted that there were some irregularities in conducting the NEET-UG and he assured no student’s career will be in jeopardy. Taking the matter seriously, the newly empowered education minister stated that the government will take stringent actions against the NTA officials if found guilty of irregularities.
Various organisations and opposition political parties including the Congress termed the episode as a failure to the Modi-led federal government as it could not conduct the important test fairly and they also demanded to cancel the NEET-UG 2024.  Congress leader Rahul Gandhi  accused Modi for his indifferent attitude towards the issue. Citing the arrests made by the police in Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan, etc,. the newly elected leader of oppositions in the lower house of Parliament alleged that it was an organised corruption materialised under a planned manner.
Meanwhile, Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA), a forum of nationalist citizens in northeast India, raised a serious question, if at all the NEET can be assumed as a quality mechanism to guess the intelligence of an aspiring student to become a physician and how a test comprising multiple choice questions will justify an aspirant to get enrolled for medical courses? Finally, the PPFA asserted that it needs to be checked if the system has been misused by a section of coaching centres to extract money from the desperate parents, who want to establish their sons/daughters as doctors by any possible means?
*Senior journalist based in Guwahati



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