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One nation, many leaks: The wages of ‘maximum govt, minimum governance’

One nation, many leaks: The wages of ‘maximum govt, minimum governance’

That said, this shameful affair, is symptomatic of deeper challenges that plague “governance” today.

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Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 21:11 IST
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Remember the slogan from 2014 – “minimum government, maximum governance”? Well, a decade later, “minimum governance” has won the day.

In 2016, the introduction of the “one country, one examination, one merit system” through the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) was billed as a major governance reform in medical education. In 2017, this was complemented by the establishment of the National testing Agency (NTA), tasked with implementing all entrance exams -- NEET/JEE/NET/CUET, and several other acronym-based entrance exams that terrorise our young. The objective was to streamline processes and improve standards. However, as the stream of controversies from paper leaks to corruption, non-transparent marking, poorly designed questions and exam cancellations amply demonstrate, both reforms stand discredited.

“Governance” is defined as the ability to effectively implement policy. Turns out the government insists on conducting exams --maximum government -- but does so with minimum governance. Characteristically, the Prime Minister has maintained a studied silence, even as he posted Yoga Day selfies with Srinagar’s young. And now, the CBI has come in to investigate – minimum governance, of course!

That said, this shameful affair, is symptomatic of deeper challenges that plague “governance” today. This is not confined to higher education, nor did they begin in 2014, but the NEET/NTA controversy illustrates the problem well. Getting to the holy grail of “maximum governance” requires confronting these realities.

In 2024, close to 24 lakh students took the NEET-UG exam to fill 1 lakh MBBS seats across the country. An estimated 14 lakh students appeared for the JEE mains. Of these, 2.5 lakh make to the JEE advanced to compete for about 59,937 (as of 2023) seats in the country’s premier engineering colleges. This staggering demand-supply gap is a result of decades of neglected investment. We simply do not have enough colleges, and certainly very few of quality, to cope with the growing numbers of high school graduates with big dreams. Scarcity intensifies competition beyond repair. After all, the stakes are just too high. This is one reason for the proliferation of coaching classes. But when scarcity exists alongside a broken school system, one that routinely produces shoddy learning, a toxic cheating mafia, to respond to the competition, is almost inevitable.

Rather than address this fundamental scarcity and quality gap, policymakers searched for “governance” solutions. And in doing so gave in to the urge to “centralise”, the one size-fits-all solution to all governance problems in India. In an important column, former Union Health Secretary Sujatha Rao set out the context in which the NEET was considered back in 2010 -- poor education standards, the need to reduce multiplicity of exams, and to curb corruption and the practice of high capitation fees charged by private colleges. Centralising examinations into NEET was considered the silver bullet that would lead to better examination standards and thus improve the quality of student intake while ensuring fairness through competition and administrative efficiency (policymakers in India routinely and wrongly conflate centralisation with efficiency) and curb corruption. But this was the wrong solution.

Not only did it fail to address the roots of the problem, it stripped medical colleges of their autonomy, and states of their ability to find locally relevant ways of responding to the quality and corruption challenge. In 2016, the courts dismissed the autonomy question but some solutions need to go beyond legalism. Any educationist will tell you that undermining autonomy in admissions is exactly the route to curbing innovation and experimentation, critical components of what ensures quality higher education. Regulation to ensure standards is necessary but it has to balance autonomy considerations.

The logic of centralisation in NEET has now been applied to the UGC-NET exam and CUET, governing research and undergraduate admissions, further entrenching the problem.

Beyond institutional autonomy, Tamil Nadu’s repeated objections to NEET have further highlighted the absurdity (besides its lack of constitutionality) of finding centralised solutions to governance challenges in a diverse country. NEET has undermined TN’s perfectly functional policy of medical college admissions linked to school examination scores, creating in its wake an admissions process that biases against rural and poorer students who study in the state board and favours those who can afford coaching classes (99% successful candidates in 2020). What is necessary for Bihar does not apply to Tamil Nadu, and vice versa. But what is equally important is, with notable exceptions like Tamil Nadu, most states have failed to raise any concerns about this kind of centralisation, even as their students suffer. The worst peril of centralisation is that it allows governments at all levels to abdicate responsibility and pass the buck.

In the end, behemoths like the NTA simply cannot implement a complex task like multiple entrance exams that requires combining local knowledge with specialised pedagogical skills. It is instructive that these issues were raised by educationists when the idea of the NTA was mooted in 2013 by the then UPA government, but no policymaker chose to take heed. And in 2017, in the rush to set up the NTA and make a headline splash, no consideration was given even to basic human resource issues -- what kind of qualifications, experience, capacity is needed to design and conduct such complex exams? The NTAs incompetence would be laughable if its consequences were not so tragic.

Ultimately, “maximum governance” requires deliberative, rational, cooperative, decision-making and open government. It requires careful engagement with root causes rather than succumbing to the temptation to centralise. This is exactly what our policymaking ecosystem, especially the administrative culture promoted by Modi, has no patience for. Thus, we are condemned to live with the national shame of paper leaks. But for the ray of hope that our brave students who’ve taken to the streets, fighting for their rights, have given us. Democracy is still alive and may be, there is hope yet.

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