Owning up for 2024 NEET is only the beginning

Owning up for 2024 NEET is only the beginning

Accountability must be tracked through an investigation so that Dharmendra Pradhan and the third-term Modi regime can act against those responsible for putting 2.4 million families through the trauma of a botched examination mechanism.

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Last Updated : 17 June 2024, 07:58 IST

The conduct and outcome of the 2024 country-wide medical admission National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for 70,000 seats in government and private medical colleges affecting 2.4 million young students is a mess.

By one estimate offered from Bihar, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ally Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) government is in power, the size of the multi-state scandal, as of now, is around Rs 1,000 crore.

If the investigation were done by any Opposition-ruled state, the new Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime would have found an escape route and have doubtless pinned the blame on the Opposition for engaging in corruption. The JD(U) is a crucial ally for the survival of the third Narendra Modi-led NDA regime.

Newly-appointed Union minister for higher education Dharmendra Pradhan’s unpleasant start of having to clean up is hampered by his compulsion to defend the functioning of the government on the one hand and deliver justice to the duped and traumatised student community on the other. The Centre’s exercise in diverting blame to the National Testing Agency (NTA), an ‘autonomous body’ as the minister needlessly explained, is nonsense.

M K Stalin, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister, has asked for a change in NEET as a system. Other Opposition-ruled states have raised their voices.

Earlier this year, when the Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act was brought in as a curative for the benefit of “The future of our youth up to 40 years of age, who comprise 70% of our population, is at stake, who are stakeholders in the Viksit Bharat of 2047,” Jitendra Singh, the then Minister of State (Independent Charge) Science & Technology, cited “malprtactices” in public examinations in Opposition-ruled states to contextualise the new law.

His speech in Parliament focused on “malpractice” in 12 instances in Rajasthan in 2018 under the Congress government, the Sub-Inspector Recruitment scam surfaced in Jammu & Kashmir in March, 2022 and SSC Combined Graduate Exam in 2017 under the Mehbooba Mufti government, and “prominently, in West Bengal”, where “the Diploma in Elementary Education paper in November, 2022 was leaked, again in the same state in February, 2023 English paper leaked besides School Service Commission, West Bengal also leaked.”

In other words, the Modi regime, till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections reduced the BJP’s clout to a minority 240-seats in the House, made it perfectly obvious that malpractices, indeed criminal malpractices, were the speciality of Opposition-ruled states. It is bad luck that the lid has come off just when the Modi 3.0 is beginning its new innings.  

Whether it is a scandal requires investigation by independent agencies competent to do forensic audits under the supervision of independent experts, and the emphasis is on the independence of the persons. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or some version of the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) may be eligible to handle the probe, though the independence or rather neutrality of such would be automatically challenged by a far stronger Opposition in Parliament.

The fate of 1,563 students and the grace marks given to them that created an unprecedented 67 toppers with the maximum score of 720 is no longer the problem. As the Supreme Court observed, “Sanctity has been affected, we need answers.” Pradhan’s continuing defence of the previous government (Modi 2.0) and the current government that there “is no corruption. This environment has been created over the past few days,” is the weakest possible excuse.

Coming as it did after the Supreme Court order cancelling grace marks and its decision to hear the case on cancelling the examinations on July 8, following the arrests of over two dozen persons from Bihar and Gujarat, it indicates a government out of touch with facts and intent on whitewashing its role. The centrally-controlled test conducted under the auspices of the NTA — set up in 2017 as a reform measure — was an exercise in improving the controversial 2013 NEET system which was finally scrapped.

The NEET system ran into trouble as soon as it was introduced with several states, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka opposing the change from the combination of state-administered entrance tests and the common tests for admission into specific medical colleges like Manipal and Vellore at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The Tamil Nadu government passed two Bills in the Assembly to exempt itself from NEET and revert to the old system of state government-administered admission tests based on the Justice A K Rajan committee report.

Accountability must be tracked through an investigation so that Pradhan and the third-term Modi regime can act against those responsible for putting 2.4 million families through the trauma of a botched examination mechanism. Contrary to Pradhan’s explanation that it is a mechanism that is under evolution, the fact is the new mechanism of homogenising the entrance process to medical education for doctors, nurses, and other categories was a reform, meant to improve on a less efficient system.

Examination mechanisms are not meant to be flawed. There is too much at stake for the individual examinee for any government to make excuses that it is a mechanism that is evolving and is not error-free, as yet. Tests, including those conducted globally for testing candidate eligibility, like the basic Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) certainly evolve as a mechanism, but not to remove flaws and ensure that it is foolproof. Some 3 million students from over 170 countries sit the SAT exams.

These examination mechanisms evolve to make it easier for students to undertake the test and for better assessment of the potential of the individual.

The better mechanism under the hegemonic NTA has produced a countrywide mess. The worst offenders, that is states where paper leaks and cash for questions cases cited by former minister Prasad to explain why NEET was a better mechanism had limited consequences because the exams were restricted to candidates appearing in separate states. It is for the Modi government to first own up, then clean up after itself instead of shifting focus to the Supreme Court’s order, or some, as yet unnamed, entity.

(Shikha Mukerjee Is a Kolkata-based senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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