Tamil Nadu’s political parties continue to resist NEET

A PECULIAR signage greets road users along a small section of National Highway 544 (Salem-Kochi Highway), which passes through Namakkal district, now well known for Tamil Nadu’s National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) tutorial “factories”. Massive hoardings put up outside educational institutions located on the road invite “NEET Repeaters” to avail themselves of coaching in what they describe as “premier” institutions and grab a seat at the high table to study medicine in India.

One comes across similar hoardings along NH 44, India’s longest highway, running from Srinagar to Kanyakumari through Namakkal district. The coaching factories are making money from the Central government’s move making entrance examination compulsory for medical college admission. The fees for coaching, gleaned from reports and enquiries, range from Rs.50,000 to Rs.5 lakh for a year. The exorbitant fee makes the facility out of reach for poor and middle class aspirants. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre brushed aside objections raised by State governments, including Tamil Nadu, which had an equitable system for qualification for a medical seat—marks scored in the class 12 examination.

Namakkal town has earned a name for itself as a producer of broiler chicken and eggs. Now its coaching centres, like such institutes in Kota, Rajasthan, that thrive on preparing students for medical and engineering entrance examinations and the civil services exams, are preying on the aspirations of NEET candidates. This is happening at a time when every single political party in the State, barring the BJP, demanded the scrapping of the test or approval to a Bill granting 7.5 per cent reservation in medical seats for students from rural backgrounds. (Some State BJP leaders, including its State party president L. Murugan, even requested the Governor to give his assent to the Bill.)

The State Assembly passed the Bill unanimously on September 15 but it was pending with Governor Banwarilal Purohit. The Governor finally gave his assent to the Bill on October 30, a day after the State government invoked the provisions of Article 162 of the Constitution (on the extent of executive power of a State) and issued an executive order granting the 7.5 per cent reservation.

After the NEET results for this year were announced on October16, six coaching centres claimed the all-India first rank holder as its own. Jayaprakash Gandhi, a Salem-based career consultant and analyst, said on Twitter: “If the 1st rank student in NEET is claimed by 6 coaching institutes, then there is something really fishy.” He raised an ethical question and asked if it was correct for the rank holder to accept such advertisement contracts.
Also read: Tamil Nadu’s protests against NEET

Twitter handles that promote half-truths of the Modi government quickly sought to communalise the NEET ranking as two students had scored full marks but a Muslim aspirant had been awarded the first rank. “Soyeb Aftab from Odisha & Akansha Singh from Delhi have secured a perfect 720 out of 720 marks. However, NEET awarded the first rank to Aftab while Akanhsha Singh was given the second rank because apparently she’s younger. This is not fair!!,” tweeted Priti Gandhi, the BJP’s national incharge of social media, whose time line is testimony to her bigotry. She is a verified handle on Twitter.

But what these handles refused to admit is that it is NEET policy to award the top rank to an older candidate if two students receive the same marks. This rule, however outrageous, has been in force since 2013.

‘Repeater’s problems’

In Namakkal, intense work is on to gather students for next year’s NEET. The operative word is ‘repeaters’. How does one become a repeater? How do these students come under such inhuman pressure?

There is evidence to show that some of these students are products of the government system The government operated NEET coaching centres but the quality of training was not uniform across the State and there were several drawbacks. As many as 6,692 students availed themselves of the government’s free facility. More than a fifth of them, 1,615, qualified. Obviously, not all of them will get a chance to pursue medicine because clearing NEET is very different from actually getting a seat because of the huge number of students who clear the test (7.7 lakh of the 13.91 lakh students who appeared for the test this year have qualified), which means that they have cleared a certain threshold.

Under the State government’s coaching effort, only four students who scored over 500 marks in the entrance test stand a realistic chance of getting into a government-run medical college. Fifteen students, who scored between 400 and 500 marks, have a slender chance of making it to a medical college. For the rest, it is a gamble.
Also read: Tamil Nadu’s testing times with NEET

Some of them will possibly get seats in private medical colleges, which will be unaffordable given their fee structure. As many as 70 students scored between 300 and 400 marks, giving their families the feeling that had they been sent to a private coaching centre they might have got admission to a medical college. The hope of qualifying is the starting point of the process of becoming a “repeater”, a wishful thinking that coaching centres cash in on. Many such families can barely afford the fees, as in the case of 20-year-old Aaditya of Dharmapuri, who died by suicide unable to stand the pressure of repeating NEET for a third time. As many as 13 students have so far died by suicide; not all of them because of financial constraints. In all, 89 students from government schools scored above 300 marks this year, compared with 32 in 2019-2020. Last year, the cut-off score for the open category was 520 marks and for the Scheduled Castes 360.

Jeevitkumar’s story

Jeevitkumar from Theni became the BJP’s poster boy of this year’s NEET. A government school student, he has had a consistently good academic record. He had scored 493 out of 500 in class 10 and 548 out of 600 in class 12. His father reared goat for a living.

In his first attempt at NEET last year, Jeevitkumar scored 193 marks, well below the cut-off score required to make the grade for medical entrance. Evidently, being a school or district topper in class 10 or being serious about studies is not enough to clear the NEET. After he failed in his first attempt, Jeevitkumar was egged on by Arul Murugan, a part-time educator at his school, and was supported by the school’s teaching staff, the headmaster, and others who realised his capability to clear NEET. The faculty raised Rs.60,000 towards the coaching fee, and a well-wisher provided the rest of the fee amount.

Jeevitkumar then headed to one of the Namakkal “repeat” factories where he trained for a year to crack the test. A student of Tamil medium, Jeevitkumar opted to train in English for the entrance test. He faced a lot of hurdles initially, the least of which were the COVID-19 induced lockdowns. During the lockdown months, Arul Murugan worked with him to ensure that he cleared NEET. Sheer dedication, hard work and self-motivation helped Jeevitkumar score 664 out of 720. His success had more to do with the training he got in the past year and little to do with his background.
Also read: State education department’s efforts in preparing students for NEET

One, he was a brilliant student; two, his school believed in him and raised the resources to train him; and three, a faculty member spent a tremendous amount of time to train him. None of Jeevitkumar’s classmates could clear the test although they too worked hard, a fact Jeevitkumar did not forget to mention in an interview to a Tamil news media channel. He told the channel that had they received the same kind of training he got, and were supported financially the way he had been, they too would have made it.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi chief Thol.Thirumavalavan, while expressing his joy over Jeevitkumar clearing NEET, pointed out that he did not crack it in his first attempt. His sharp questions on NEET and his spirited opposition to the implementation of the policy in Tamil Nadu have evidently rattled the BJP, which is digging out one video after another in a desperate attempt to nail Thirumavalavan down as a woman hater and someone who talks derogatorily about women. His supporters have dismissed the first information report (FIR) lodged against him, saying that this comes from a party, whose parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), is yet to have a woman in its ranks, leave alone give leadership roles to women.

The case of R. Srijan, from Vellakoil near Tiruppur, is similar. He scored 710 out of 720 after he enrolled in a coaching centre in Namakkal. He had scored 385 in his first attempt.

Tamil Nadu’s reaction

Given these realities, the Assembly passed the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Courses in Medicine, Dentistry, Indian Medicine and Homeopathy on preferential basis to students of Government Schools Bill, 2020, to provide horizontal reservation of 7.5 per cent in NEET examination for government school students. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, tweeted on October 23: “In order to maintain equity, I felt the need to provide separate reservation for students studying in government schools.”

But the Governor neither gave his assent to the Bill nor sent it back, forcing the Chief Minister to meet him. The Chief Minister later sent a team of five Ministers to convince the Governor. But Purohit continued to maintain his silence and refused to take recourse to the two options before him. On October 21, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main opposition party, called upon the Governor to sign the Bill. There was an urgent need for this as admissions to medical colleges in the State were in limbo because of the Governor’s inaction.

M.K. Stalin, DMK president, in a letter to the Governor, made it clear that the party was opposed to NEET. But in the interest of students and because of the government’s decision to provide reservation was in conformity with the Kalaiarasan Committee recommendations for enacting a “righteous act to bring in equality between government and private school students”, he wanted the Governor to sign the Bill. The committee’s three observations are important to understand the point of equity. One, 83 per cent of government schoolchildren’s parents were daily wage earners; two, in the past three years (since NEET was introduced) 98 per cent of the students who qualified for NEET had taken private coaching; and three, only six government school students had gained admission to medical colleges after the introduction of NEET (a sixth of the admission in pre-NEET years) .
Also read: How the apex court was ‘misled’ on NEET

Government school students who cleared NEET will benefit this year “only if the assent for 7.5 per cent horizontal reservation Bill passed by the Assembly is given immediately, without further delay,” Stalin said. With the Governor giving his assent to the Bill, more than 300 government school students will gain admission to medical colleges. This represents the total number of students who gained admission in the past decade to medical colleges in pre-NEET years.

The DMK announced an agitation on October 24. Two days before the agitation, the Governor wrote to Stalin, stating that he needed “at least 3 to 4 weeks’ time to arrive at a decision. The same has also been informed to the delegation of Ministers who called on me recently”.

The Chief Minister saw the DMK agitation as a political event that needed to be condemned. In a tweet on October 23, he said in Tamil: “The DMK and the Congress, which introduced the issue of NEET selection to India and betrayed the students, have no right to accuse us of not putting pressure on the Governor.” In another tweet the same day, he said: “In the past nine years, as many as 1,400 new undergraduate medical seats were upgraded and 11 medical colleges have been created in Tamil Nadu [by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government], thus creating a total of 3,050 seats.” The DMK went ahead with its agitation.

Even as the BJP pushes ahead with its agenda of “one nation, one entrance test”, which flies in the face of social justice and equity, it is clear that the Edappadi government is in an uncomfortable situation. Stalin’s decision to hold an agitation came at a time when the discussion over NEET was at a critical stage in the State.

Supporters of NEET have been arguing that many government school students were in the reckoning for a seat, while its detractors have been questioning the costs and burden on the family of each student.

Stalin’s move left the Chief Minister with no choice but to press his demand with the Governor more forcefully, especially since the State Assembly elections are due in 2021. More importantly, it is rare for both the DMK and the AIADMK to agree on an issue. When they concur on an issue, the Centre has relented, barring in some contentious issues such as securing the freedom of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and the Cauvery waters.

In a blow to students in the reserved category, the Supreme Court rejected the State’s plea for 50 per cent reservation in the other backward classes (OBC) quota in medical seats for 2020-21. The court order is actually a shot in the arm for the BJP, which has systematically tried to confuse merit with denying opportunities for those from the depressed and oppressed sections of society.
Also read: Supreme Court and NEET

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