To Politicize or not to Politicize: NEET as a means to Revisit the Politics of the Governed - Yazhini P.M.
“I am sorry, I am tired”, were the words from the suicide note written by M. Jothisri Durga, a 19-year-old NEET aspirant from Madurai who died on September 12 2020, for whom this NEET exam would have been the second attempt. The same day also saw two deaths by suicide, a 20-year-old M. Adithya, from Dharmapuri and a 21-year-old M. Mothilal, from Thiruchengode who were to attempt NEET for the third time. At the same time, on September 9 2020, V. Vignesh, another 19-year-old aspirant from Ariyalur ended his life by jumping into a well, who was set to attempt NEET for the third time. Going by the words of the Chief Minister of TN, as of 15 September 2020, 13 students have taken their lives due to NEET exams. Further, on September 12, 2020, the DMK-chief and Leader of Opposition in TN, M.K. Stalin put forth two promises. First, NEET will be abolished and a return to higher secondary exam marks based selection would be followed. Second, a suitable redressal would be effectuated for the hitherto aggrieved. The aforesaid promises were in line with all other regional parties and regional outfits of national parties thereby signposting the essence of Dravidian movement in the state of Tamil Nadu. Put otherwise, the movement sought to lower the entry barrier for students to enter professional courses through various mechanisms, including strengthening the reservation system, providing extra marks for first generation graduates, instituting quotas for rural candidates and the recent move by the present day government to institute 7.5% seats for students from government schools.
While the focus of sustained anti-NEET protests centred in Tamil Nadu, an outcome of the suicide of S. Anitha, a NEET aspirant from Ariyalur who had scored 1176 out of 1200 in the Higher Secondary Examination of Tamil Nadu State Board but failed in NEET, gives a perception that student suicides linked to NEET is endemic to Tamil Nadu. The phenomenon is rather pan-India with numerous suicides every year happening in the coaching hubs for NEET and JEE like Kota in Rajasthan, Telangana, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The deaths reported as student suicides in Kota, for example, are 16 cases in 2015, 17 cases in 2016, 7 cases in 2017 and 19 cases in 2018. The situation is far more serious in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh where in the year of 2017, nearly 50 deaths were reported in the span of two months. While scores of deaths in these states doesn’t seem to evoke a broad based protests, Tamil Nadu reacts differently, given how NEET seeks to dampen the aspirations of the commoners and the precedence that exists where successive governments have heeded to the rising aspirations through policymaking.
In contrast, NEET ushers in a glass ceiling that could silently put down the aspirations of thousands of youth through due inability of such youth to afford the costs involved. Conventional logic informs us that competitive exams revolve around the coaching class ecosystem which have grown around JEE and now NEET. The concomitant high costs on the aspirants in turn skews the composition of the aspirants in terms of class, caste and gender. The question of representativeness of the lot of successful aspirants year-on-year is a cause of concern and strikes at the heart of the politics of aspiration and social justice prevalent in TN, especially given the policy in place lacks empirical evidence sound enough to replace the existing framework.
Tamil Nadu, which did not feature in the brochures of coaching class institutes from Kota, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana found itself in the forefront, with scores of branches of every key coaching institute opening shop in major cities of the State, in the wake of the compulsory implementation of NEET in 2016, a legacy of the present day BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre, when it passed the Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Bill 2016. Prior to 2016, although NEET was in existence, freedom was provided for the states to opt out thereby staying true to the constitutional values of the Indian State. Subsequently, TN opted out given its different pathway of development.
The Economics of NEET and the Kota System of Dummy Schools
The economics of NEET coaching classes is staggering, with the cost to the student in Kota for example, amounting to at least 5 lakh rupees for two years of higher secondary education and entrance coaching classes. The excessive focus on the entrance examinations is afforded at the cost of neglecting the higher secondary education of the student, through a system called ‘Dummy School’, a disturbing outcome of the Kota system. This enables an aspirant to register nominally in a school for eleventh and twelfth standard wherein the attendance is taken care of, while they slog for hours memorising the short-cuts and mnemonics for cracking problems in the coaching institutes. There exists a nexus between the coaching class institutes and the dummy schools, which is an open secret. With the mushrooming of coaching class institutes across India, the Kota system of ‘Dummy schools’ is making its way into states like Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, where the dummy schools charge full fee from students in exchange for laxity in attendance. The curious case of NEET 2018 topper Kalpana Kumari throws light on this dynamic wherein she prepared for NEET from Aakash Institute in Delhi as a regular student while having registered as a student of YKJM College at Sheohar, Bihar. When the controversy on how Kalpana Kumari would have maintained attendance at the school surfaced, Bihar School Examination Board asserted that there is no provision for minimum attendance in schools for the students of the board.
In addition to the financial burden on the aspirant, the increasing number of repeaters in the entrance examination system also decreases the possibility of the first time attempters to clear the examination. Added to this, is the toxic combination of high expectations from the family, peer pressure and pressure tactics from coaching centers. While all the aspirants face these pressures, the students from socially and educationally disadvantaged groups i.e. the other backward castes and scheduled castes and tribes face the problem of the lack of role models, many a time they being the first generation of higher education aspirants in their families. In fact, it is the anticipated high cost of entry to coaching classes, which self selects the class and in turn the caste and gender of the aspirants.
Lessons from the Past
The reasons identified by Dr. M. Anandhakrishnan, who headed the Committee that led to the abolition of Common Entrance Test in Tamil Nadu in 2006 are worth problematising. The committee pointed out the urban - rural divide in relation to the accessibility of coaching class infrastructure and raised concerns about the adverse impact of coaching class culture on students’ inherent learning skills. Another case worth mentioning is that of the improvement examination, which was introduced with the intention of helping genuine cases in which students fail to score good marks in their first attempt. However, the system was abused, with candidates taking the improvement tests over and again therefore, gaining advantage over others in the form of substantial numbers of engineering and medical seats. In other words, CET and Improvement examinations which exacerbated the urban - rural divide and their sharp bias in favour of students who could afford the time and money were identified and cited as reasons to abolish the same in order to provide a level playing field for the students in Tamil Nadu. This move has to be seen from the perspective of the recent move by the University of California’s decision to stop requiring standardized tests (SAT and ACT) on the grounds that these tests are inherently biased in favor of affluent, white and Asian-American students, which were revealed by the results of SAT for the year 2019, wherein 55 percent of Asian-American test takers and 45 percent of white test takers scored a 1200 or higher, while for Hispanic and black students, those numbers were 12 percent and 9 percent. Examples from IITs reveal the systemic issues surrounding the selection mechanism wherein girls formed only 8% of the total students enrolled in IITs for the year 2016 and how OBC representations in IITs improved only after the implementation of constitutionally mandated 27% reservation for OBCs - which in turn is looked down upon - thanks to the discrimination amnesia prevalent in such institutes of repute.
The Resistance from Tamil Nadu
With the rationale for anti-NEET protests based in Tamil Nadu resting on the worldwide phenomenon of moving away from standardized tests which have high entry barriers, there is a certain unanimity among parties in Tamil Nadu with exception of BJP and Puthiya Thamizhagam against NEET examination. Incidentally, questions are now raised regarding who is responsible for NEET examinations, with AIADMK and BJP claiming that it was DMK and Congress who is responsible. While on the other hand, AIADMK which claims to enjoy proximity to the BJP was questioned by Madras High Court as to why it kept the state and the legislative assembly in dark for almost two years about the President rejecting NEET Bills in September 2017 (Tamil Nadu Admission to MBBS and BDS Courses Bill and the Tamil Nadu Admission to Post Graduate Courses in Medicine and Dentistry Bill), which were passed unanimously in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. Notably, such a development was revealed only when the Centre through Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba filed an affidavit in response to a public interest litigation petition filed by Tamil Nadu Students Parents Welfare came for hearing in Madras High Court.
A detailed sequence of events regarding the fate of the bills as an affidavit was submitted by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba at the insistence of the judges in Madras High Court, which stated that the Centre received the two bills on February 2, 2017 after which it was circulated to Union Ministries of Law and Justice, Health and Family Welfare and Human Resource Development for obtaining their comments. On March 31, 2017, a clarification was sought by the State Government for which the centre gave response on April 6, 2017. Later when a doubt was raised by the centre on May 19, 2017 it was clarified by the state government on May 29, 2017. Subsequently, the Centre placed the bills for presidential consideration along with reports and comments received from various Union ministries and the state government along with the summary signed by the then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. President Ram Nath Kovind withheld his assent on September 20, 2017 and the bills were returned to the State Government on September 22, 2017 for which the state responded with an acknowledgement on October 25, 2017 along with seeking reason for withholding the assent. This was then followed by six letters in 2018 and four letters in 2019 seeking reason for withholding the assent for which there was no response from the Centre.
Return to the Past as the World Strides Forward
While the centre remains mum on the reason for withholding the assent, questions related to the inherent biases of NEET remain unaddressed. When the world is moving towards providing a level playing field for the student community, India is forcefully persuading the states to enter into a well chartered territory of standardized examinations, whose ability for its inherent biases to skew the class and caste composition of the selected cohort is fairly well understood. Notably, even with the intervention by the Government to increase women representation in IITs via creating supernumerary seats, the bias regarding affording coaching classes to achieve access is not eliminated.
Here, lies the reason why issues around NEET are to be politicized along the lines of state autonomy in decision making and the concerns of the aspirational public, given the decision making by any government in relation to sectors like education is inherently political. With voices clamouring for the silencing of voices against NEET, in name of maintaining an apolitical public sphere in matters of education - a great deal of disservice is rendered to the student community and by extension, the society. The much overlooked site of politics and assertion in the 21st century, the street, as coined by Partha Chatterjee marks Tamil Nadu’s (TN) reaction towards the infamous National Eligibility cum Entrance Test. In other words, “the street” should continue to discuss, deliberate and inform policymaking at the higher echelons, which in turn is in line with our constitutional value system.
Dr. Yazhini P.M. is a registered medical practitioner from Government Theni Medical College and is currently based in Chennai. She tweets @yazhini_pm