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Medical Entrance Scam Charge Hits Modi Government

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Medical Entrance Scam Charge Hits Modi Government

Irregularities in two top competitive exams have revived the federalism debate in India.

Medical Entrance Scam Charge Hits Modi Government

NEET-UG aspirants participate in a demonstration demanding the re-conduct of entrance exams to medical colleges, New Delhi, India, June 15, 2024.

Credit: X/Congress

On June 4, even as Indians were glued to TV channels and news portals for the parliamentary election results that saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) securing fewer seats than expected, results of another nation-wide test were announced. Here, the high scores of candidates came as a surprise.

The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate), or NEET-UG, is India’s national entrance examination for admission to undergraduate medical programs. The results saw an unprecedented 67 aspirants scoring 720 out of 720 marks. Last year, only two students achieved the perfect score.

The test is conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA), which operates under the federal education ministry.

This year 2.4 million students took the test on May 5 for 110,000 seats, of which only about half are in government-run colleges. Students prioritize government colleges over private ones because of subsidized education fees in government colleges. With a ratio of 44 candidates per government college seat, the competition was tough.

The results, especially the unusually high marks of a large number of students, drew public attention a couple of days later. Soon allegations surfaced of question paper leaks and malpractices over giving grace marks.

In about a fortnight, it had snowballed into a major controversy and the Modi government, which was at the beginning of its third consecutive term, ran into rough weather.

NEET-UG became the prime issue that the opposition INDIA bloc took up in the first session of the new Parliament.  For his swearing-in, independent MP Rajesh Ranjan, who belongs to the opposition camp, took his oath wearing a T-shirt with “RE-NEET” written on it. RE-NEET refers to the demand for reconducting NEET.

The NTA initially ruled out any irregularity. But the matter has already reached the Supreme Court of India, where the hearing is still in progress.

The controversy evoked deep concern among large sections of Indians as a fraudulent entrance test for a medical program not only damages the future of millions of meritorious aspirants, but also compromises the quality of the future healthcare workforce.

Complicating matters for the government, reports of paper leaks in the University Grants Commission–National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) exam hit the headlines. This test determines the eligibility for Junior Research Fellowships, admissions to Ph.D. courses, and appointments as assistant professors.

The UGC-NET exam was conducted on June 18 and was canceled the next day following reports of question paper leaks on the dark web and its circulation over the Telegram app.

Meanwhile, on June 20, the apex court sent notices to the NTA and the government seeking a response to pleas filed by NEET-UG aspirants. Many of them are demanding a fresh test.

Under pressure, the government admitted to irregularities in NEET-UG and started taking damage control measures. It removed the NTA chief, formed a probe panel and postponed the NEET for postgraduate program (NEET-PG) seats.

Political Slugfest 

The Modi government has put up a brave face, saying they will leave no stone unturned to unearth the truth and punish the perpetrators.

On June 21, the government notified the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024 – which was passed by the Parliament in February but had not been notified. The notification formally brought the law into force. Punishment includes a maximum jail term of 10 years and a fine of up to 10 million Indian rupees (around $120,000).

On June 22, the Education Ministry ordered an investigation into NEET-UG by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a federal investigating agency. The UGC-NET paper leak also came under the CBI’s purview.

In a statement, the ministry said that since certain cases of alleged irregularities, cheating, impersonation, and malpractices had been reported, the CBI was entrusted with conducting a “comprehensive investigation” for the sake of “transparency on the conduct of the examination process.” The government is committed to ensuring the sanctity of examinations and protecting the interest of students, it said, adding that “any individual/ organization found to be involved [in malpractices] will face strictest action.”

On June 24, the CBI initiated a probe and has made several arrests since then from the states of GujaratJharkhand, and Bihar.

While the government is trying to save face, the opposition is trying its best to corner the Modi government.

On July 1, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, highlighted that NEET students spend years preparing for the exams and the irregularities have taken a heavy toll on the financial and emotional support that their families provided these students.

“The truth is that now, NEET students do not believe in this exam. They are convinced that the exam is designed for rich people – not the meritorious ones –  to create a quota for rich people and a passage for rich people to enter the system,” he said.

Subsequently, opposition parliamentarians walked out, protesting the government’s refusal to immediately discuss the irregularities in the medical entrance test. On July 2, Gandhi wrote to Modi, urging him to devote time for discussion on the subject in the Lok Sabha the next day.

Meanwhile, the scam has revived old debates around the very model of centralized medical tests such as NEET for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Several opposition parties have demanded that the states be allowed to have their own systems in place.

Their arguments are based on the ideas of federalism that prefer the greater role of states and regional variations and diversities over centralized authorities and systems.

Southern state Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), called NEET “an industry created for the welfare of coaching centers.” On June 28, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution, seeking an exemption for the state from NEET and urging the scrapping of the medical entrance exam altogether. Tamil Nadu has opposed NEET for a decade, arguing that it hurts regional interests.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who heads the Trinamool Congress party, also wrote to the prime minister, calling for the abolition of NEET and restoration of “the previous system” wherein state governments conducted the test.

NEET was first announced in 2013 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power. However, when the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance came to power, the Supreme Court struck it down. In 2016, a five-judge constitutional bench of the top court reviewed the 2013 verdict and upheld NEET, bringing all public and private medical and dental colleges under its ambit.

According to West Bengal-based language rights activist Garga Chatterjee, NEET-like tests put state board students in a disadvantageous position. This is because the NEET exam is based on the syllabus of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), whereas most students in the country are part of the state education boards, which follow different syllabi.

While the opposition parties are likely to continue mounting pressure on the government on issues like transparency and decentralization, they will also be carefully watching out for the developments in the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the cases again on July 8.