Karthick Ram Manoharan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC).
“With medicine we come to one of the most tragic features of the colonial situation.”
The problems with NEET have been well addressed by many critics. A year ago, the Bengali academic and activist Garga Chatterjee wrote about how NEET would strengthen the centre and the elites who make up the centre, at the expense of the state via the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum. Ezhilan Naganathan, a medical practitioner, rationalist and Tamil activist, recently exposed how dual nativity was being used fraudulently against the interests of Tamil students (read as OBCs, MBCs and SC/STs) in Tamil Nadu. And these two activists were joined by many others routinely pointing out the problems with NEET, on social media and other forums.
And then, S. Anitha committed suicide. The 16-year- old daughter of a daily wage labourer, she scored a brilliant 1,176 on 1,200 in her class XII state board exams. Ideally, Anitha should by now have been enrolled in some prestigious medical college. And had this happened, as has been reported, she would have been the first person from her community in the village of Kuzhumur, Ariyalur district, to become a doctor.
Anitha had been schooled in the Tamil medium, the linguistic mode of instruction for the majority of Tamil Nadu’s schoolgoers. In his article, Chatterjee had said, “The Maharashtra state board alone has more class 12 students than the all-India strength of the CBSE.” This imbalance is reflected in Tamil Nadu as well, where far fewer students are enrolled with the CBSE curriculum relative to the state board curriculum. One of the injustices of NEET is that it will ensure this small section of students find greater representation in medical colleges at the expense of those who studied according to the state board. Needless to say, it will be a terrible front to Anitha’s name.
Of course, not all state board schools in Tamil Nadu are necessarily Tamil-medium. At the same time, they also privilege a system of pedagogy that is closer to the land than do CBSE schools. Likewise, while it is true that a significant percentage of state board schools are run privately, the bulk of them are also located in small towns and in rural areas, with minimal infrastructure and catering to students from underprivileged backgrounds. In contrast, the CBSE schools of Tamil Nadu are concentrated in and around Chennai, catering mostly to local and north Indian elites.
There are around 580 CBSE schools in the state and 2,488 government-run schools offering higher secondary education (excluding privately run state-board schools). Likewise, the ‘580’ is only the total number of CBSE schools in the state; the number of CBSE schools offering higher secondary education is bound to be lower.
Tamil Nadu has one of the highest state gross enrolment ratios (GER) in the country, almost double the national average. The GER of girl students is 42.7% against 22.7% nationally. It had almost 100% retention up to elementary school in 2012, while about 45% of all students who join school at the primary level in the state manage to get admitted in colleges. While there is consensus among education activists in Tamil Nadu that almost all CBSE students will make it to college thanks to their social capital, most students who enrol for college education in Tamil Nadu, including for the MBBS programmes, are from the state board curriculum. So the competition tends to be sharp, with only those with an exceptional scorecard being eligible to study medicine.
Before NEET, and out of the ~2,500 government college seats in Tamil Nadu, 69% were reserved for BC, MBC and SC/ST students. However, there was very little – if any – difference in the admission cutoffs. For example, for entrance to the prestigious Madras Medical College in 2014, the cutoff for OC students was 199.5; 199.25 for BC; 198.75 for MBC and 196.75 for SC/ST students. This rubbishes complaints that these students “aren’t good enough”. A significant number of students from the marginalised sections of society scored over 98% to be enrolled under the open category. Such a system ensured fair representation and was not lax in maintaining high standards.
The introduction of NEET has only managed to lower the bar – by making it more favourable to those students with a CBSE background. It has been reported that most seats in Tamil Nadu’s top medical colleges have gone to CBSE students, thanks to NEET. Activists on the ground estimate that about 35% of students who were admitted through NEET studied under the CBSE system. Now, it would appear that most of the seats still went to state board curriculum students.
But a closer reading of the data available shows that applicants from CBSE had a better chance of clearing NEET than those from the state board. That is, despite making up only a small section of those appearing for the test, CBSE students were more likely to be selected than others. The nature of the entrance does not take into account the performance in the class XII board exams, the style of the paper, the fact that multiple-choice questions were more accessible to CBSE students and, of course, the relative incomprehensibility of questions translated into regional languages. Such are the forces that conspired against Anitha. They don’t foster competition as much as a form of apartheid.
I had the misfortune of studying in a CBSE school from for five years and they were the worst years of my life. Though the school was built on Tamil soil, it functioned as a colonial institution. It was an English-medium school and speaking Tamil was forbidden, with a very real threat of corporal punishment. On the other hand, speaking Hindi was encouraged. It was even cool: being popular meant you know all about Bollywood’s latest hit. But Tamil was shamed; those opting to study Tamil as a second language, or even third, were looked down upon. Today, we also know that in some other CBSE schools, Brahmanism is championed while expressions of other schools of spirituality, or agnosticism/atheism, are actively suppressed.
NEET is a boost in the arm for such institutions, which churn out cogs in the machine with little sense of social responsibility or justice.
Fortunately, I had the option of switching schools and looking beyond medicine and engineering for a career. But for many from rural backgrounds, establishing a career in medicine is not simply a middle-class aspiration. It can often be a necessity inspired by a commitment to the larger community. The healthcare facilities in Ariyalur, Anitha’s district, were built by native doctors schooled in Tamil Nadu’s state board curriculum and who were beneficiaries of the state’s wide reservations system.
As critics have pointed out, NEET privileges a CBSE mode of thinking that Anitha did not have access to. Spiteful accusations by some upper-caste people on social media – that she was not fit enough – are ridiculous but to be expected. Forget the atrocity of judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree, there is no evidence to prove that NEET will contribute to the improvement of healthcare in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which vastly outperform other states on this front. There is neither any data nor a sociological argument to prove that the members of the upper-classes/castes, who are usurping the seats of those like Anitha, are likely to be as good as those doctors schooled in the state boards of non-Hindi states.
From an economically poor and socially underprivileged background, and despite growing with a single parent in a very small house located in a ‘backward’ village, Anitha would have been the kind of success story that other parents from her village would have liked to motivated their own children with. She was a winner, a girl who went to the Supreme Court to fight for thousands of students like her against NEET. But her thwarted ambitions, unrewarded efforts and any lack of due recognition for her achievements drove her to suicide. We must not forget that the initial confusion on the status of NEET in Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s bullheadedness in imposing it despite credible arguments against the move and the current AIADMK government’s meek resistance also contributed to her death.
Remember that the erstwhile Congress government’s unilateral decision to impose Hindi on Tamils about half a century ago led to the party’s political decimation in the state, followed by the institution of Dravidian rule. What will NEET and the BJP’s other attempts to ruin Tamil Nadu’s social justice schemes lead to? Tamil students are already on the streets, having been spurred into action by Anitha’s death, hoping that her sacrifice will not be in vain.
The author would like to thank Ezhilan Naganathan and Ravishankar Ayyakannu for providing crucial inputs.