Why 'Politicising' NEET Isn't the Problem We Should Be Focused on

Protests from Tamil Nadu on the medical entrance exam have a lot to teach us about how governance should work.

“I am sorry, I am tired.” These are 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 other deaths by suicide – 20-year-old M. Adithya from Dharmapuri and 21-year-old M. Mothilal from Thiruchengode, both of whom were to attempt the NEET for the third time. On September 9, 2020, V. Vignesh, another 19-year-old aspirant from Ariyalur ended his life by jumping into a well. He too was set to attempt the NEET for the third time.

Going by the words of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, as of September 15, 2020, 13 students have taken their lives due to NEET exams. Further, on September 12, 2020, DMK chief and leader of opposition in Tamil Nadu, M.K. Stalin promised to abolish the NEET and revert to using higher secondary exam marks for admissions to medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. He also said that a suitable redressal would be effectuated for those aggrieved.

These promises were in line with all other regional parties and regional outfits of national parties, thereby signposting the essence of the Dravidian movement in the state of Tamil Nadu which sought to lower the entry barrier for students to enter professional courses through various mechanisms, including rationalising the reservation system, providing extra marks for first generation graduates, instituting quotas for rural candidates and the recent move by the present 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 1,176 out of 1,200 in the state board’s higher secondary examination but failed the 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, seven cases in 2017 and 19 cases in 2018. The situation is far more serious in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where in the year 2017, nearly 50 deaths were reported in the span of two months. While scores of deaths in these states doesn’t seem to evoke broad-based protests, Tamil Nadu reacts differently.

Also read: Exams and the Pandemic: Who Is Afraid of ‘Losing a Year’ of Education?

Conventional logic informs us that competitive exams revolve around the coaching class ecosystem which have grown around JEE and NEET. The high costs imposed on aspirants in turn skews their composition in terms of class, caste and gender. The question of representativeness of the successful aspirants is a cause of concern and strikes at the heart of the politics of aspiration and social justice prevalent in Tamil Nadu, especially given the lack of empirical evidence that this policy needed to replace the existing framework.

Tamil Nadu saw branches of every key coaching institute opening shop in major cities in the wake of the compulsory implementation of NEET in 2016, when the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre passed the Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Bill. Prior to 2016, although NEET was in existence, freedom was provided for the states to opt out. Tamil Nadu had opted out.

The economics of NEET and the Kota system of dummy schools

The economics of NEET coaching classes is staggering, with the cost to a student in Kota, for example, amounting to at least Rs 5 lakh for higher secondary education and entrance coaching classes. The excessive focus on the entrance examinations is afforded at the cost of neglecting school education, through a system called ‘dummy school’, a disturbing outcome of the Kota system.

This enables an aspirant to register nominally in a school paying full fees wherein the attendance is taken care of, while they slog in the coaching institutes. The nexus between the coaching class institutes and the dummy schools 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. The curious case of NEET 2018 topper Kalpana Kumari throws light on this dynamic – 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.

In addition to the financial burden on the aspirant, the increasing number of repeaters in the entrance examination system also decreases the possibility of first-time aspirants clearing the examination. Added to this is the toxic combination of high expectations from the family, peer pressure and pressure tactics from coaching centres. The students from socially and educationally disadvantaged groups – the OBC, SC and ST – face the added problem of the lack of role models, as many a times they are first generation higher education aspirants. 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. In addition to the CET, Tamil Nadu had a system called improvement examination, which was introduced with the intention of helping genuine cases in which students fail to score good marks in their first attempt.

CET and improvement exams exacerbating 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. This move has to be seen from the perspective of the recent move by the University of California’s decision to stop requiring standardised tests (SAT and ACT) on the grounds that these tests are inherently biased in favour of affluent, White and Asian-American students.

Also read: NEET and Suriya: Freedom To Demur Is Not Contempt

Examples from IITs reveal the systemic issues surrounding the selection mechanism wherein women formed only 8% of the total students enrolled in IITs for the year 2016. OBC representations in IITs improved only after the implementation of constitutionally mandated 27% reservation for OBCs.

Resistance from Tamil Nadu

With the rationale for anti-NEET protests based in Tamil Nadu resting on the worldwide phenomenon of moving away from standardised tests which have high entry barriers, there is a certain unanimity among parties in Tamil Nadu with the exception of BJP and Puthiya Thamizhagam against NEET. Incidentally, questions are now raised regarding who is responsible for NEET examinations, with AIADMK and BJP claiming that it was DMK and Congress who are responsible.On the other hand, AIADMK (which claims to enjoy proximity to the BJP) was questioned by the Madras high court as to why it kept the state and the legislative assembly in the dark for almost two years about the president rejecting two NEET Bills in September 2017, which were passed unanimously in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly.

Notably, such a development was revealed only when the Centre filed an affidavit in response to a PIL petition filed by Tamil Nadu Students Parents Welfare. The affidavit later filed by the Centre with a detailed sequence of events related to the bills revealed that there was no response from the Centre for the 11 letters sent by the state government between 2017 and 2019 seeking reasons for withholding the assent.

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 standardised examinations, with inherent biases to skew the class and caste composition of the selected cohort. Notably, even with the intervention by the government to increase women’s 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 politicised along the lines of state autonomy in decision making and the concerns of the aspirational public, given that decision making by any government in relation to sectors like education is inherently political.

With a clamour for silencing voices against NEET, in the 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, society. Those in power must listen to those on ground, and voices from below should inform policymaking.

Dr Yazhini P.M. is a registered medical practitioner from Government Theni Medical College and is currently based in Chennai. She tweets @yazhini_pm.