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Why SC Judgment on 2022 NEET-PG Exam May Lead to an Uncertain Future for Young Doctors

While the Indian government attempts to reverse the effects of the pandemic on its medical education pipeline, one batch of students will bear the brunt.

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New Delhi: On May 13, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition to delay the National Eligibility Entrance Test Postgraduate (NEET-PG) examination for 2022. The verdict is unfavourable to the demands of various doctors’ associations, which had moved the court after the Union health ministry refused to heed their demands.

The exam is currently scheduled on May 21. The petitioners wanted it to be postponed for two months.

The bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant said postponing the exam would lead to fewer resident doctors being released into hospitals, LiveLaw reported. Doctors need to write and qualify the NEET-PG exam to begin their postgraduate studies; at the end of these studies, they serve as residents at hospitals. At the heights of India’s COVID-19 crisis, these young doctors were instrumental in treating patients.

Instead, the court’s view is favourable to the Union government, which had made the case that a shortage of resident doctors would affect patient care.

“As the country gets back on the rails after the disruptions caused due to the pandemic, the time schedule must be adhered to,” the bench wrote.

Dr Rohan Krishnan, president of the Federation of All India Medical Associations (FAIMA), told The Wire Science, “We respect the decision of the court but we are very disappointed. Our central council meeting will take place today to decide the further course of action.”

He added that counselling for students who passed NEET-PG 2021 is currently underway and that they would enter colleges in a month. “If the 2022 exam takes place as per its scheduled date, on May 21, another batch of PG students will enter the medical colleges the same year,” he explained. “Are our colleges capable of handling two batches at the same time?”

Also read: Why India’s NEET Stands Exposed When Compared to College Admissions Abroad

Demands and chronology

The NEET-PG examination is usually held in January every year. The National Board of Examinations (NBE), under the Union health ministry, conducts it. The NBE had initially scheduled the 2022 examination for March 12, 2022. But then the government realised that counselling for the previous year’s batch – i.e. students who entered through NEET-PG 2021 – wouldn’t have been finished by this time.

So B. Srinivas, the assistant director-general in the Directorate General of Health Services, wrote to the NBE on February 3, 2022, asking that the exam be delayed by “6-8 weeks or suitably”. The Wire Science has seen a copy of his letter. As a result, the exam was pushed to May 21, 2022. (The directorate functions under the Union health ministry.)

“The idea of the government was that the counselling for the 2021 examination would be over by May 3,” Dr Krishnan said. But that didn’t happen.

The counselling for students who pass the NEET-PG exam is conducted jointly by the Union and state governments. Half of all postgraduate medical education seats in state government colleges and all seats in centrally funded colleges come under the all-India quota. The national medical counselling committee counsels students for this quota. For the rest – which is 50% of state government institute seats – the state governments organise their own counselling rounds.

There are broadly two reasons why the doctors’ associations have sought to delay the 2022 NEET-PG exam. First, the applicants were uncertain about whether they would get a seat through the 2021 exam or if they would have to reappear for the 2022 exam. This is a product of the counselling process for the 2021 exam still being underway.

Their stress on this matter was made worse by the amount of time they got to prepare for the 2022 exam. This is the second reason.

“Even if the counselling would have actually finished by May 3,” – which didn’t happen – “and they had to prepare for the 2022 exam, they would have got just 18 days to study, from May 3 to May 21,” Dr Amarinder S. Malhi, chairman of the United Doctors’ Front Association (UDFA), said.

Also read: India’s Doctors Are Still Facing Violence. So Where Are the Laws to Protect Them?

Internships

This said, there is yet another bone of contention: internships. Every medical student who completes their MBBS training must do a 12-month internship – only after which can they get their MBBS certificate. The internship is also a prerequisite to appear for the NEET-PG exam.

The internship typically begins after the final last-year exams are done. But due to the COVID-19 epidemic in India and its associated disruptions, the final exams were delayed – so the internships were delayed as well.

The NBE has said that those MBBS passouts who will be completing their internships by July 31, 2022, will be eligible to appear for the 2022 NEET-PG exam, currently slated for May 21. This is effectively the revised cut-off date for internships – pushed from March 31, 2022, following a representation by the UDFA in February.

However, in a letter written to Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya on May 2, 2022, the UDFA said the relief was only partial. Some 5,000 interns from Bihar, Kerala, Jharkhand and Jammu & Kashmir will remain ineligible for the 2022 exam because they will only be able to complete their internships by August-September, according to the UDFA letter.

This matter together with the needs of other doctors’ associations have precipitated the ultimate demand – to push the internship completion cut-off date to September 2022.

“This delay [in completing internship] did not happen due to any fault of the applicants,” Dr Malhi said. “It took place because the state governments did not conduct MBBS final examinations in time – due to COVID or whatever reason.”

Several MPs raised the same point and have written to Mandaviya (see list below). They have asked him to extend the cut-off date as well as delay NEET-PG 2022 exam.

List of MPs who have written letters:

  • Tejaswi Surya (Bengaluru South),
  • S. Venkatesan (Madurai),
  • Karti Chidambaram (Sivaganga),
  • Hibi Eden (Ernakulam),
  • Pritam Goipanth Munde-Khade (Beed), and
  • Jebi Mather (Kerala).

The Wire Science has copies of all of their letters, written in April.

After the Supreme Court’s verdict on May 13, Dr Krishnan of FAIMA said, “We will approach the government again to let the applicants have some room at least on this issue, because that will not hamper any pre-planned timelines.”

FAIMA, UDFA, other similar organisations and even the exam applicants have been shooting off letters since February this year to everyone from the president to department secretaries. They also protested at Jantar Mantar earlier this month and have been raising the issue at every available opportunity on social media platforms.

This said, Dr Krishnan added that he was not opposed to the government’s attempts to restore the exam and counselling timelines to the way they were before the pandemic. Instead, he said, the government ought to do without any batches having to suffer for it.

“Last year the government conducted this exam in September. This year you do in July. Next year, maybe in May. And gradually back to January,” Dr Krishnan suggested.

This is the second time in less than a year that the apex court has had to intervene on a matter related to the NEET-PG. In January 2022, the court had to green-light counselling for the 2021 NEET-PG exam after massive protests by doctors against the government.

This time, however, the court has turned the other way. “While the case was scheduled to be heard, our engagement with the government continued through various channels,” Dr Malhi said after the court’s verdict. “We are still talking to it and awaiting results of the representation by a key students’ body.”

There are only eight days to go for the exam – and only time will tell if the last-ditch efforts by the doctors’ association to negotiate with the government will bear fruit.