Whenever two of India’s crucial entrance examinations to professional courses ~ National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) ~ are held, they always make a lot of noise and news. This year too, it was no different but for a different reason ~ whether to hold the exams or not. Thanks to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has turned the entire world upside down, students too have been impacted. This year, for the first time, many students are reluctant to appear in these most coveted exams, citing the situation brought on by the pandemic. In fact, they filed a petition in the Supreme Court to postpone the examinations, but the court dismissed it. Now, the students have no option but to appear in the entrance examinations. The government, going by the court’s orders, is all set to organise the exams. However, the students have been joined by Opposition parties, making it a political issue.
How it all started
NEET and JEE are annual competitive entrance tests for medical and engineering colleges respectively, and every year millions of students appear for it. Usually, they take place in the month of April, just after the Board exam. This year they are supposed to be held on 7-11 April. Due to Covid crisis, the exams were deferred to 18-23 July. As the situation is far from improving, the government decided to organise it in September. However, this did not go down well with the students and they filed a petition in the Supreme Court, appealing to defer the exams until the situation improved.
But the court rubbished the students’ plea, citing that life must go on and students can’t lose a precious year due to the pandemic. The apex court also dismissed a plea by Sayantan Biswas and others, seeking a directive to National Testing Agency (NTA), which conducts both the NEET and JEE exams, to postpone them, after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta assured that all safeguards would be taken.
Following the court’s order, students started a series of protests online, highlighting various reasons like growing Covid-19 cases and problems of transport due to lockdown. Also, many of them asserted that several eastern Indian states are still facing floods, which makes the situation more grim. It would be an uphill task for the candidates to reach the examination centres, they pointed out. At the same time, there are huge travel restrictions in many states. A few students appeared on the television, highlighting their plight, wondering what if a student were to be quarantined or contracted the Corona virus. For them, the year would be wasted.
The students’ pleas were unable to move the government or education experts. Getting the green signal from the Supreme Court, the government is now determined to organise the exams. In fact, it has come up with safety guidelines and asked the students to trust the system.
What is this exam?
The exams are held every year and this time around 2.5 million students are expected to take the tests. They are now scheduled to take place in the first two weeks of September across India. These exams are said to be the toughest in the country and the high scorers set their eyes on the
top and coveted engineering and medical colleges of the country. After clearing the entrance tests, the students seek admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the best Indian engineering colleges and the best medical colleges of India.
As per the NTA, approximately 9.53 lakh and 15.97 lakh students have been registered for JEE (Main) and NEET (UG) 2020 respectively. JEE Mains is slated to be conducted at over 660 exam centres, with roughly 1,443 students per centre. Similarly for NEET UG, 15.97 lakh students will appear in 3,843 centres across the country, with nearly 415 students per exam centre.
What was the political stake?
Once the court struck down the students’ plea, it became a hot political issue. These political parties, mainly the Opposition, want to defer the exam at any cost. Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi urged the government to listen to the voices of students and act according to their wishes.
It has become such a political issue that six opposition-ruled states approached the Supreme Court on 28 August, seeking review of its order permitting the Centre to conduct NEET and JEE entrance exams. The review plea has been filed by ministers from West Bengal (Moloy Ghatak), Jharkhand (Rameshwar Oraon), Rajasthan (Raghu Sharma), Chhattisgarh (Amarjeet Bhagat), Punjab (B S Sidhu) and Maharashtra (Uday Ravindra Sawant). They said the decision to conduct the exams was irrational. The mere fact that lakhs of students have registered for the exam is not indicative of their consent or their willingness or their desire to attend physical exams.
The ministers complained that such a large movement of people will ipso facto prove to be a serious health hazard and will totally defeat the twin present-day solutions to combat the Covid-19 pandemic ~ social distancing and avoidance of large public gatherings. A few student wings are organising protests and fast. However, the Centre is in no mood to listen, citing court orders. The Union education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” said he welcomed the Court’s decision. “I heartily welcome the decision taken by the Supreme Court with respect to the final year exams. Let’s keep politics away from education and educate our politics,” Pokhirayal said.
What experts say
As restrictions are being lifted gradually and life is returning to normalcy, people are expecting to normalise the education institutions. Many states in Europe are also mulling to reopen schools and colleges. Therefore, the majority of education experts are in favour of organising the tests, especially after it was postponed twice. They claimed that a further deferment of these exams would only lead to more anxiety and uncertainty in students. “Students spend more than a year preparing for these exams and are eager to appear in them.
Any further delay in conducting these exams will lead to loss of one complete academic year for the students. It can upset their future plans and employment opportunities,” Prof V Ramgopal Rao, Director, IIT Delhi told one of the news portals. He also asked the students to trust the system.
However, Prof Dinesh Singh, ex vice-Chancellor, Delhi University, is not in favour of holding the exams. He said if they were not conducted this year, the earth won’t fall. Another expert said if the examinations were postponed, IITs, IIMs and other institutes do not have the capacity to accommodate double the number of students next year. A few also pointed out that leaving an entire batch of medical seats vacant will be unfair because next year, the intake capacity of medical institutes will remain the same but the applicants will double in number, which will lead to more chaos. Not only this, over 150 academicians from various universities in India and abroad have reportedly written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to delay the exam.
In a bid to organise the exams, the NTA has announced very detailed standard operating protocols to be followed. Chief secretaries of all states and administrators of UTs have been instructed to make arrangements for the movement of candidates, their escorts and exam personnel without any hindrance.
Health secretaries have been instructed to ensure implementation of Covid-19 guidelines at the exam centres. District collectors and top police officials have been asked to maintain law and order as well as ensure crowd management. NTA has also arranged 10 lakh masks, 10 lakh pairs of gloves, 1,300 infrared thermometre guns, 6,600 litres of hand sanitiser and an equal amount of disinfectant liquid, 6,600 sponges and 3,300 spray bottles. Some 3,300 cleaning staff are also ready.