Why Is Tamil Nadu Against NEET?

NEET has touched a raw nerve in Tamil Nadu. You may support or oppose this test. Chances are, you may be wrong.

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Explainers
9 min read
NEET or not, the study of medicine for students in Tamil Nadu is going to be arduous and unpredictable.
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Tamil Nadu has had a history of strong objection to medical admissions on the basis of NEET marks, but this year, it seems to have overcome that by bettering its last performance. The pass percentage this year is 48.57 percent as against 39.56 percent in 2018.

However, the suicides of two students have rattled the state.

Rithu Shree from Viliyankadu in Tirupur district and Vaishya from Pattukottai district had scored above 90 percent marks in the 12 standard board examinations. But both of them couldn’t clear the entrance test. Feeling dejected, they decided to end their lives.

The National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) once again continues to be a highly emotive issue in Tamil Nadu. There are three major issues of contention surrounding NEET:

  • Suicides
  • Reservation (and Caste)
  • Eligibility

The Beginning: A Sensationalised Suicide

It’s easy to ignore a suicide, even in a state like Tamil Nadu that records over 24% of suicides.

Everyone seems to have their fair share of family problems. (4,842 family issues-related suicides in 2014).

Everyone faces rejections in relationships. (512 ‘love failure’ suicides)

Everyone has their own exams to write. (238 exam/academics-related)

Despite the lack of counselling, awareness, intention, or helplines like Sneha, the suicides this year and that of 17-year-old medical aspirant Anitha in 2018 shook Tamil Nadu. It became a rallying cry for anti-NEET voices.

For an individual case of suicide to receive such media attention, when hundreds of students in the state commit suicide over their education each year, is dangerous.

‘Copycat’ Suicides

Chennai is already famous for suicides of a different category; ideology/hero worship.

When a suicide is sensationalised, it is ‘copied’. More than 26 youngsters jumped off the Kotturpuram bridge before it was barricaded a few years ago. The bridge features heavily in cinema and popular culture, for the selfsame morbid reason.

In 1964, at the height of the anti-Hindi agitations, 27-year-old Muthukumar doused himself in kerosene and threatened to immolate himself. It was another protester who lit the match. But Muthukumar became a martyr. Five more youngsters immolated themselves that year. And the idea of suicide as a political tool was born.

Even back in 2018, the reasons for Anitha’s suicide were personal – to do with her dreams, her sorrow. But her death was being used, and abused, to rally against NEET. The same story repeats this year as well.

The Media Wave

Social media has erupted in emotive rants, condemning NEET, and seeking justice for these students.

Rithu and Vaishya are martyrs. There must be no more such cases. NEET must be scrapped.

Politicians, especially the Opposition, have been strongly condemning the Modi government for imposing NEET. They have accused the AIADMK government for not doing enough to get an exemption for Tamil Nadu.

The Protests

Are the protests legal? The protesters are, after all, refusing to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s order. Lawmakers and the police in TN would have the people believe that they are on the wrong side of the law. The Supreme Court, after all, has made it clear, in directing an interim measure:

It shall be the obligation of the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu...and the Principal Secretary, Ministry of Home, Government of Tamil Nadu…to ensure that law and order is maintained throughout the State...anyone involved in any kind of ‘bandh’ or activity that disrupts the normal life and detrimentally affects law and order in the State of Tamil Nadu, shall be booked under the appropriate law.
Supreme Court Directive
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The latter part of the directive is usually conveniently subdued;

We may clearly state here that a peaceful protest or criticism or dissent is different than creation of a law and order situation. Every citizen of this country has a fundamental right to peacefully protest and demonstrate, but not to cause a situation that results in violence and paralyzes the law and order situation.
Supreme Court Directive

No Place for Protest

Tamil Nadu in general and Chennai in particular does not have a designated space for protest. Even open, public spaces, such as the Marina beach are now manned round the clock by policemen.

A portion of the police force that lathi-charged Jallikattu protesters, driving and scattering them out of the marina in January this year, has pitched camp along the beach. It is now next to impossible to gather, even in silent protest, on the shores. In effect, there are no democratic spaces for peaceful protest in Chennai.

Come election season, most streets across the city would be blocked by make-shift stages, blue plastic chairs and blaring speakers. From now up to November, Dussera pandals too will blare music through the night, block the roads; all this with no police intervention.

The irony is not lost on Chennai’s wannabe peaceful protester.

Contrary to the belief of NEET supporters, the introduction of a common entrance test will do little to reduce the stress of ‘making it’ among the students.

No Reservations?

This is the largest elephant in the room.

Whether NEET is implemented or scrapped, the current system of reservations in education in Tamil Nadu will see no change.

NEET has nothing to do with reservations for SC/ST, OBC and the quotas. NEET or not, the 69% reservation and 31% merit block remains the same, and 85% of medical seats will go to the state board syllabus by law.

Consider the 2017-18 session of MBBS in Tamil Nadu.

According to the tentative list, as on 23 August, there are 2,652 available seats.

As per the Provisional Merit List of candidates (MBBS/BDS), 93.3% may be classified as backward.

6.7% belongs to the OC (open category).

The open category in Tamil Nadu is only 6.7%.
The open category in Tamil Nadu is only 6.7%.
(Photo Courtesy: Reality Check India)

Tamil Nadu’s Caste Divide

Caste exists. It is an integral part of almost all government processes, as well as in education. By this, I don’t mean the government’s reservation policy, but the stigma and stress that ensues in daily functioning on the basis of caste. Its grip on culture in Tamil Nadu runs deep, and is interwoven with politics at every level. Here’s director Pa Ranjith’s (Rajinikanth’s Kabali) outburst at a meeting for Anitha, where he challenges another director Ameer to show him one village that doesn’t have a separate space for dalits.

The DMK’s hatred towards all things Brahmin is also added to the general perception of caste. This has resulted in a major issue with respect to reservations in education.

The Opaque BC Category

In Tamil Nadu, the main categories for reservation schemes are Backward Caste (BC), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST). The BC category is split into Most Backward Caste (MBC) and Backward Caste Muslim (BCM). Scheduled Castes has a sub category; Scheduled Caste Arundhathiyar (SCA).

The Backward Castes category is actually a cluster, which included numerous castes within itself. In the Janardhanan Committee report (2009) that sought to provide reservation to the Arundhathiyars, a sub section of the Scheduled Castes, details on the breakup of the Backward Castes is missing.

This, therefore, makes it difficult to differentiate those truly suffering economic and social disability from those who are not.

This status quo will remain unchanged, even if NEET is introduced. There will be no additional seats available to the 4.5% forward caste admissions.
According to the RTI, not a single CBSE student has been admitted to MBBS seats between 2013-15.
According to the RTI, not a single CBSE student has been admitted to MBBS seats between 2013-15.
(Photo Courtesy: Just Get MBBS)

State Board vs CBSE

It is common knowledge that a majority of students seeking to become engineers or doctors switch to the State board from CBSE in their 11th and 12th.

The reason being, State Boards across the country are liberal in their marking/grading system. Thanks to the practice of ‘normalisation’, and - in some minority colleges like St Stephens - the practice of considering State Board marks on par with the scores of CBSE and other board exams, students have a wider opportunity.

But, because the Sate board exams are comparatively easier to score, the centums (100%) and the top marks tend to bunch up. For example:

Snapshot

In TN Board Accountancy exam, 2016...

4,342 students scored 100%
2,833 scored 99.5%
2501 scored 99.0%
More than 10,000 scored above 99%
15,000 scored above 98%
22,000 scored over 97%

A number of schools, colleges and institutes in Namakkal and Erode produce more than 200 - 300 students who have scored 100% (in all subjects) every year in the State Board examinations.

TN Board Goes to DU

In July 2016, over 80% of the seats in Shri Ram College of Commerce, affiliated to Delhi University, were filled by TN State Board students. Of the 110 seats, 40 seats were from a single school in Erode, Coimbatore.

How did this happen?

Delhi University accepts students from any board, on the basis of marks they have obtained in their respective boards. Since the TN State board is much more liberal than CBSE, or the DU board, at 98% a student from Tamil Nadu stands a better chance at getting a seat at SRCC than a Delhi CBSE student who has scored 97%. The school in Erode (Bharathi Vidhya Bhavan) took advantage of this before the rest of the country found out.

The Problem with NEET and Autonomy

NEET is an ‘eligibility’ and ‘entrance’ test. In effect, it is the only test that a medical aspirant is supposed to take, before stepping into medical college. What this means, is that even premiere institutions such as AIIMS have foregone their autonomy; it cannot conduct its own entrance tests anymore. Minority colleges are exempt. We’ll get there.

Why is This a Problem?

Student’s Viewpoint:

In a sense, the existence of multiple, recognised entrance tests provided students with fail safes. If they did’t do well in the boards, they’d try another competitive exam, and another, until something would click. Early in 2013, when NEET was to be introduced, there was talk of an either/or system, where either 12th boards, or the NEET results would be considered for eligibility into different colleges. Now, it’s NEET or never.

Institution’s Viewpoint: Minority vs Non-Minority

Minority institutions are allowed to conduct an internal exam, to further filter the candidates. This is not the case with non-minority institutions. On what basis the non-minority colleges will allot seats, is now unclear.

Is NEET a Difficult Test?

Yes. Even for students who have studied in the CBSE syllabus, attempting NEET is no mean feat. It takes sustained training and practise.

Anitha scored 1,176 in her 12th board examinations. Yet, she couldn’t qualify for NEET. She scored 86 on 720 when she sat the NEET. The qualifying mark would have been 106.

In fact, many CBSE schools across Chennai, Madurai, Erode and other cities in Tamil Nadu begin training their students for NEET from 11th standard.

The downside is that in areas like Namakkal, with edu-factories (coaching centres) for NEET training, the syllabus for 11th is often given a miss, and the students are conditioned for the NEET exam alone. As a result, many who do get through NEET aren’t really equipped to deal with MBBS, since the first semester essentially revisits all of the concepts that they were supposed to learn in their 11th.

However, there is a very real possibility of the NEET exams being simplified or altered, to suit students from all boards, and allow them to score high. If this happens, and the lack of autonomy continues, it could further worsen the situation.

An Alternative Viewpoint

Opportunities, quality of education and assessments in the medical profession cannot be considered from the viewpoint of a career alone. It demands a higher level of skill, higher threshold for physical and mental stress, and the onus of saving lives. It is therefore, logical that the bar is raised constantly, to create medical professionals comparable to the best in the world.

So far as syllabi or boards are concerned, the subject matter is the same (with minor differences) across the board. Where CBSE differs from State board, is that the former is application oriented, while the later eschews learning by rote. Choosing an application-oriented approach is probably a better idea than a solid grasp of the theory alone.

But as a YouTuber from Smile Settai mentions, ‘you are worried that unqualified people become doctors. I am worried that someone who is competent enough to be a doctor, doesn’t get to be one.'

Less than 2% of students from government schools study medicine in Tamil Nadu. Anitha was among this rare group.
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