“We have lost the perception battle over NEET,” concedes a senior Tamil Nadu government official to me.
People think that by opposing NEET, we are pushing for lower level of education standards, which will result in poor quality doctors. But it is not true.Senior Tamil Nadu government official
In light of 17-year-old Anitha’s suicide, allegedly over not being able to crack the national eligibility test for MBBS admissions, NEET has once again come under scrutiny.
The ball was set rolling by the Supreme Court, which during the hearing on NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) said there “cannot be any compromise on intellect”.
And indeed, in much of the public discourse that has followed Anitha's suicide in Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu on Friday, it has been suggested that she was not good enough to crack NEET where she scored 86 out of 720.
The implication is that why is the country so agitated over the death, however tragic, of an academically weak student just because she was traumatised about not realising her dream of becoming a doctor.
New Admission Test
17-year-old Anitha, the daughter of a daily wage labourer, killed herself on Friday, agonised at how her dream to study medicine had gone up in smoke after the Supreme Court ruled on 23 August that NEET will be the sole criteria for admission to medical colleges.
To those who question Anitha's academic credentials, you point out her class 12 exam marks where she scored 1176 out of 1200. She had scored 200/200 in both Physics and Maths and 199 in Chemistry and 194 in Biology.
Like many, Anitha was led to believe it will all get sorted when the Tamil Nadu government passed a bill in the Assembly to exempt aspirants in the state from appearing in NEET.
Even senior BJP leaders, like Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, said the Centre would support the state’s position on a one year exemption. But inside the Supreme Court, the Centre bowled a googly, arguing one state cannot be exempted.
Problem with State Board’s Syllabus
“I wrote the NEET exam thinking it cannot be very different from my class 12 syllabus, but I found it extremely difficult and did not score well,” said Anitha in an interview to a TV channel outside the Supreme Court. Imagine hockey wizard, late Dhyan Chand, being told that he is a poor player just because he may not have been as scintillating on astroturf as he was on natural grass.
Since 2005, Tamil Nadu has taken class 12th performance as the qualifying marks for admission to medical colleges, making sure students are not subjected to entrance exams.
Four years later, Samacchir Kalvi (Tamil Nadu’s Uniform and Equitable Education System) syllabus was designed to ensure that students in rural Tamil Nadu are also able to score well in the exams and realise their dream of joining a medical college.
Today, the urban chorus on social media after Anitha’s death blames the quality of this syllabus for keeping the bar low, resulting in their inability to crack NEET.
Those batting against NEET say just because the new system follows a multiple choice question-answer pattern, it does not make it better. Over the years, students in Tamil Nadu have worked out a formulaic way of doing well in class 12 exams, knowing it would get them a ticket to a medical college.
But if one fine day, the 12th standard education in the state is being labelled as a poor cousin to CBSE, the fault lies with the education department. If anyone should be hanged, it should be the government and not students like Anitha.
How NEET Exacerbates Class Divide?
Since NEET seems to have a bias for the CBSE syllabus, it means all these students have to necessarily enrol themselves in corporate coaching centres to crack NEET – something many like Anitha cannot afford.
In that sense, NEET strikes at the heart of social equity. You would end up having more students from urban centres getting through, creating a skewed demographic profile of medical practitioners. Which is why Tamil Nadu government officials say the Constitution of India has failed to protect the interests of the poor by creating a system where they cannot compete effectively.
The enrolment of students in medical colleges from rural areas went up from 50 per cent to 63 per cent since 2005, when the system to use 12th standard marks was introduced. This is being held as proof that implementing NEET was not required as the old system was working.
Moreover, shouldn’t the focus be on improving teaching standards at medical colleges so that a uniformly high quality pool of doctors is built, irrespective of whether the college is in Ranchi or Coimbatore, instead of doing so at the admission stage.
Flawed Policy Failed Anitha
But those batting for one nation, one NEET, say its aim is to reduce the mental and financial burden on medical aspirants who have to otherwise appear in a number of entrance exams across India. It also intends to prevent malpractices of donations, profiteering and capitation fee.
The establishment in Chennai, however, failed to recognise the angst among students and parents and in giving counsel to the youth.
In contrast, under the present system, at least in Tamil Nadu, you have a high percentage of medical caregivers from the villages, showing the empathy and the interest to serve in primary health centres back in their own hometowns.
Anitha's death is being used by opposition parties to put pressure on the government. But beyond the politics, her passing away is a reflection on how distanced policy makers are from the realities on ground. This is why rules are framed by thinking of India as an utopia, without caring for the infirmities on ground.
Anitha has slept forever, it is time India should wake up.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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