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Politics barrier to medical entrance

delhi Updated: Jan 07, 2011 02:45 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Charu Sudan Kasturi
Hindustan Times
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Shuffling between the Supreme Court and his work at New Delhi's Safdarjung hospital, Saurabh Jain says he is learning firsthand how political pressure can shackle the government from implementing policies which it itself believes in.

Jain and thousands of MBBS graduates keen to pursue their MD have over the past several months have repeatedly petitioned the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the health ministry for a single medical entrance test.

But despite convincing the MCI and the union health secretary, and even after the Supreme Court's sanction, they find themselves no closer to a common test.

"It is so blatant... all that matters is politics," Jain said, desperately looking for updates on the government's plans for medical entrance examinations.

India currently has more than 50 entrance examinations for MBBS courses, spread over institutions and states across the country. Dozens of tests also dot the examination calendar every year for postgraduate (PG) medical programmes.

But students like Jain and other proponents of a common test are not opposed to multiple examinations only because of the strain they place on students.

The bigger problem with holding multiple tests is that they cause seats to remain empty, often done deliberately by institutions, which then admit students through the back door, a veteran doctor on the reconstituted board of the MCI told HT .

"Individual institutions don't just make money by holding their own examinations but also by allowing seats to go waste, and then charging capitation fees to fill these seats. It's a racket, and that's why we want to stop the practice," the MCI board member said.

Even public institutions - like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences - are allowing up to 30 per cent of their precious seats to go waste every year because of multiple entrance tests.

AIIMS has itself admitted before the Supreme Court that dozens of students who obtain relatively "undesirable" PG streams through the institute examination nevertheless take up seats, earning government stipend and using the institute hostel while preparing for other examinations.

If they get the stream of their choice through any of the other examinations spread through the year, they quit AIIMS - wasting the seats they took up at the premier medical school.

The MCI, first in 2009 and then July 2010, after its board was reconstituted, proposed amendments to the country's health education regulations to allow a common entrance test at undergraduate (UG) and PG levels.

Internal documents of the health ministry, accessed through the Right to Information Act, show that on August 10, 2010, health secretary Sujatha Rao even wrote to health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad pushing vigorously for the common tests despite likely opposition.

"The common entrance examination will have the immediate advantage of reducing substantial amount of stress and expenditure that students of middle class families undergo year after year… This would also ensure that all seats across the country are filled on merit which would have a bearing on the quality of persons qualifying as doctors," Rao said in her note.

Rao told Azad that apart from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala - which she said had the highest number of private medical colleges - all states had accepted the common test proposal.

"In all likelihood, there will be some amount of opposition to this very major and long-felt reform from the private medical colleges, who are minting money and have made medical education a lucrative business," the note said.

Rao alerted Azad that there might be litigation, but sought the minister's approval saying "this would be a historic decision".

What is stopping the common tests then?

The answer, government sources say, lies in the strong opposition from select states, in particular Tamil Nadu (ruled by the UPA), where both the DMK and the Opposition AIADMK are vocally against a common test.

Both the parties are arguing that a common national test would hurt the interests of poor and backward community students who have no access to expensive coaching classes.

But this argument is specious since each state can continue to implement quotas as at present even with a common test, the MCI board member said.

The Congress-led government appears unwilling to upset its ally ahead of the Tamil Nadu elections. The health ministry on January 4 ordered the MCI to withdraw a notification for common tests issued on November 21.

Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, personally keen on common tests, also assured everyone that no common tests would be held without the consent of state governments.

But the MCI board appears equally determined not to give up its proposal for common tests easily, and will push for its plan at a meeting with state ministers called later this month.

Students across the country will watch that meeting to see what triumphs - politics or education.

Working out the proposal