The story behind the Tamil Nadu-NEET controversy

Sep 15, 2021 10:23 AM IST

The Tamil Nadu assembly, on Monday, passed a bill to scrap NEET and admit students to undergraduate programmes in medicine on the basis of their performance in their Class 12 examinations — a move that the state government said was in the interests of “social justice”

The Tamil Nadu assembly, on Monday, passed a Bill to scrap the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test (NEET) and admit students to undergraduate programmes in medicine on the basis of their performance in their Class 12 examinations — a move that the state government said was in the interests of “social justice”.

Leader of Opposition in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly Edapaddi K. Palaniswami walks out with AIADMK MLAs sporting black badges over NEET suicides during the Budget Session at Kalaivanar Arangam in Chennai on September 13. (PTI) PREMIUM
Leader of Opposition in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly Edapaddi K. Palaniswami walks out with AIADMK MLAs sporting black badges over NEET suicides during the Budget Session at Kalaivanar Arangam in Chennai on September 13. (PTI)

Why did Tamil Nadu have to pass such a Bill?

While there was no Common Entrance Test (CET) when professional courses were introduced in Tamil Nadu, a government order in May 1984 established CET for medicine, engineering, agriculture, among other disciplines. In 2006, Tamil Nadu appointed a committee to study the impact of CET; it found that the system put socially and economically backward students at a disadvantage and favoured city students who could access private coaching. Based on the report, Tamil Nadu abolished the CET. So for 11 years, between 2006 and 2017, only Class 12 board exam marks were considered for admissions into colleges.

The same argument has been given vis-a-vis NEET — that it was thwarting the dreams of medical aspirants hailing from the marginalised segments of the society. But this is a more complicated position to take since NEET is a centralised exam conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA under the Union ministry of education) across India for admissions into all undergraduate courses in all medical colleges. The Supreme Court, in more than one judgement, has upheld the conduct of NEET even as several states, including Tamil Nadu, opposed it. The court asked all states to follow the NEET route. Until 2017, Tamil Nadu, under various governments, had been exempted from NEET.

Also Read | Another TN student dies by suicide allegedly fearing failure in NEET

But ever since NEET was introduced in 2017, more than a dozen students in Tamil Nadu have died by suicide, including two deaths since Sunday (September 12), when the exam was held. Protests have erupted with families and students particularly from hinterlands calling for banning the exam.

This call has been supported by political parties. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), when in the opposition, promised, in its election manifesto, that the party would abolish NEET. After coming to power in May, DMK constituted a committee headed by retired justice AK Rajan to study the impact of NEET. The committee submitted its report to chief minister MK Stalin on July 14. Another committee of secretaries headed by the chief secretary studied the recommendations in the report, based on which the Bill was introduced and passed.

What does the new Bill say?

The Bill seeks to scrap NEET and replace admissions to undergraduate courses in medicine, dentistry, Indian medicine, and homeopathy based on the qualifying examination, which is Class 12 board exam. This would be done through “normalisation methods” as was done before 2017 to ensure “social justice, uphold equality and equal opportunity, protect all vulnerable student communities from being discriminated and bring them to the mainstream of medical and dental education and in turn to ensure a robust public health care across the state particularly the rural areas.”

The Bill contended that NEET was against the provision of equality enshrined in the constitution, and, instead, festered inequality by favouring the rich and privileged who could afford coaching. It also pointed out that the affluent students do not serve in rural areas and often pursue post-graduation in other countries.

Also Read | NEET 2021 exam over: What’s next?

The Bill also dismissed the proponents of NEET who argue that the exam ensures only meritorious students can study medicine. “The standard of medical education is maintained during the UG course by following syllabus prescribed by the National Medical Commission and through exams conducted by the university before awarding the degree,” the Bill states. “Students who are not able to pass the university exams are not awarded degrees. Therefore, it is not during the admission stage that the standard of medical education is maintained.”

What does the AK Rajan committee’s report say?

The report has not been made public, with only a few bureaucrats, politicians and DMK’s legal advisors understood to have access to it. However, the Bill refers to portions from the report that had concluded that if NEET continued, the healthcare system in Tamil Nadu would be affected “very badly” and there may not be enough doctors posted in primary health centres and government hospitals.

The committee also said that rural and urban poor students may not be able to join medical courses as NEET was not an equitable method for admissions; it claimed the system has affected government school students, particularly those whose family income is less than 2.5 lakh a year and socially backwards communities. It recommended NEET be eliminated.

Can Tamil Nadu succeed in banning NEET?

This Bill can come into effect only with the assent of the President. The procedure for the union government’s consent and the President’s nod is required since the state doesn’t have the sole powers to exempt itself from NEET, which is a parliamentary legislation.

The previous All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)-led government had failed in this endeavour despite passing two Bills in the assembly in 2017 — one each for undergraduate and postgraduate medical courses. But the President returned the Bill — in other words, he didn’t give his assent. The DMK had then criticised the AIADMK for not pressuring its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre in favour of the ban.

The Indian Medical Council (Amendment) Bill, 2016 — now an Act — inserted a new section 10D in the Act for conduct of uniform entrance examination to all medical educational institutions at the undergraduate level and post-graduate level. But, in the Bill, the DMK makes a case that admissions to medical education courses are traceable to entry 25 in List 3 (concurrent list) of the Constitution, and so the state is competent to regulate the same against underprivileged social groups. DMK leaders quote past instances such as J Jayalalithaa initiating the process to scrap the CET in 2005, and it being abolished with the President’s assent in 2006 under M Karunanidhi’s regime. And most recently, in January 2017, Tamil Nadu got the President’s assent to allow Jallikattu (bull taming sport) as a traditional and cultural factor by amending the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, though the use of animals for performances has been banned in other states.

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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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