Congress Interim President Sonia Gandhi chairs a virtual meeting with Chief Ministers of 7 states to discuss various issues, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Aug 26, 2020.
Congress Interim President Sonia Gandhi chairs a virtual meeting with Chief Ministers of 7 states to discuss various issues, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Aug 26, 2020.

Opposition CMs join hands against holding NEET, JEE

Amid a growing chorus for postponing the JEE and NEET in view of the pandemic, the Centre has maintained that the tests will be conducted in September as scheduled. While JEE Main is scheduled from September 1-6, NEET is planned on September 13.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Aurangzeb Naqshbandi and Amandeep Shukla
UPDATED ON AUG 27, 2020 08:37 AM IST

Chief ministers of several Opposition-ruled states on Wednesday decided to challenge the Centre over concerns of their rights being undermined, even as demands surfaced at a virtual meet that they collectively move the Supreme Court against the Union government’s plan to hold the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges and Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering colleges in September.

At the virtual meeting called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to discuss the issues of NEET and JEE, and Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation in the midst of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, chief ministers of West Bengal (Mamata Banerjee), Maharashtra (Uddhav Thackeray), Jharkhand (Hemant Soren), Punjab (Captain Amarinder Singh), Rajasthan (Ashok Gehlot), Chhattisgarh (Bhupesh Baghel) and Puducherry (V Narayanasamy) stressed the need to protect federalism, saying that all powers were now concentrated in just one place.

“Problems of students and examinations are being dealt with very uncaringly,” the Congress chief said at the meeting. The West Bengal chief minister urged all CMs to together move the Supreme Court for postponing the NEET and JEE as she said students were not prepared to take the tests.

Separately, Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia reiterated his demand that the exams be postponed and the central government work on alternative methods for selecting students. “They (Centre) are saying protocols will be followed. Following the same protocols that the Centre wants 28 lakh students to follow, lakhs of Indians have tested positive,” he said.

The Congress did not invite the chief ministers of Odisha (Naveen Patnaik), Delhi (Arvind Kejriwal), Andhra Pradesh (YS Jaganmohan Reddy) and Telangana (K Chandrashekhar Rao).

Amid a growing chorus for postponing the JEE and NEET in view of the pandemic, the Centre has maintained that the tests will be conducted in September as scheduled. While JEE Main is scheduled from September 1-6, NEET is planned on September 13. The Supreme Court last week dismissed a plea seeking postponement of the two exams, saying a “precious academic year of students cannot be wasted and life has to go on”.

There have been demands by students and parents’ bodies to postpone the entrance exams in view of the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the country. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said NEET and JEE aspirants were worried about their health and future.

Even as pressure piled on the Centre over the plan to go ahead with the exams, the Union education ministry and the National Testing Agency (NTA) continued working towards what would be the biggest entrance tests to be conducted during the pandemic, which has infected 3,305,177 people across India.

More than 400,000 students downloaded the admit cards for the NEET exam from the NTA portal within three hours after the agency began to issue them on Wednesday. The figure rose to 515,000 in four hours. At least 950,000 students are expected to take the JEE (Main) at 660 centres from September 1 to 6, while nearly 1.6 million NEET candidates are likely to appear for the test at 3,842 centres on September 13.

“I have always reiterated that safety first and then exams. But conducting these exams any time later might lead to a situation where the entire year could be lost, therefore conducting these exams in now with due precautions is a middle path,” education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ told HT in an interview.

The minister said that there was a “silent majority” of students and parents who wanted the exams to be held as scheduled. “The parents and students say that they are under stress and preparing for exams for the last two to three years and that they don’t want a zero academic year.”

According to a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the education ministry is keen that the exams are held because it will help keep the academic year on track and not keep students in “perpetual uncertainty”. The official said there was no alternative to these exams. NTA has emphasised that it will hold the exams safely and a detailed protocol has been put in place to ensure the safety of students. Experts say NTA needs support from states to conduct the exams successfully in terms of logistics.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Thackeray said the Opposition-ruled states have to first decide whether they want to “fight or fear” the Narendra Modi-led government. “Opposition-ruled states should speak louder as the Centre is trying to suppress our voices. But we are together, we will be together and we will fight together,” he said.

Thackeray received support from Banerjee, who said the situation was “very serious” and the Opposition-ruled states should launch a united fight against the Centre.

Gandhi ageed with Thackeray and Banerjee. “We have to work together and fight together,” she said.

Soren alleged that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was using law enforcement agencies against the Opposition and undermining the federal structure.

Earlier, in her introductory remarks, Gandhi said the Centre’s refusal to pay GST compensation to states is “nothing short of betrayal”.

“GST compensation being paid to states on time, according to the laws passed by Parliament, is crucial and I know this is not happening. Dues have accumulated. The finances of all states have been affected badly,” she added.

Banerjee alleged that states were being “bulldozed” by the Centre, which was not giving money to them. “The situation today is dangerous. We cannot speak freely. From Facebook to everywhere, there is fake and distorted news to destroy the Opposition,” she said.

Banerjee said she had raised her concerns about the NEET and JEE exams with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The exams are in September. Why should the lives of students be put at risk? We have written to the Prime Minister, but there has been no response. If the Prime Minister does not listen to us, then we all collectively should approach the Supreme Court,” she said.

Thackeray said the time had come to revisit the GST model and see if it was helping or not. “The old tax collection model was good? If there are lacunas in the GST, those need to be addressed so that states don’t suffer,” he said.

The Punjab chief minister said the Covid-19 situation was getting worse and his state could face a deficit of ~25,000 crore this year due to the pandemic.

“I agree with Mamata ji that we should collectively meet the Prime Minister and apprise him of the revenue situation. And all of us should go to the Supreme Court on the issue of NEET and JEE exams,” he added.

IIT Delhi director V Ramgopal Rao said in a social media post that he was in favour of conducting the examinations by taking all precautions and following social distancing norms. “Lockdown is not a solution to COVID. Lockdown was needed to prepare ourselves better. We cannot be perpetually in lockdown mode. COVID is not going to go away for another 6 months to one year. We all need to get used to this new normal. The earlier we realize that, the better it is for all of us. The last postponement of exams definitely helped us prepare well now,” Rao said.

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