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Why half the tribal students who filled CUET forms did not turn up

ByAshna Butani
Sep 14, 2023 10:21 PM IST

Sonajharia Minz, former V-C of Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Jharkhand said tribal students were allotted test centres hundreds of kilometres away from home

NEW DELHI: That March day should have been a day of hope, the beginning of a dream for the 18-year-old tribal girl from a district ravaged by Naxal violence. Instead, it was the day her heart sank; the day her distance from the mainstream became glaringly obvious; the day it dawned on her that this distance was in some heartbreaking ways, insurmountable.

Every second of the 106,287 aspirants from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) who applied for CUET did not appear for the examination (HT File Photo)
Every second of the 106,287 aspirants from the Scheduled Tribes (ST) who applied for CUET did not appear for the examination (HT File Photo)

She remembers staring at the form on her screen, and the feeling in the pit of her stomach. The form said she could pick two of four cities to give her examination. One option was Chhattisgarh’s capital, Raipur; 430 kilometres from her home in the dense forests of Bijapur. The other, Durg, was slightly closer; 420 kilometres away.

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In that moment, Rojrani Marpalli knew, that her dream of sitting for the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) 2023, had been extinguished. She didn’t even have the heart to complete the application.

She spoke to her family, hoping against hope a path forward would reveal itself. Biology was her favourite subject, and she wanted to become a doctor. She had prepared for the test for over a year, and the aim was a Bachelor of Science course. “Growing up, there were problems all around me and not enough doctors. I wanted to help. I wanted to change that,” she said.

In truth, there was very little room to manoeuvre. Travel to Raipur would have meant an overnight bus journey, all by herself. The test is held over a few days, and the number of these days depends on the subjects a candidate has applied for, based on subject-specific requirements. Marpalli would have had to appear for four examinations and would have had to stay at a hotel in Raipur for at least five days.

Her family, farmers from the village of Dudhera, 50 kilometres from the Bijapur district headquarters, knew nobody in the big city. She said, her voice trembling over the phone: “The entire trip would have cost at least 15,000, and that is if I went alone. My parents had hoped I could escape the district and study, but when we found out about the costs, it was out of the question.”

The dream was dead. And not just hers.

In 2022, the University Grants Commission (UGC) made CUET mandatory for all mandatory undergraduate admissions to central universities. 2023 was the second time that the National Testing Agency (NTA) conducted the test. The rationale for a common entrance test was to provide a common platform and equal opportunities to candidates from varied backgrounds, including those from rural and remote ideas.

Except, that the way the examination is conducted has meant several tribal students, by the UGC’s own admission, have been left out. Rojrani Marpalli never filled out the form. But there are thousands that did and never turned up to the examination centre.

What the data shows, and what it means

Data released by UGC on July 15 shows that just shy of half the students from the Scheduled Tribe Category (ST) did not appear for the examination even after registering. Overall, in 2023, 28 lakh students appeared for the CUET. A total of 106,287 of these were from the ST category. 52,642 (49.52%) did not appear for the exam. The corresponding number of students who failed to appear for the examination after filling out the form was 24.37% for the general category, 23.55 % for the scheduled caste category, and 27.31% among OBC students.

Marpalli, for instance, was a student of “Choo Lo Aasman” (literally, touch the sky), an initiative started in 2012 by OP Chaudhury, a former IAS officer who was Dantewada district collector at the time but has since quit the service and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. The programme sought to pull children in Bastar out of the cycle of violence they found themselves in, by training them for competitive examinations.

Chavitesh Dongare, project coordinator for Bijapur (one of the seven districts in Bastar) said, “Most students that were preparing for CUET could not appear for the test because of how far away the centre they were assigned was, and how much money it would take. Even before that, many of them are unfamiliar with online processes and are therefore at an added disadvantage even when filling in the form. This is a problem because most of our students come from Maoism-hit villages and their parents had wanted them to leave their villages for their safety and security.”

Arun Todem, 18, was one such student who filled out the form but did not have the resources for the expenses that sitting for the examination would entail. Like Marpalli, he wanted to study Biology, but at Banaras Hindu University. His father, who had only studied in a ramshackle village school till class 5, backed him. Yet, when the day came, the Gond paddy farmer did not have the money even for that one-time expenditure.

“A classmate booked a room in Raipur. But my father is a farmer, and could not afford it. My board results were good, and I had 76%. But in this new system, I could not apply to these colleges based on the board result. I hope to give the NEET next year. It has more centres, and perhaps it will be closer,” Todem said.

In Jharkhand, Sonajharia Minz, former vice chancellor of the Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Dumka said that like Chhattisgarh, tribal students in the state were allotted test centres hundreds of kilometres away from home. “Around 200 students came to us and told us about these issues. They were allotted test centres in Ranchi and some were even allotted centres in Bhubaneshwar in Odisha.” A trip from Dumka to Ranchi is 285 kilometres, and Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, is 600 kilometres away.

This was an issue that the NTA pre-ordained, but had little solution for.

Its notification on May 19 said, “Though all measures have been taken for allotting the candidates to their preferred cities, there are some candidates who have been allotted to a city in a neighbouring state. However, we have announced the city information slip in advance to give them time to make travel arrangements.

Minz, now a professor in the School of Computer Systems & Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University said, “In my generation, we had to walk over a kilometre to get to school. We had to cross rivers, and forests to get there. The same principle of physical distance, in a different way, is coming into the picture now. In addition to this, there is also the digital barrier. Many of these students have never seen a computer in their lives.”

The urban concentration of examination centres

The 2023 CUET examination prospectus itself admitted a caveat. “Efforts will be made to allot the city of examination to the candidates in order of preference opted by them in their online application form. However, due to administrative/logistic reasons, a different city can be allotted,” the prospectus read. The NTA also allotted help centres, meant to help students fill forms or address other difficulties, but for tribal students that live on the margins, these too were too far away. The closest help centre from Bijapur, for instance, was Durg - 420 kilometres away.

Eventually, the CUET was held in nine phases between May 21 and July 5, across 295 Indian cities. Most of these were urban centres, far away from remote tribal pockets. Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland only had centres in two cities each- Itanagar and Papum Pare in the former, and Dimapur and Kohima in the latter.

Professor Sushma Yadava, a former member of the UGC said, “Most CUET centres were located in capital cities and in five to six major cities in the state. There were attempts to accommodate candidates in centres as per their choices but if a candidate’s preferred centre was unavailable, centres in the same district or state were allocated.”

Yadav, who was a member of the UGC when CUET was implemented, however, did admit that the numbers suggest that attendance was low, particularly for ST students. “This implies that students did not wish to go outside their region or district to take the test. The UGC is attempting to address this issue next year by providing more centres in these districts,” she said.

Scheduled Tribes (STs) are the poorest social groups in India, a clear underlying factor in their inability to pay the out-of-pocket expenses needed to reach an examination centre. Their monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) -- a proxy for monthly incomes in India -- was 1,881 in 2021-22, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), which also collects summary data on household spending.

In comparison, the MPCE for SC, OBC and non-SC/ST/OBC groups was 2,122, 2,378, and 3,157, respectively. To be sure, the ST population living in central India is even poorer. For example, the average MPCE of ST population in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh was just 1,593 in 2021-22.

Yadav, however, underlined that the very fact that UGC data, made available for the first time this year, was available, was a “step in the right direction.”

An official aware of the processes that go into the distribution of centres said they are allocated after institutes from across the country first express their interest in conducting the test.

“First, there is an expression of interest uploaded on the dashboard, and institutes can apply based on certain parameters. They are then allotted based on the institute’s availability,” the official said. In effect, this means that cities or districts with a high number of such institutes are more likely to have test centres.

UGC chairperson Jagadesh Kumar Mamidala told HT on July 16 that they will analyse the reasons behind the low attendance. “In the case of ST category students, the attendance was 50.5%... While we have yet to determine the exact cause, the desire to enrol at a local university could be one possible reason for not attempting CUET-UG after registering for it. Since this is only the second year of the introduction of CUET-UG, it is too early to conclude.”

Reached for comment on August 30, Mamidala said that there could be multiple reasons for low attendance in “entrance tests in general and these are not specific only to CUET.”

“Some students may not be well-aware about the test, its importance, or the benefits of taking it,” he said.

Among the conceivable reasons for students to miss the CUET, he said, was that students may find it inconvenient to travel; the test could coincide with other important events for the student such as semester exams; or that some students may have decided to apply to universities that give admission through board results. “Whatever the reason, we need to find solutions to the challenges faced by students and encourage more of them to participate in these tests. Schools can play an important role in creating awareness among students about various higher education options and career paths, and they should be encouraged to visit colleges, universities and vocational schools to familiarise themselves with the possibilities that emanate from university education. State higher education councils can play an active role in organizing workshops and seminars on the benefits of higher education, CUET application processes, financial aid and scholarship for students, and career opportunities that can result from further studies,” Mamidala said.

Back in Bijapur, Rojrani Marpalli has now begun preparation for the NEET for which she hopes to get an accessible centre. Perhaps, she told herself in reassurance, the CUET will have a centre closer to her this year. For someone who lives where she does, there are no guarantees. Already, there is sadness at a year now lost; a year that had delayed her dream of being a first-generation doctor. In her mind though, hope lives still.

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