June 30, 2024

Students Want Answer from the 'Paper Leak Government'

Mayukh Biswas

ANITHA was a brilliant child coming from a very poor family. Her father is a wage labourer. She was the youngest of five siblings. When she was in the second grade, her mother died due to lack of medical treatment. From that day on, Anitha dreamed of becoming a doctor. From her early years until twelfth grade, she was always first in her class. Before the implementation of NEET across the country, board exams were conducted on a state basis. Some states had Joint Entrance Exams while others admitted students based on twelfth-grade marks.

Anitha scored 1176 out of 1200. But after NEET was introduced, Anitha did not pass the said entrance. Before the implementation of the National Education Policy by the central government, one of the steps towards centralising education was this NEET exam, the all-India medical entrance exam. Its syllabus was modelled on ICSE or CBSE, and the medium of the question papers was mainly focusing on English and Hindi. Translating these questions into other languages was quite challenging. Various changes in UGC rules are also affecting researchers. Some years back when Bengali fonts were not supported in different online centres, reading the questions itself was a task.

Statistics from different states also show that those who pass the NEET exam are mainly from English medium and CBSE boards. The same pattern is seen in other central exams as well. For instance, the NET General Paper questions are only available in English and Hindi. The RSS's 'Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan' and the corporate formula do not recognise regional languages. As a result, the main sufferers of this, the state board students who study in vernacular languages, who are in the majority, are losing time just trying to decipher these questions in Hindi and English. Even in Bengali question papers, English terms dominate. Naturally, these barriers are a significant challenge for students from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Anitha, along with some educationists from Tamil Nadu, filed a case in the Supreme Court against the centrally imposed exams. They faced brutal insults and trolling from BJP and RSS. Ultimately, the dream of Anitha, a child from a dalit family, ended on September 1, 2017, when she committed suicide.

Recently, it has been seen that students who failed in Physics or Chemistry are scoring 705 out of 720 in NEET! Can anyone explain how a student who failed in twelfth grade can score 99.94 percentile in NEET? This year, 67 students scored 100 percentile in NEET, meaning even the toppers won't get a chance to study in AIIMS. Many of these toppers are from the same exam centre, which belongs to a BJP leader from Haryana! Everything seems connected! Therefore, after the results of NEET, there have been allegations of corruption. Anurag Yadav, who was recently arrested, claimed that he received the exact question paper a month in advance. And yet the country's education minister cannot see the corruption. It all falls into place like puzzle pieces – centralisation of education, single window system, coaching nexus, and corruption. It is frightening to think about who Modi's government wants to entrust with the country's education and health systems? 

Currently, NEET is the only entrance exam for pursuing medical studies nationwide. In the name of merit, this centralisation policy (read: medical entrance) has turned into a privilege only for the affluent. Marginalised students are being left out due to the method of measuring merit in this exam. Children from villages and economically backward students are being deprived of medical education as they cannot master the nuances of this exam. This is happening all over the country. Suicides are occurring frequently. In the name of bringing uniformity in quality, it is becoming a field of social exclusion. Numerous coaching centres are springing up like mushrooms. They are selling the dream of studying medicine to young students. The belief in society is that only those who can afford it can make their children study medicine.

NEET has created a lot more inequality behind the mask of uniformity in quality, which has also alarmed the committee led by Tamil Nadu Justice A K Rajan. Based on the recommendations of this committee, a bill was introduced in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. It proposed that if NEET is not abolished soon, the country's medical system will plunge into a deep abyss. Corruption and unethical practices have been going on since 2017. In 2020, there was an incident in Assam where a candidate who scored the highest in the engineering entrance exam in the state was found to have sent a proxy to take the exam. The police arrested the candidate, his father, and the exam officials. In the same year, a NEET student in Madhya Pradesh committed suicide after scoring 6 marks in the exam. Her parents later checked her Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheet. When they compared the OMR sheet and answer sheet, they found that she should have scored 590 marks! Last time it was heard that carbon copies of OMR sheets were not provided as they should have been in the exam halls.

Just like NEET, now NET has also been cancelled. On June 18, the UGC NET exam was conducted nationwide. Millions of candidates participated. But the next day, the government announced that the exam was cancelled due to issues related to exam transparency. The same agency that conducted the exam and engaged in corruption cancelled it. Where does that leave the students? Frustrated students are demanding immediate announcement of the next exam date. There is a circus going on with the future and higher education of millions of students. Each time, the exam form fee is increasing. It is about Rs 1200 to 1500 now. Many dreams are ending prematurely because students cannot afford to pay this amount. Students from far-off places come to take the exam. A student from Kanpur might get a seat in Lucknow, or a girl from Silchar might get a seat in Dibrugarh.

Exam centres are often located in places where public transport is inaccessible. Many had to hire cars and book hotels, which is against the interests of the poor and middle class. This mockery with students is infuriating. SFI is demanding immediate compensation. Future researchers are paying the price for various UGC rule changes. The insufficiency of infrastructure for online exams and introduction of Computer Based Testing (CBT) is affecting the students coming from marginaliesd backgrounds. In many places, there is no network, how will the students take the exam online? Questions are full of errors. In the music paper, 8-10 lines of Rabindranath's songs were wrong! Who is preparing these questions? In some exam halls, students are not allowed to use watches, but there are no clocks in the hall. While in some centres, candidates were allowed to enter wearing smartwatches. Who will oversee these issues? There are no answers.

Modi is claiming himself to be the 'vishwa guru' (world's guru), but the condition of exam centres in the country is dire! The arrangements for exams in many centres during this extreme heat were not at all adequate for conducting all-India exams. The condition of the toilets is horrible, and in some places, the benches are not in a condition to sit on. Fans are not working properly in the heat. Drinking water is not available. Who will look into the infrastructure of these centres? The people sitting comfortably in the 'RSS head office in Nagpur' have no answers.

Moreover, the Common University Entrance Test for admissions to various central, state, private, and deemed universities are also showing flaws. In the month of May, it was reported that in a centre in Kanpur, English question papers were distributed among Hindi medium students. The same issue was reported in a centre in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. The agency had to conduct re-exams for affected students in both cases. Now, NEET, NET, CUET, and nearly 14 other all-India exams are being conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA). Even before the implementation of the National Education Policy, this was an experimental play of centralisation. There's a lot of awareness coming around it now, but SFI has been opposing this controversial agency formed in 2017 since long. Previously, many entrance and recruitment exams were conducted by various universities and state, central agencies. These included NEET and the Joint Entrance Exam for engineering courses, which were previously conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education; and the Common Management Admission Test, conducted by the All India Council for Technical Education for admission to management programmes. Universities used to conduct their exams themselves. Earlier, all universities, colleges, and education boards had departments dedicated to setting papers, conducting exams, and evaluation. When these systems were working well for so many years, what was the need for this change?

Because the Modi government, like everything else, wanted to keep the education and recruitment process in their control. They placed RSS people everywhere. Like former ABVP leader Pradeep Kumar Joshi, who heads this National Testing Agency. Before that, he served as the head of important organisations like the UPSC and the Public Service Commissions of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. He has always worked based on recommendations of RSS leaders. It is under his tenure that all this corruption and mismanagement has happened. And the Modi government has given him the responsibility to investigate the irregularities of NTA. It is like asking a thief to investigate the theft! And above him, UGC is headed by an anti-student vice-chancellor, Jagadesh Kumar!

Along with this, RSS also wanted to insert their people, hence the 'single window system.' Pay money in one place, exert pressure, and get the job done. Now this newly formed central agency, with officials who have no experience in managing education, naturally raises questions about its wisdom. And it is also natural that when a single agency conducts so many exams, mistakes will happen. But does it matter to the Modi government, which acts as a broker for RSS and corporates? Their intention is to empower NTA to conduct exams and render all state schools and higher education institutions useless. They want to dissolve the joint listing of education. Because RSS never wants to give power to the states. They don't believe in federalism. Education is that pillar through which collective human experience in social production and their harmony with nature over generations institutionalises. Collective knowledge is acquired generation after generation and it survives with the collective experience of society and civilization. This is the essence of education. But 'National Education Policy' means centralisation. During the implementation of this National Education Policy, we saw the absurd decision of passing the policy in the central cabinet without consulting any state or educationists. Centralising power without talking to anyone just for the sake of profit and spreading RSS ideology!

The Students' Federation of India has been apprehensive from the beginning that the ruthless centralisation of the Modi government aims to flourish the coaching industry. Like any competitive exam, students across the country are forced to go to coaching centres to qualify for the medical entrance exam. Now, to master the NEET syllabus, language, question pattern, etc., the prominence of big coaching centres has increased. Private coaching industry across the country is doing business worth millions. The A K Rajan committee's survey says that 96 per cent of NEET aspirants are associated with some form of coaching centre through classroom, distance learning programme, online classroom, or test series. Today, all NEET aspirants are inclined towards coaching. 77 per cent of students took coaching before appearing for NEET in the 2019-20 academic year. The coaching fee is huge. As a result, children from poor and middle-class families are being deprived of medical education or other competitive exams. And many of these coaching centres are run by RSS. Many times, the unequal competition of coaching is increasing suicides of students. China has taken a stand against this coaching industry in their country. They have closed the sources of inequality. But the vishwa guru cannot.

SFI has been opposing NEET and other central exams from the beginning. In a third world country like India, where socio-economic inequality is evident, the one nation one exam policy is driving students from marginalised sections away from medical education. The goal of education should be to provide equal opportunities to students from all sections of society. Certainly, students who have studied up to twelfth grade in state boards and vernacular languages are falling behind in this competition. The number of state board students in medical colleges has been declining since 2017. Generally, a large part of those who get NEET every year are repeaters. And financial solvency is a big issue for taking NEET multiple times. Upper-class-caste students can easily spend lakhs on coaching centres, but it is impossible for students from poor and marginalised sections. Additionally, the growth of private medical colleges is rampant during this time. Booking college seats in advance with advance money, capitation fee, getting a chance to study medicine even without clearing the cut-off marks, even with zero marks, through management and NRI quota – we have witnessed such incidents many times since 2017.

Against the centralisation of education, to stop the privatisation of medical education, to provide equal opportunities in medical education for students of all classes, and to demand the abolition of NEET, the SFI central executive committee called for a nationwide protest on October 27, 2021. This fight has now become a main political issue. The Modi government cannot remain silent while playing with the future of students. Under Modi's regime, paper leaks, fraud, and corruption have become integral parts of various exams including NEET and NET. The BJP is deceiving the youth of the country. Winning elections does not negate this truth. We demand a high-level investigation under the supervision of the Supreme Court. We have already filed a case in the Supreme Court demanding an investigation into the corruption and paper leaks in exams like NEET and NET, so that the examinees get justice.

The incompetent Modi government must be held responsible and their beloved NTA which is a part of the National Education Policy, must be abolished, and student protests continue to demand this. Along with this, we demand the immediate resignation of Dharmendra Pradhan, as well as his two deputies. Moreover, the education minister should also be questioned. Additionally, we demand the withdrawal of the mandatory NET score for PhD admissions and the reinstatement of the previous system, compensation for students who appeared in the recent NET and NEET exams, and the prevention of education mafias. This fight is not ours alone. SFI stands in protest with numerous students, examinees, parents, and the medical community. The country saw the unity of the student movement from fee hikes to post-Covid issues. Similarly, this fight continues on the ground with other democratic and progressive student organisations from Telangana to Uttar Pradesh. Blood has been shed in Kerala, students have been jailed in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and protests have taken place in Himachal, Andhra, Rajasthan, and Bengal. Protests will be held in front of every central government office.

There is no stopping in this fight until justice is served. There are no shortcuts to this fight. If we stand by the deprived, they will stand by us. We will stand united against these atrocities!