The Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on September 13 passed a bill to scrap the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical courses in the state medical colleges. The Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill, 2021 was passed just a day after reports of the death by suicide of medical aspirant Dhanush in Salem. It is suspected that he took the step due to fear of failure in NEET as he was slated to appear for the exam for the third time on Sunday.
This is not the first time the Tamil Nadu government has taken steps against NEET. The state has witnessed constant agitation and political manoeuvres against the common entrance test.
In fact, one of the promises in the election manifesto of the ruling DMK was to abolish NEET.
The Bill, moved by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, contended that admission to medical courses was traceable to entry 25 of List III, Schedule VII of the Constitution, and the State was "competent to regulate" the same for the underprivileged social groups. All political parties including the principal Opposition party, the AIADMK, voted in favour of the Bill. However, the BJP members staged a walkout.
What is NEET?
The National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET), formerly the All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT), is the qualifying test for MBBS and BDS programmes in Indian medical and dental colleges. It is conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA). Before NTA, which is an independent autonomous and self-sustained premier testing organisation, the test was conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). The examination, which offers 90,000 seats in MBBS and BDS Colleges of India, is conducted in the month of May every year.
Why does Tamil Nadu want to scrap NEET?
Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin has said that NEET is riddled with scams and is leading to student suicides.
Tamil Nadu used to allot seats to its medical and dental colleges based on marks obtained by the aspirants in the 12th exams. But NEET was made mandatory in 2016 replacing all state-level medical entrance examinations. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in power at the time passed two Bills in 2017 for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in medicine, but the President didn't give his nod to the Bills. The central government initially supported the state's bid for exemption from NEET for a year. Later, it told the Supreme Court that it could not support the ordinance by the Tamil Nadu government for the same.
The Supreme Court, in its decision on the matter, also went in favour of NEET.
Dalit medical aspirant S Anitha had appealed to the Supreme Court as well. She was a school topper and had scored 98 per cent in the 12th exams, but she was denied a medical seat because she failed to pass NEET that year. Soon after the SC decision that made it certain that she would not get admission, Anitha died by suicide. Her death became a rallying point for both the politicians and activists to oppose NEET. Other such cases of deaths by suicide over the years came to convey how NEET disfavoured the students from marginalised backgrounds in the state.
What has the Tamil Nadu government done for students?
To support the government school students primarily in the rural areas, the Tamil Nadu government updated the state syllabus textbooks in 2018 and started free coaching for students. The same AIADMK government in 2020 also passed a Bill providing for a 7.5 per cent horizontal reservation in medical/dental seats to government school students who cleared NEET.
After coming to power in 2021, Chief Minister MK Stalin of the DMK set up a committee under retired Justice A.K. Rajan to study NEET's impact on students in the state. Based on the recommendations of the committee, the government tabled this Bill on Monday. The retired Madras High Court Judge had prepared the report after looking into around 86,000 representations from various stakeholders-- a majority of whom said they don't want NEET.
How does NEET affect Tamil Nadu students?
Dr G R Ravindranath, who is associated with the Doctors Association for Social Equality (DASE) and was a member of the aforementioned committee, told BOOM, "NEET has affected the poor students, both in rural and urban areas. Only those trained by coaching centres are able to get their medical seats in Tamil Nadu."
He explained that students from Tamil medium schools and rural areas do not have access to NEET coaching centres, and they were denied a fair chance to get admissions. The committee observed that NEET had been disfavourable to rural and poor students and those who belonged to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, he said.
The DMK quoted the committee report on how NEET fostered inequality and favoured the privileged who could afford special coaching in the Bill.
"It is putting undue pressure on the students. After they clear the 10th standard, they put in their hard work for the plus-two exams. On top of that, you want them to appear for a qualifying examination. NEET is not going to judge them by one optional or MCQ exam. It is ridiculous," DMK spokesperson Saravanan Annadurai told BOOM.
He said that NEET panders to the coaching centre lobby as most students have to go for expensive coaching to clear the exam. Though the union government said that NEET would banish capitation fees, he alleged, that it had instead legalised it.
The DMK spokesperson cited examples of premier colleges charging as much as Rs 25-30 lakhs per annum. Capitation fees is an illegal instrument to charge fees not mentioned in the prospectus to facilitate admission in the institution.
"The will of the people of Tamil Nadu is for the abolition of NEET. The central government cannot continue to ignore that," adds Annadurai.
Can the DMK succeed in scrapping NEET from Tamil Nadu?
When the AIADMK with its proximity to BJP at the centre failed to exempt the state from conducting NEET, can the DMK succeed through its new Bill?
"NEET is just not an issue regarding the admission of students into medical colleges. It is a legal, political, and social issue. The AIADMK government, just for the heck of it, passed the Bill. They did not do anything else. The DMK's approach will be multi-pronged," said Annadurai. He said that they will put political pressure on the government and create further awareness.
Dr Ravindranath has his doubts. "It will be processed depending on the BJP-led central government's attitude and its co-operation. If they are not willing to get the exemption from NEET, it won't be possible," he said.
NEET continues to be the only way to get admission to medical courses in the state for now.
Dr Ravindranath says that the DASE has demanded the government to give reservations to Tamil medium students and those in remote and hilly areas similar to the 7.5 per cent reservation given to government school students. "Around 400 students have entered the medical and dental courses last year through this 7.5 per cent reservation. So, the government should protect that," he said.
If NEET gets scrapped -- What does it mean for students?
"Even if the government gets the NEET exemption, it has to continue NEET coaching centres," said Dr Ravindranath. The exemption will only be for the Tamil Nadu state government-controlled seats, he explained.
In this context, government seats refer to the seats in all the medical, dental, Indian medicine, and homoeopathy courses in the state government colleges, except for those reserved under the 'All India Quota', 65 per cent seats in non-minority institutes, and 50 per cent seats in minority institutes.
This implies that the admission for the All India Quota seats and for other medical institutes will be through NEET only. State students will have to continue appearing for NEET for admission in all the other medical seats, including for all institutes outside the state.
The DMK is going to follow the chief minister's lead to take the matter further, said Annadurai. "The next step is to send it to the President for his assent. So, we will have to wait and see what the President does."