How NEET played with their lives

The scam in its 2024 edition has once again demonstrated why this common-exam system must go—after some heads roll

A student demonstration in New Delhi against the NEET question paper leak (photo: Vipin)
A student demonstration in New Delhi against the NEET question paper leak (photo: Vipin)

M. Amaan Asim

In 2024, Vivek (name changed) sat for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for the third time. The above- average score he got—without any coaching, which is a feat in itself — would have, in normal circumstances, ensured him a place among the 1 lakh-odd MBBS seats. To his shock, while his marks had improved in comparison to his previous attempts, his rank hadn’t.

Vivek is the eldest of four siblings. His father, a street-vendor, is the sole bread- winner. Had NEET been a fair system, his family could reasonably have hoped to escape its current grind a few years down the line when Vivek became a doctor. Alternatively, if Vivek’s family had the means (a few crores) to buy a seat in a private medical college, or if he could buy the exam paper for a good few lakhs, they could have aspired to a better life. It was not to be.

Vivek is one among nearly 24 lakh NEET candidates whose future hangs by a thread because of the NEET paper-leak scandal. Up until 16 June, the government refused to accept that there had been any irregularities. Despite allegations by several students and reputed teachers, despite FIRs filed in Bihar, the education minister claimed even on 13 June that this was an Opposition-led hullabaloo.

It stank of a scam from the moment results were announced, with 67 toppers getting a perfect score of 720/720. For context, the numbers of toppers with perfect scores, since the incep tion of NEET in 2016, have ranged from zero to two. Alarm bells rang.

Soon enough, it was discovered that six toppers were seated one behind the other in the same centre in Haryana. With increasing public pressure and the Supreme Court’s intervention, further irregularities and issues surfaced.

This included an admission from the National Testing Agency (NTA) that it had awarded grace marks, which is against its usual practice and not even mentioned in its own hand book. Reports of leaked papers, proxy exams by professional test takers, and rigged exam centres continue to pour in.

The NEET affair lays bare the reality of our education sector. It offers deserving students very limited opportunities to succeed, while the sky is the limit for those looking to profit.

The process begins with the coaching sector racket. Taken in by the marketing spiel of coaching centres bragging about the number of toppers they have churned out, aspirants and their parents ‘beg, borrow, steal’ to make the cut.

Deepali (name changed), a NEET student who has made two attempts and spent a few lakhs on coaching centres, has so far failed to secure a decent rank despite a 643 score. Her score will at best secure her a BDS (Bachelor of Dental Surgery) or an ayurveda course but not an MBBS seat. If she decides to make a third attempt, she will have to pay extra. (Those who score below average have a premium added to their fees.)

It appears the price of a leaked NEET paper is Rs 30–35 lakh per student. This is the kind of money parents are willing to shell out to secure limited seats in government medical colleges for their children. Better that than fall for the organised loot of private college seats, which come with hefty (heftier) donation fees attached.

The failure of the government to increase the number of medical seats is trumped by the failure to conduct exams fairly. This leads to students choosing riskier options further away from home.

Indian students in pursuit of education at affordable prices are studying in Central Asia and parts of eastern Europe. The motivation is purely financial, since in these countries, neither is the quality of education better nor are the chances of securing a job easy. The price tag of studying in these unfamiliar places is a fraction of studying in India.

Recently, medical students in Kyrgyzstan were targeted by locals and found themselves in a life-threatening situation. In November 2023, Indian medical students trapped in war-torn Ukraine were evacuated, which the BJP tried to capitalise on with their ‘Modiji ne war rukwa di papa’ ad stunt.

There was absolutely no need for a NEET style common medical entrance exam or for a National Testing Agency. Education has always been a state subject, and the process of admissions through state exams was by and large smooth. But centralisation and control, as even state units and leaders of Modi–Shah’s BJP know well, is the new default of governance.

NTA has failed to conduct an incident-free edition of NEET where no big irregularities were reported. Yet, there hasn’t been a single government inquiry or parliamentary committee investigation on its shoddy performance.

The government’s focus on privatising education with initiatives like the NEP (National Education Policy) and centralising education with the NTA is a recipe for disaster.

Several urgent steps are needed to remedy the situation, but to even address the paper leak racket or to fight the coaching mafia will require the kind of political will this government simply does not have. A more enlightened dispensation might have considered the following:

• Cancel and reconduct NEET 2024

• Have a separate agency like the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) which continues to have some public trust conduct the retest. (The CBSE managed the first three editions of NEET)

• Sack the NTA director

• Order a CBI or Supreme Court-monitored probe into the irregularities of NEET 2024

• Let a parliamentary sub-committee probe the NTA and its functioning

• Scrap NEET and NTA and go back to the old system, where states conduct and assess medical entrance exams

• Amend the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024 (passed ostensibly to prevent such paper leaks) with provisions for monetary compensation to affected students

What are the chances this great leakage sarkar will do any of this?

(M. AMAAN ASIM is chairperson of the research department of the NSUI)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 21 Jun 2024, 1:59 PM