India currently is the third worst-hit country globally in terms of the total number of COVID-19 cases which is still on the increasing trend. The country had imposed one of the toughest lockdowns across the world to counter the threat of Corona in the initial phase itself. Apart from the economic activities, the lockdown has impacted the education sector in a big way.
All the education institutions from pre-nursery schools to the professional colleges and universities were closed down in the month of March 2020 itself. These institutions are still closed for the physical presence of students and the classes are happening only through online modes which doesn't require students to venture out from their homes.
The schools and colleges cancelled the pending examinations of last academic year and gave general promotion to the students for the next class. Many examinations for admissions to various college programs in the country were also done away while some are still on.
Two of the biggest national level entrance exams, the NEET and the JEE, which have been postponed multiple times in the light of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases are now in the spotlight. This is due to the fact that the Ministry of Education recently stated that both the JEE and the NEET will be held in the upcoming month of September. The NTA has issued public notices citing that the JEE (Main) April 2020 is scheduled from September 1-6, while NEET-UG 2020 exam is scheduled for September 13.
The Supreme Court had responded to a plea filed on 17th August seeking postponement of the exams, while dismissing it, that the precious year of students “cannot be wasted”. The plea that had been filed through advocate Alakh Alok Shrivastava via 11 students from different states sought the quashing of the notices issued on July 3rd by the National Testing Agency (NTA), which set the dates for JEE and NEET in September next month.
The Medical Council of India (MCI) in response to the plea has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court stating that further postponement of the NEET would be a “drastic deviation” from the academic schedule which “may affect the subsequent academic years” of the students. It also ruled out the possibility of conducting NEET online owing to the “paper book format” of the exam. It further stated that conducting the exam at the same time everywhere is imperative and hence it cannot be organized in countries like Qatar and UAE which attract significant applicants.
With the centre looking adamant to organize the exams, student organizations like the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the Indian National Congress, and the All India Student’ Association, student wing of the CPI(ML) have come together to protest against the decision. Both the outfits demanded cancellation of all first and second-year exams and giving promotion to the students, holding final year exams in a way such that students across the country can write them, and most importantly postponement of both the NEET and the JEE.
An argument in favour of conducting the exams as given by Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank was that the majority of the aspirants had already downloaded their admit cards for the exams. However, it is quite easy to see that students do not have a choice. One can argue that if we put ourselves in the applicant’s shoes, even we would do the same and download the admit cards. This by no means is an indication that students are willing to appear in the exams.
My personal experience in appearing for the JEE and AMU-EEE back in 2017 and 2018 is more than enough for convincing me in favour of postponing the exams. For JEE alone nearly 15 lakh students appear annually. The examination centres are usually overcrowded both before the beginning and after the culmination of the exam and it is nearly impossible to maintain social distancing. Also, the students are normally accompanied by parents or guardians which further adds up to the crowd. Further due to the large number of applicants it will be impossible to maintain distance in the examination halls unless and until the number of examination centres is increased tremendously. Due to various financial and logistical reasons, this will be an uphill task to accomplish.
Students across the country have reacted strongly to the decision of the Court on social media. Most of them are worried about contacting COVID which will put their own as well as the family members’ at risk. Manish Chaubey, one of the 11 petitioners in SC, said, “My hometown is in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and I am in Mumbai at present. It will be a hassle and immensely risky to travel now. Why should I have to put my parents through this?". While some pointed out the irony of the SC using a virtual mode to conduct hearings for making students appear in the exams, others chose to blame the BJP for being inhuman in forcing students into crowded examination centres.
In an open letter to the HRD ministry and education minister Dr Harshvardhan, MadhuPurnima Kishwar, founder of human rights organization, MANUSHI, sought to address the countless appeals regarding various issues and concerns of applicants nationwide received by her. Most of the appeals revolved around safety concerns and fear of contracting the coronavirus disease and thus jeopardizing the safety of family members.
In the letter, she pointed out how the recently organized KCET and B.Ed exam in UP were a clear indication of how it would be nearly impossible to implement the distancing and safety guidelines in the overcrowded examination centres. The overwhelming shortage of examination centres in the light of distancing norms was also mentioned in the letter. She also stated how many IIT and AIIMS directors were of the opinion that the exams could be conducted in November without significant academic loss.
Another very important fact mentioned in the letter was regarding the applicants from countries like the UAE and Qatar. Due to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone arriving in the country from overseas, it will be very tricky for these applicants and their parents to travel under the current scenario. Parents of nearly 4000 applicants in these countries abroad had filed a plea for either postponing the exams or conducting them abroad. However, the NTA, after consulting with the MCI, ruled that conducting the exams overseas is not a viable option which means that all these candidates will be left stranded. Even if they manage to fly to India for appearing in the exams, they will then be subject to various guidelines issued by their parent countries abroad.
Multiple politicians also voiced similar concerns regarding the decision. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi urged the government to consider the concerns of the students appearing for the entrance examinations. Manish Sisodia, Aam Aadmi Party leader and the deputy CM of Delhi also echoed similar thoughts. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy on Sunday came up with 13 points concerning logistical issues as well as safety concerns in the argument for the need of postponing the exams.
Another very strong argument in favour of postponing the exams was the lack of public transport services due to lockdown in many districts and states of the country. While those who had arrangements for private vehicles would not face any issue, the others would be left stranded in the absence of the various means of public transports. Lastly, many states are still under various degrees of lockdown as the overall situation of the country is still not very great in terms of daily coronavirus cases. This would also make movement for those applicants with examination centres away from their native places very difficult.
The debate surrounding the NEET and JEE exams has become quite a heated issue around the country. With so many applicants and their parents asking for the postponement of the exams due to various safety concerns, it remains to be seen if the government would still go ahead in organizing these exams as planned.