In 2010, afflicted with allegations of corruption, the Medical Council of India (MCI) was superseded by a Board of Governors which sought to introduce a monumental reform aimed at bringing transparency. It introduced a system by which admissions to undergraduate and post-graduate courses would be based on a National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), eliminating all such examinations and streamlining entrance to private and government medical institutions, based on a uniform measure of merit. After years of a system riddled with corrupt practices and arbitrariness, with many private institutions engaging in exploitation and profiteering, a bold and necessary step was taken in cleaning the mess in medical education.
More than a hundred private medical colleges approached the Supreme Court challenging NEET in the CMC Vellore case. In July 2013, a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, on his last day in office, struck down the notifications and declared NEET to be unconstitutional. While the decision was criticised widely, it was the dissenting opinion of Justice Anil Dave, clarifying how the judges had “no discussion on the subject due to the paucity of time”, which sowed the seeds of a rethink.
This dissent ensured that the victory of the NEET-opposers was shortlived. So, when the MCI petitioned the Court to review its decision, the matter was placed before a five-judge bench which, in an astounding move, recalled the CMC Vellore decision in part since “there was no discussion among the members of the Bench before pronouncement of the judgment.” This bench was headed by Justice Dave — three years later, the dissenter returned to save the day.
By this time, it was already 2016 and students as well as education institutions were in doubt about where the law stood. Thus, began the yearly season of NEET-related litigation. While the 2016 ruling had recalled the CMC Vellore judgment, it did not comment on the constitutionality of the examination itself nor did it clarify if the pre-NEET position was restored. Within days, a petition was placed before the apex court, seeking directions to conduct NEET. The Court granted the prayer and clarified that with the decision in CMC Vellore recalled, the notification which introduced NEET was now in operation. However, the issue of constitutionality of NEET remained unanswered.
As the Court restored NEET, many operational issues came to it for clarification. When the MCI introduced common counselling for admission to MBBS and post-graduate medicine courses on the basis of NEET, minority medical institutions challenged its imposition in the SC. The Court allowed NEET-based common counseling and clarified that the rights of the minority institutions would be protected since the minority quota seats would continue to be filled by minority students so long as they were chosen from the NEET merit list.
Then came the issue of state quota in post-graduate medical courses. A number of petitions were filed challenging the constitutional validity of NEET as it would not permit the granting of institutional preference, which had been approved by the SC time and again. In the Yatinkumar Patel case, the Court explained again that NEET was an entrance test that precluded any state or private institution from conducting their own test for entrance to undergraduate and postgraduate courses in medicine. It did not impact the issue of institutional preference for PG students.
Throughout the yearly administration of NEET, recurring issues were brought before the Court on how the examination was to be conducted. In the past, several states had conducted entrance tests in regional languages and NEET being in English language, raised concerns. It was also argued that the questions in the English language NEET were not the same as those in regional languages. Thus, by a series of orders, the Supreme Court ensured a common NEET was conducted in all languages.
The heavy load of NEET-related litigation also created additional problems and last-minute uncertainties. Pendency of such cases would impact the counselling schedule, which eventually led the Court to hold that adherence be made to the time schedule set in the Ashish Ranjan case. As in countless other cases, the Court had to assume a largely executive role.
Meanwhile, the original constitutional challenge case came up for hearing. A large number of prominent medical education institutions are minority institutions. These institutions have a bundle of rights emanating from Articles 25, 26, 29 and 30 of the Constitution to administer their institutions as they see fit. These rights are constitutional guarantees in the form of fundamental rights. The minority institutions contended that enforcing a common entrance test such as NEET violated these fundamental religious and minority rights. In a far-reaching, unanimous verdict delivered on April 29, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court finally upheld the constitutionality of NEET, even on the touchstone of these fundamental religious and minority rights. The Court held that such regulatory measures aimed at improving public health by way of introducing transparency, recognising merit, and weeding out malpractice in matters of admission can be imposed. It also held that the right given to minorities to administer their institutions does not include the right to maladminister in derogation of public interest.
Though far from perfect, NEET is a path-breaking reform. Many changes have been made, and with the new legal regime under the National Medical Commission Act, many more will follow. The story of NEET is a lesson in governance. It is also a reminder of the reforming role played by the Supreme Court.
The article was first published in the Indian Express under the title ‘A NEET solution’. The writers are advocates practising in the Supreme Court of India