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Inequity and injustice writ large

P Chidambaram writes: On the dubious theory of “merit”, NEET is heralding an era of great inequity and injustice.

Written by P Chidambaram |
Updated: September 20, 2021 8:53:59 am
Outside an examination centre in Kolkata (Express Photo/Partha Paul)

The Constitution of India was a compact between the states. The central pillar of the Constitution consists of the Three Lists — Union List, State List and Concurrent List.

List II (State List), Entry 11, as originally enacted, read: Education, including universities, subject to the provisions of entries 63, 64, 65 and 66 of List I and entry 25 of List III.

List III (Concurrent List), Entry 25, as originally enacted, read: Vocational and technical training of labour.

A Sledgehammer Blow

Entries 63 to 66 posed no problem at all because they dealt with some named institutions, institutions of scientific and technical education funded by the Central government, training institutions and laying down of standards. Creative interpretation reconciled the entries and the principle that ‘Education’ was a State List subject was upheld.

In the Emergency-induced hubris, Parliament took a sledgehammer to Entry 11 of the State List. The entry was deleted in its entirety; and Entry 25 of the Concurrent List was re-written as: Education, including technical education, medical education and universities, subject to the provisions of entries 63, 64, 65 and 66 of List I; vocational and technical training of labour.

The sledgehammer dealt a blow to the ideas of federalism, states’ rights and social justice. The anti-Emergency warriors who passed the 44th Constitution Amendment (to undo the perceived ills of the 42nd Amendment) did not think it was necessary to restore the original entries concerning ‘education’.

Historically, states had established medical colleges and allowed private persons to establish medical colleges. States regulated the admission of students to these colleges. Standards and quality of education improved over time. Venerated doctors came out of these state-regulated medical colleges. In Tamil Nadu, names that spring to mind immediately are Dr Rangachari and

Dr Guruswamy Mudaliar, whose statues stand as guardian angels at the entrance to Madras Medical College. It is acknowledged that Tamil Nadu is among the states that were/are in the forefront of medical education and healthcare. The point is, these eminent doctors (and there are thousands all over the country) were not admitted based on an All-India examination.

Recognising States’ Rights

The case for asserting states’ rights is this: state government medical colleges are established using the money of the people of the state. They are intended, by and large, to admit the children of the people of that state and teach them medicine in English and, in course of time, in the state’s official language, which is the language of the vast majority of the people of the state. The graduating doctors are expected, by and large, to serve the people of that state, especially in the rural areas where healthcare was/is woefully inadequate. They are expected, by and large, to speak and prescribe and counsel the patients in their language.

State government regulations also addressed issues of social justice. They encouraged admission of rural students, students who studied in government schools, children from poor families, children belonging to disadvantaged sections and first generation learners.

No one in the states complained about the system that prevailed, at least not in Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra and, to the best of my knowledge, in the southern states. Of course, there were grave issues that needed to be addressed such as capitation fees, excessive fees, poor quality of equipment, inadequate attached hospitals, inadequate laboratory, library, hostel and playground facilities and so on. These problems are continuing problems irrespective of whether the state regulates admission of students or some Central authority does so.

The Distressing Facts

The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) stands on the premise that “When it comes to higher education, that too in professional institutions, merit has to be the sole criteria” (Supreme Court in Modern Dental College vs State of MP) and that only a common entrance test will ensure merit-based admissions, fairness, transparency and non-exploitation. NEET made a stealthy entry through a regulation framed by the Medical Council of India (a body that has been discredited since) and is now incorporated in Section 10D of the Indian Medical Council Act, by an amendment made in 2016.

I shall reserve the highly debatable issue of “merit” to another day. Today, I wish to focus on the facts reported by the Justice A K Rajan Committee on the impact of NEET on the admission process in medical colleges in Tamil Nadu:

in percentage (Source: The Indian Express)

Please ask yourselves the questions: Why should state governments spend the state’s tax-payers’ money and set up government medical colleges? Why should students study in school in the mother tongue (Tamil)? Why should students study in state board schools and take the state board exam? Why should there be a state board at all? Will urban students serve in the PHCs and taluk-level hospitals?

The numbers in the table speak for themselves. On the dubious theory of “merit”, NEET is heralding an era of great inequity and injustice.

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