The Joint Entrance Examination to the IITs and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Tests for medical institutes are slated for September. Both the tests have been postponed twice — the JEE was originally scheduled in April, then deferred to July; the NEET slated for May was also pushed to July. With the COVID pandemic showing no sign of letting up, they were rescheduled again. Now, there is a chorus of opposition to holding these examinations next month. On Wednesday, chief ministers of seven states threatened to move the Supreme Court to seek the deferment of NEET-JEE — this, after the Court had made it clear last week that it is against putting off these examinations any further. So far, the government has been unequivocal about the September schedule — it should not buckle down.
The virus does introduce several challenges to the task of holding examinations. But given that the COVID curve continues its upward climb, at different rates in different states, there is no evidence that delaying the exams — by weeks or months — will reduce the risk. To ensure trust and a level playing field across income groups, an online examination is challenging to administer. Given the numbers who take these tests, losing an entire year in these colleges isn’t an option: This would have a cascading effect on the next year. In short, the test is an unavoidable and that needs to be done following the science. Today, a lot more is known about the virus than what was known in April — what precautions are needed, from masks to distancing for a test that will take three hours of a student at a desk. The epidemiological understanding is virtually mainstream now and has informed the lifting of restrictions on a range of activities. This is also the thinking behind the Election Commission’s stated intention to hold the Bihar assembly elections; the Delhi government calling for resuming the Metro services; airlines planning to expand services. Everywhere, the discourse is how to open up while minimising the risk.
That logic should drive these examinations as well. As this newspaper has reported, an average of Rs 150 is being spent per candidate to ensure COVID hygiene at the 660 centres across the country. But care should also be taken to ensure that holding the test now does not diminish the representative character of these institutes — socially, regionally and with respect to gender. The governments must ensure that the candidates can travel safely, and, in time, to the examination centres. For lakhs of young women and men, these tests are a passport to their hopes and aspirations. It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that they get all they need to take the test — safely.