Students protest during the ongoing NEET crisis
Students protest during the ongoing NEET crisis

NEET & unclean

NEET-UG 2024 saw the bracket of 620-720 marks increase to 2.5% from 0.6% last year.

Kota, the coaching capital of India is like a dystopian world of death, deception and desire to win. Last year, the authorities of hostels installed ceiling fans with springs inside them so that disappointed students, who have enrolled for Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges, do not end up hanging themselves.

In January, 18-year-old Bagisha Tiwari, a Kolkata girl who failed NEET, jumped from the ninth floor of a building. The authorities and owners of private hostels have installed anti-suicide nets in balconies and lobbies to prevent more Bagisha Tiwaris from happening. The NEET-UG exam is the world's biggest medical entrance test, and Kota is where students believe the springboard to success is.

The city’s coaching business, which has an annual turnover of Rs. 5,000 crore, is run from six large institutes — many smaller ones go uncounted — each of which teaches more than 5,000 full-time students and charges Rs. 40,000 to Rs. 1.3 lakh a year.

The reason why students keep coming to Kota is hope. Like 20-year-old Vidushi Sharma, who spent two years living alone in Kota away from her home in Delhi. She is determined to become a doctor despite failing twice to get into a good government medical college; private colleges charge double or treble the amount. Vidushi says, “I hope the third time will be my lucky charm.”

There is every chance she will be disappointed again despite scoring 643 out of 720, which would have ensured a smooth shoe in. “I can’t believe that my dream, as well as the dreams of other honest and hardworking students, has become impossible because of an examination system that is broken, unfair and lacks transparency,” she exclaims.

At the centre of the current NEET heat wave is the issue of inflated marks. According to experts, 640-650 is considered a good score. “Last year, students with these marks would have achieved a rank around 10,000, but now they are getting ranks between 30,000 - 40,000,” says Dheeraj Kumar Singh, an advocate who has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of 20 NEET-UG candidates.

Akhil Seelam, a Bengaluru resident, scored an impressive 640 out of 720. His rank, however, is 38,000. “Such a low rank will push me to move out of the city to find a government medical college. I will now have to look at a Tier-2 or -3 city in Karnataka,” he says. He is now considering applying to Kasturba Medical College, Mangaluru, Karnataka Institute of Medical Sciences in Hubbali and Mandya Medical College.

Last year, 20,38,596 students appeared for the exam, and 13,991 (0.6 per cent) secured 620-720 marks. Last year’s cut-off for government seats was 610.

However, this year, the number of students in this bracket increased to 58,263 (2.5 per cent) of 23,33,297 who took the exams.

Also, this year, there was a decrease in students in the rank bracket of 520-620. In 2023, 91,001 (or 4.46 per cent) secured ranks between 520 and 620, which decreased to 4.39 per cent this year. “This proves that all bungling was done only in brackets of 620-720, as there are approximately 55,000 to 58,000 government seats in NEET-UG,” says Singh.

Altogether, there are 1,08,940 MBBS seats in more than 700 medical colleges across the country. Getting into private colleges is almost out of bounds for most, given the huge fee disparity, not to mention, donations. Academics is big business, especially medical and engineering courses. Colleges, a dime a dozen, spring up like mushrooms across the country ready to give every student a chance, almost irrespective of his or her meritocracy. The only criteria seems to be big money.

Many youngsters, including Vidushi, call for a complete retest or a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or judicial probe into the controversial results announced by the National Testing Agency (NTA). It was incidentally announced on June 4, a day when the Lok Sabha election results were also being watched nationwide. Rajasthan’s Behror-based Ridhima Rao, who scored 648 out of 720, was shocked when the NEET results were announced 10 days earlier than the scheduled date. “We are compelled to seek justice on the streets, and if we don’t get it, we will lose faith in the country’s judicial system,” she says.

There is no doubt that the exam results are dodgy. A few students and middlemen have been arrested for leaking exam papers in Bihar and Gujarat. A Bihar minister is in the spotlight for his role in fiddling with the NEET system to benefit chosen students. The disputed outcome has instigated a heated and impassioned debate regarding the credibility and reliability of the Indian public examination system, prompting widespread scrutiny and concern.

In response to the growing trend of paper leaks in several states, the central government enacted the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Bill, 2024. It aims to prevent paper leaks and malpractices in government recruitment exams by imposing imprisonment for up to 10 years and a fine of up to Rs. 1 crore.

Maheshwar Peri, entrepreneur, educationist and the chairman and founder of Careers 360, is skeptical about the bill’s efficacy. He believes its execution and implementation remain uncertain. Peri points out that some of the 4,750 different centres in 571 cities across India, which conducted NEET-UG exams are bound to be compromised, considering that it is a pen-and-paper exam, as the question paper comes in at night.

His explanation for rampant leaks and examination papers: intense competition. “The competition is more, and the fee disparity is huge. All this leads to corruption and a ready nexus that feeds on demand and supply,” says Dr Rohan Krishnan, National Chairman of the Federation of All India Medical Association.

Three examples of hopeful students are disheartening examples of NEET flawed marking system. Bengaluru-based Devika N, who scored 550 marks, securing a rank of 1.3 lakh dismisses the possibility of a government college seat. “My parents cannot afford a private college. I spent two years preparing for this,” she says. Her only option is to drop a year and attempt again next year.

Sonal Chaudhary from Bhagalpur, Bihar, who scored 601 is hopeful of a retest. “I have already started preparations for a drop year and I am studying for next year’s exam, but we sincerely hope that on July 8, there will be a positive judgement and a re-exam will be conducted,” she says.

Bibhudutta Panigrahi, who scored 482 marks, came within the 1-lakh rank bracket. Although he is not hopeful of a medical seat, Bibhudutta says he might have got a better rank had there been no massive rank inflation this time. “This year even those with 600 marks will face difficulty in getting a seat in government medical colleges,” says the Cuttack student.

The ongoing NEET-UG results have exposed some dubious firsts and shady shenanigans.

● 67 students achieved a perfect score of 720 out of 720 and received a percentile of 99.997129

● Grace marks were allotted to candidates

● Some students had secured 718 or 719 marks, an impossible feat as per the marking system

● Six of the 67 toppers were from the same centre in Haryana, with the same sequence numbers

The student community and parents erupted in nationwide protests. The beleaguered testing body announced on June 8 that the Ministry of Education has established a four-member, high-powered committee to review the grace marks. NTA Director General Subodh Kumar Singh vehemently denied irregularities. Bowing to intense public pressure, on June 14, the NTA informed the Supreme Court that the decision to grant grace marks to 1,563 NEET-UG 2024 candidates has been rescinded.

These candidates can opt for a retest on June 23. The retest results will be declared on June 30. However, the Court declined to halt the admissions counselling process, which will begin on July 6. Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has given the NTA a clean chit, igniting a second wave of protests. Congress questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his “silence” on the scandal.

Taking to X, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wrote: “Why is the government ignoring the voices of lakhs of students? Students want answers to legitimate questions related to the rigging of the NEET exam results. Is it not the government’s responsibility to investigate and resolve these legitimate complaints?” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin also posted on X, saying NEET and other centrally conducted examinations are “anti-poor, undermine federal polity, and are against social justice”. A fervent opponent of the system, he reiterated his earlier demand that the state regain control over the MBBS admission process.

The Supreme Court came down heavily on NTA: “If there’s even 0.001 per cent negligence on anyone’s part, it should be thoroughly dealt with. As an agency conducting the examination, you must act fairly. If there is a mistake, say yes, this is a mistake, and this is the action we are going to take. At least that inspires confidence in your performance.” Pinning all hopes on the Supreme Court now, Vidushi and 20 other NEET-UG aspirants, who scored over 650 marks, have appealed to the apex court for scrapping the present qualifying exam and launching a probe by the CBI or any other independent agency monitored by the court.

“Ever since NTA took over, systematic failures have occurred. For a student, even one mark makes a difference in ranking,” says Brajesh Maheshwari, popularly known as BM Sir among students; he is the Executive Director and Head of the Department of Physics at ALLEN coaching institute in Kota. He bats for two exams on the lines of the JEE, and believes the May 5 exam should be considered “preliminary” and the “main” exam should be taken on July 21 or 28. “Just like JEE Advanced exams are held by IIT Madras, same way AIIMS, Delhi, should conduct the exam,” is his suggestion.

Around 30 more petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court and many High Courts. Dr Krishnan says, “Instead of giving grace marks to those who lost time, they should have given them more time to finish their paper. They decided on their own to give grace marks. All this smacks of corruption and malpractice,” he says, demanding an independent probe.

One of the victims of the dicey process is 18-year-old Tanmaya Sharma, who comes from Kota itself. She scored 657 on her first attempt, and her family was super happy. But as news filtered in of a record 67 toppers, inflated scores, grace marks and paper leaks, their hope of their daughter getting into a good government college was dashed. “Last year, if I had scored 657, my ranking would have been 4,000-5,000.

But this year, it has gone up to over 23,000. I now have to wait for counselling. I don’t think I will get admission in a good government college,” says Tanmaya, one of the 20 petitioners seeking redressal. Advocate Singh says, “The sanctity of the examination process has come into question. We are praying for a court-monitored investigation and a comprehensive post-examination analysis.”

V Lalitha, who took the examination at a centre in Salem in Tamil Nadu, secured 446 marks in her first attempt at NEET in 2023. Firm on pursuing medicine, she opted for coaching for a year and scored 624 marks this year. “However, there were several problems in the centre where I wrote the examination. The questions were not printed clearly on the question paper I received. It took 30 minutes for the staff to give me another print. However, they didn’t give me additional time,” says the youngster who believes that she could have scored around 680 if she had enough time.

A section of students, who appeared for NEET at the exam centres in Alagar Public School and Kamalavathi Higher Secondary School in Sahupuram in Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu, were dejected over a different and tougher question paper provided to them. A Vignesh Subramanian, who attended the exam in Alagar Public School, says, “Biology questions involved long statements, and hence were time-consuming. More than 60 questions were lengthy, which left us with less time to attend questions from physics and chemistry.” Many who attended the exam from these centres say they were able to attend only 150 questions and thus ended up scoring between 300 and 500 only.

Students who worked through the year, putting in so much effort for many years, stand to lose. Recalling her days at Kota, Vidushi says, “Living alone for two years was not easy.” A day after NEET results were announced, an 18-year-old aspirant hailing from Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa killed herself in Kota—the 11th suspected student suicide in Kota this year.

“It was a tough time for me and my family when I lived alone. I hope we can overcome these challenging times, and I can fulfill my, and my parent’s, dreams of becoming a doctor,” Vidushi says. Corruption is not just killing students, it is also killing the Indian education system and meritocracy. A NEET solution isn’t easy in the current convoluted circumstances, but a beginning can be made when the system itself has failed its exam to give Indian youth the creditable future they deserve.

What’s the NEET Controversy?

The NEET-UG, conducted by the NTA, is the gateway to admission to a medical college. This year, the results were declared on June 4

● A total of 2.4 million students competed for just 1,10,000 available seats

● Around 60,000 seats belong to government-run colleges

● This year, an unprecedented 67 students achieved the perfect score of 720 marks

● There was also a significant increase in the number of candidates scoring in the high range of 650-680 marks

● 1,563 candidates were given ‘grace marks’ for delays at exam centres and because a physics question turned out to have two correct answers

The Starting Point: Vyapam Scam

The Vyapam scam, also known as the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board scam, was a massive admission and recruitment scandal that took place in Madhya Pradesh. It was responsible for conducting entrance exams for medical, engineering, management, and other professional courses and recruitment exams for various government posts in Madhya Pradesh.

The scam that was going on for a decade, came to light in 2013 when irregularities were discovered in the Pre-Medical Test. It involved a vast network of middlemen, candidates, and officials who colluded to manipulate exam results, facilitate impersonation. Once investigations began led by the CBI and a Special Task Force appointed by the Madhya Pradesh government, there were mysterious deaths of several accused, witnesses and whistleblowers.

The CBI had said that the accused candidates had adopted a unique ‘engine-bogie’ system or method of cheating in the exam by engaging intelligent students (engines) as solver candidates to allow copying of their answers by the beneficiaries (bogies), who would sit behind them.

The Killing Fields of Kota

The coaching industry in Kota is estimated to be worth around $500 million. Students from across the country come to prepare for exams like NEET and JEE. Each year, 2,50,000 students from across the country flock to Kota for training in its 300 or more coaching institutes. There are roughly 4,000 hostels and 40,000 paying guest facilities. Of the 1 million students, who appear for the JEE exam, only 10,000 qualify for the 23 IITs. Of the 2 million, who sit for the NEET exam, only 1,40,000 bag a seat at a medical college. The coaching centres have punishing and gruelling schedules with students studying for 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

(With Puran Choudhary, Mrittika Banerjee, Saunyangi Yadav, S Godson Wisely Dass, Subashini Vijayakumar)

The New Indian Express