Angst over Exams

As a debate raged over conducting the exams during the pandemic, it reached the apex court which said that if they were postponed, the careers of students would be at peril. Finally, JEE Main was held on September 1

By Srishti Ojha

Despite all the brouhaha over the NEET-JEE exams being held during Covid-19 times, matters have moved on smoothly. The Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Main for admission to engineering institutes was conducted on September 1 with precautions, while the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) 2020 for admission to medical colleges is scheduled for September 13. Both the exams were postponed twice and are being held despite protests and opposition by students and politicians across the country.

Six cabinet ministers from Opposition ruled states had filed a review petition in the Supreme Court on August 28 challenging the decision to dismiss pleas seeking postponement of the NEET-JEE exams in the wake of Covid-19. The August 17 order was issued by Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari while hearing a plea filed by 11 students from 11 states, who submitted that the decision to hold these exams during Covid-19 was utterly arbitrary, whimsical and violative of their fundamental right to life. The plea said that lakhs of young students appearing in these exams when Covid-19 cases are increasing in India at an alarming rate would put their lives at utmost risk and danger of disease and death. The bench had disagreed and said if exams were postponed, the careers of students would be at peril and they would lose an academic year. The Court said that life cannot be stopped and we have to move forward with all precautions.

In compliance with the apex court’s order, the centre clarified on August 25 that NEET and JEE would take place as scheduled in September. The National Testing Agency issued standard operating procedures with guidelines for conducting the exams, including full sanitisation of exam centres, usage of masks at all times, use of hand sanitisers, gloves, etc.

Following the Court’s order, a review petition was filed on August 28 by West Bengal Labour and Law Minister Moloy Ghatak, Jharkhand Finance Minister Dr Rameshwar Oraon, Rajasthan Health and Family Welfare Minister Dr Raghu Sharma, Chhattisgarh Food Minister Amarjeet Bhagat, Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu, and Maharashtra Education Minister Uday R Samant. They contended that the decision to hold exams didn’t secure the safety, security and right to life of the candidates. According to them, around 25 lakh students would appear for the two exams at a time when India had recorded over 3.31 million Covid cases.

While JEE is to be conducted in over 660 exam centres with roughly 1,443 students writing it per centre, the NEET exam will be conducted in 3,843 centres with around 415 students in each of them. Even though the centre had enough time from April to September 2020 to ensure safe and successful conduct of the examinations, it failed due to its inaction, confusion, lethargy and inertia, they said. The Union government has suddenly woken up to the fact that their inertia would cost lakhs of students their academic year and therefore, haphazardly and hurriedly, fixed the dates of the examinations, they said. This remedy would prove to be worse than the disease itself, they warned.

The review petition, which has still not been heard, states that the process of reaching the examination centre itself can be a major source of contracting the infection, and it would be practically impossible to properly implement social distancing norms due to lesser number of centres. It said while the Supreme Court’s advice that “ultimately life has to go on” may have very sound philosophical underpinnings, it cannot be a substitute for valid legal reasoning and logical analysis of the various aspects involved in the conduct of the NEET, UG and JEE exams. The reasoning of students losing a year would be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse, as health, safety and security of students and their families should be balanced with not losing the current academic year, they said.

Letter petitions were also sent by two students to Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde calling the government’s decision a clear violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. They sought postponement of the exams till normalcy was restored. A minor JEE aspirant also wrote to the CJI, urging postponement of both exams by a month or two to help avoid floods induced by the monsoons and give time to the states to be prepared to handle the students.

While students all over the country took to social media to express their disapproval of the government’s decision, the ongoing debate also saw the involvement of political leaders. Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal defended the centre’s decision during an interview, saying that it would save the academic year of students and there was a need to rise above political considerations in their interest. He said there was a silent majority of students who had sent him mails asking for the exams to be held. Rajasthan’s ex-Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot addressed a protest in Jaipur against the centre’s decision and while expressing concern over the daily rise in Covid cases, demanded that sensitivity be shown and the decision be reconsidered. Rajya Sabha MP Dr Subramanian Swamy constantly asked the centre to postpone the JEE and NEET exams, and informed students through Twitter that he had dialled the prime minister’s residence as a last resort to help the students, but couldn’t get through. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that the centre’s decision to conduct the exams during the pandemic would lead to students risking their lives. MP Vivek Tankha tweeted that the decision to hold these exams is state-centric and six states using their power under the Disaster Management Act to postpone the exams was fallacious; it must be nationally postponed.

A NEET aspirant from Delhi, Gunjan Rai, who dropped a year to prepare for the exam told India Legal that she supports the centre’s decision as people who had taken year drops could not afford to waste another year. Also, now that they have studied so much and had their mind set to give the exam, postponing would only affect their performance.

DR Sakshi Ojha, Assistant Professor at Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal, told India Legal that as attempts are being made to resume normalcy, these exams shouldn’t be postponed as that may lead to loss of an entire semester and it would be problematic for upcoming batches too. She suggested that different rooms for Covid positive students and symptomatic ones should be used. 

Advocate Sagar Shahani of Bombay High Court told India Legal that while the Supreme Court’s ruling intends to be noble, it did not highlight the practical difficulties that would be faced by students, especially those from rural areas.

Dr Sneha Gupta, from RNT Medical College, Udaipur, said:

“Considering the facts behind the SC’s decision and my own experience of appearing in the NEET exam, I believe in the decision. There are students who are serious, have studied up to 17 hours a day, cycled kilometres to reach coaching centres, have no one to earn in their families and can’t pay fat fees of coaching institutes. My message to students is to be responsible citizens and follow NTA’s guidelines.”

Dr Prateek Gupta from SMS Medical College, Jaipur, too had the same view and said:

“We have seen enough disasters in the light of Covid. Let us not create another disaster and wreak havoc on the lives of students unnecessarily by postponing exams when it can be conducted by placing adequate safety measures. Covid is here to stay.”

Ultimately, JEE Main was held on September 1 amid strict precautions and social distancing norms. At centres, there were different entry and exit points for candidates, sanitisers at gates and inside exam halls, distribution of masks and maintaining of social distancing. Each candidate was offered a three-ply mask at the time of entry and had to wear it at all times. All seats and work stations were also disinfected. Many steps were taken by state governments also to ensure the conduct of exams. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, for example, assured provision of transport and in Mumbai, Western Railways ran 46 additional special suburban services only for NEET-JEE aspirants.

The furore over NEET-JEE exams is unusual when other exams such as CLAT, IIM and DU entrance will be conducted offline too. Even though NEET-JEE exams have comparatively more candidates appearing for it, the ramifications of the pandemic remain the same for other students as well. 

With Covid here to stay, life cannot be stopped.

Lead Picture: UNI