India has one doctor for 1630 patients against one for every 1000 as recommended by the World Health Organisation. Becoming a doctor is the dream of many. It is considered a noble profession and doctors are held in high esteem in the society. But to become a doctor one has to put in lots of efforts in getting into one of the 480 medical colleges (of which 227 are government-run and the rest being private). Out of 67,218 MBBS seats, 31,278 are in government medical colleges and 36,040 are in private sector.
To get into a medical college one had to either clear the CBSE-conducted All India Pre-Medical Exam or the procedure followed by States. From 2012, CBSE and the Medical Council of India proposed a single test across the country. With several States opposing the move for a single test citing the variations in State Board and Central Board syllabi, the matter had to be resolved through the judiciary. In July 2013, the Supreme Court quashed the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and ruled that the Medical Council of India could not conduct a unified test. In 2016, a Constitution Bench restored the validity of NEET and gave the Centre and the MCI the go-ahead with NEET. The first test was held in May 2016.
The Union Government amended the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 and the Dentists Act, 1948 in 2016 to provide for the common entrance examination – NEET from the academic year 2016-17 with exemption provided to AIIMS and JIPMER, both established by an Act of Parliament. The intent of NEET was to ensure uniform standards of medical education in the country besides save aspirants from appearing in multiple exams conducted by various admission authorities. To eliminate any scope for malpractices in the admission process, a single window common counselling process was also introduced for respective undergraduate/ post graduate/ super specialty courses. Moreover, under the regulations on Graduate Medical Education and Post Graduate Medical Education, should sufficient number of candidates belonging to respective categories fail to secure minimum marks as prescribed in NEET in any academic year, provisions for lowering the cut-off percentile were provided and the marks so lowered applicable for the said year only. Till 2018, NEET UG was conducted by CBSE. Thereafter the single offline NEET examination in pen and paper mode is being conducted by the National Testing Agency set up for this purpose.
So far, so good! 1.14 lakh aspirants took the examination but only 45,336 candidates, or 39.6% of those who took the test, qualified for admission. According to media reports NEET spawned a coaching industry with many of those in the top percentiles having attended such courses, paying exorbitant fees. Take the case of 17-year-old Anita, daughter of a daily wage labourer in Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur District who scored 1,176 out of 1,200 marks in the State Board plus two exams. Her dreams to become a doctor crashed after the Supreme Court rejected her plea that her plus two marks be considered for a medical college admission. She took NEET in 2017 and scored just 86 out of 720. A shattered Anita ended her life on 1 September 2017 by committing suicide.
This year NEET is again in news for the wrong reasons. On Sept 11, Theni Medical College in Tamil Nadu received an anonymous email that alleged that one of the students, K V Udit Surya, who had joined the college for MBBS course, had used an impersonator to qualify in the NEET. Enquiry conducted by the College found that Surya’s original identity card did not match with the photo on the admission card. Investigations revealed that Surya’s father a doctor at Government Medical College Hospital in Chennai was also involved.
Although it is believed that at least five students from one coaching centre are suspected to have benefited by this fraud, the final picture will be known only after the kingpin who masterminded the scam is apprehended.
Interestingly, Udit Surya appeared for NEET in 2017 and 2018 but failed to qualify. Again having failed poorly in mock tests conducted by the coaching centre, this year his father is said to have hired an impersonator and paid Rs 20 lakh for his son’s MBBS admission. Udit Surya chose a centre in Mumbai for NEET where an impersonator appeared on his behalf.
As medical colleges began verification after Udit Surya’s case came to light, another first year MBBS student Mohammad Irfan for Government Dharmapuri Medical College in Tamil Nadu was suspended for a suspected act of impersonation in NEET. He has since surrendered before a Salem Court.
Another doctor, running a hospital in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district and his son Rahul who secured MBBS admission at Sree Balaji Medical College in Chennai have also been arrested in the NEET impersonation case.
Having committed for uniform standards in medical education and for maintaining standards in health care, it needs to be ensured that India’s healthcare infrastructure gets a steady inflow of medical manpower drawn from all sections of society. NEET has to be fine-tuned to root out corruption and malpractice. One way to prevent such people from misusing NEET is by presenting a deterrent greater than the criminals’ incentive to break the law. Yes severe punishment may seem harsh at times, but it is far the best way to prevent crimes in the first place.
(Published on 07th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 41)