The shameful incident of young girls being forced to remove their innerwear before appearing for the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical education at a centre in Kerala’s Kollam district on 17 July illustrates how rules often overtake common sense when they are implemented without due sensitisation. It also displays an alarming lack of trust in the younger generation and a certain presumption that cheating is par for the course. Basic rules must understandably be in place for the fair conduct of any exam, but to insist on removing innerwear that contains metal clips is stretching the point. It displays a stark lack of sensitivity, especially where young women students are concerned. As per the guidelines for NEET 2022, candidates are not permitted to wear light clothes with long sleeves in exam halls. They are not permitted to wear shoes, but slippers and sandals are allowed. While they are prohibited from wearing "any ornaments or metallic items", the guidelines do not say anything about garments with metallic hooks. At the Kerala centre, teenage aspirants who were asked to remove their innerwear were left completely traumatised ahead of appearing for the major test that would decide their future.
The National Testing Agency, that conducts the NEET exam, initially rubbished the allegations but later ordered a probe and has sent a fact-finding team to verify the incident following public outrage and spiralling protests over the issue. The National Commission for Women and the Kerala government have also taken note of the reprehensible incident with the latter approaching the Centre. A student filed a police case and five women from the security agency hired by NTA to oversee the exam have been arrested. Similar incidents of women students being forced to discard their innerwear were reported in earlier years too. Most women in India already face an uphill battle to acquire a decent education. Even attending school is a feat for some, and to be thus publicly humiliated while appearing for a crucial entrance exam is a cruel twist in a system already skewed against them. The fact that this was not the first time such incidents have taken place reflects a level of callousness and indifference towards a young generation’s dreams and aspirations. It is time firm action is taken against insensitive officials who go blindly by the book. Ironically, while such strict measures were in place to prevent individual instances of cheating, NEET 2022 has seen several incidents of mass rigging. The Central Bureau of Investigation busted a rigging racket during NEET and arrested eight members, including the kingpin from Delhi and Haryana. In the scam, expert paper solvers impersonated students and wrote answer sheets in exchange for huge sums. The racket was spread across Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana.
The NEET exam has been dogged by controversy since its inception, with charges of failing to provide a level playing field for students from rural or less privileged backgrounds. In Tamil Nadu, where the political class has consistently opposed the imposition of NEET in the state, a spate of suicides over failure to crack the test triggered outrage. In a state where Class 12 marks were the eligibility criterion for getting admission in medical college, the mandatory introduction of NEET was met with a lot of resistance and street protests on the lines of the Jallikattu movement. A high-level committee constituted by the DMK government had said that fewer children from underprivileged backgrounds made it to medical colleges after the introduction of NEET. It said the NEET syllabus was largely based on the CBSE module and was disadvantageous for students in government schools. It also said many students were unable to join NEET coaching centres because of financial problems. The Tamil Nadu government passed a bill in September 2021 seeking to exempt the state’s students from NEET but the Governor returned it for reconsideration. The NEET exemption Bill was passed for a second time in February this year, but the Union Home Ministry has now sought clarifications. The intention behind the introduction of a common medical test was a noble one — to improve the standard of medical education in the country and set uniform criteria so that all Indians get the best medical treatment irrespective of region. It was also seen as a means to end the scourge of capitation fees, whereby undeserving students could buy medical seats. Students prepare for the NEET exam — which will secure them admission to MBBS, dentistry and Ayush courses — with singular dedication, often over a period of two years. It is only fair that they expect a seamless, smooth experience while appearing for the test. It behooves the NTA to train its personnel to handle all situations with equanimity and pay heed to the students’ concerns. After all they are the future healers of this nation and deserve to be treated with respect.