Tamil Nadu: As parties jostle for political mileage on NEET, 7.5% quota takes centre stage

V Narasimman, who delivered newspapers and ran errands in a pharmacy to save money while studying in school, is among hundreds of students who would realise their aspirations of being doctors under the introductory 7.5% reservation for medical education in Tamil Nadu.

Counselling for medical admissions in the state began on Wednesday. Narasimman,19, qualified in the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) in his second attempt. After a year’s wait, he enrolled for the MBBS course in the acclaimed Madras Medical College (MMC) in Chennai on Thursday. Narasimman’s father Venkatesan is an auto driver. His mother Nagalakshmi is a sweeper at the railway quarters.

NEET in Tamil Nadu has gone through several legal and political wrangles. The state brought in the 7.5% legislation on October 30. The “sub-quota” will provide undergraduate courses in medicine and dentistry to meritorious poor and marginalised government school students who face multiple disadvantages in clearing NEET.

During an emotionally charged opening day for students and families, chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami distributed admit cards to the first 18 students–including Narasimman– who received seats under the new quota. “The special 7.5% reservation would ensure government school students get 405 seats in the 2020-2021 academic year as opposed to six seats in the previous year,” Palaniswami had said.

Also read | Tamil Nadu NEET merit list 2020 released at tnhealth.tn.gov.in, here’s direct link

All regional politicians have milked an anti-NEET campaign which strikes at people’s sentiments particularly in the run up to the Tamil Nadu assembly elections slated for early 2021. Reservation within NEET is one of those rare issues on which AIADMK and DMK have concurred but continue to blame each other for not scrapping it. DMK criticises AIADMK for implementing NEET despite Tamil Nadu’s late chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s opposition. AIADMK, in turn, blames the DMK for not stopping NEET when it was first proposed in 2012 by their partner Congress while they were in power at the Centre.

Tamil Nadu students have been taking the test since 2017, following an apex court order that admissions will be only on the basis of NEET scores. Until then, class 12 marks were the only criteria for medical college admissions in Tamil Nadu.

In 2017, S Anitha, a 17-year-old dalit girl, died by suicide for failing NEET despite topping her school in Ariyalur district with 98%. She had gone to Delhi impleading herself in the state government’s petition in the Supreme Court against NEET. The plea was rejected. Her death was a flashpoint for widespread agitations against the state and Central governments. Since Anitha’s death, more than a dozen students — including four this year — were driven to suicide.

These students lacked equitable access to resources to crack NEET. Additionally, NEET is primarily based on the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus. Only in 2018, Tamil Nadu revised its basic state board syllabus and introduced updated textbooks.

“Government school students have been deprived of application oriented learning,” says education analyst Jayaprakash Gandhi. “They are forced to compete with the CBSE and financially strong students who can afford private coaching and score well. Our teachers have also not been exposed to teaching for competitive level exams like they do in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.”

Narasimman scored 202 in the 2019 NEET test without coaching. So he spent an entire year rigorously preparing for the exam at a private tuition that charged Rs1 lakh a year. For various reasons, he couldn’t make it to the government-run free NEET classes. “We pawned my mother’s only gold chain and borrowed money from lenders known to us,” says Narasimman. “Despite their meagre earnings my parents are slowly repaying the loan but they are very happy for me. I’m already thinking of whether I’ll specialise in cardiology or neurology.”

The state assembly passed the 7.5% reservation unanimously in September but it had been pending with Governor Banwarilal Purohit. DMK leader MK Stalin protested near the Raj Bhavan in Chennai in October for the bill to be signed urgently. The AIADMK was criticised for not hard pressing the Governor–appointed by the BJP-led Centre– as the two parties are allies.

Five days later, the AIADMK government passed an executive order granting the legislation for the current academic year. The following day, the Governor gave his assent after seeing legal opinion from Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta. “In rallying for the state interest, I see this as the AIADMK snubbing the Governor which could irk the Centre,” says Ramu Manivannan, head, politics and public administration department, University of Madras.

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