For quite some time, it has been clear that the strategies adopted to combat the Wuhan Coronavirus by respective states just did not make any sense. With arbitrary lock down on random days of the week, most remarkably evidenced by the Trinamool government in West Bengal, it became clear that the strategies adopted to combat the virus had transformed into something else entirely. And the public suffered all such unnecessary inconvenience silently because of the hysteria that the mainstream media has been engaging in.
The hysteria has now started affecting the country in far graver ways. A dedicated campaign has been launched to demand the further postponement of the NEET and JEE exams which are conduct for the admission of students into medical and engineering colleges respectively. After students from across the county started vociferously making their demand on social media, global public nuisance such as Leftist activist Greta Thunberg has also jumped into the scene to lend her support to such students in India.
It’s deeply unfair that students of India are asked to sit national exams during the Covid-19 pandemic and while millions have also been impacted by the extreme floods. I stand with their call to #PostponeJEE_NEETinCOVID— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) August 25, 2020
The campaign gained momentum after the government clarified on Friday that the entrance exams will not be postponed. The NEET is scheduled to be conducted on the 13th of September. The Medical Council of India, too, said that NEET could not be postponed any further as it would then adversely impact the academic years in the immediate future. Earlier, the Supreme Court had dismissed a plea that sought to postpone the exams. The Court had observed, “Life cannot be stopped. We have to move ahead with all safeguards and all… Are you (students) ready to waste one whole year?”
Soon after, as it so often happens, the political Left has hijacked the protest and steered it in completely different direction. They are attempting to turn it into another “students’ movement” against the government. Thus far, they do not appear to have any takers for their agenda as even students do not appear willing to jump on the bandwagon. Apart from the Left, certain other political actors also appear interested in pursuing the matter and are demanding that the exams be postponed.
With so many State Governments calling for postponement of NEET/JEE examination, and even Allen Coaching also, why the Ministry of Education being so obstinate ? PM Modi must take a call and order the postponement—now— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) August 25, 2020
Now, political parties are also entering the scene to demand the postponement of the NEET and JEE.
West Bengal CM @MamataOfficial writes to PM Narendra Modi @PMOIndia urging Centre to file a review plea against the dismissal of the recent petition filed to postpone #NEET_JEE. She says intervention needed to protect students from health risk #NEETJEEpostponekaro #SupremeCourt pic.twitter.com/qfgPVIIMt4— Bar & Bench (@barandbench) August 25, 2020
Bihar: Lok Janshakti Party president Chirag Paswan writes to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, urging him to request the Central government to postpone NEET and JEE examinations. #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/k4M6gkd2B5— ANI (@ANI) August 25, 2020
Should the NEET and JEE be postponed?
From a rational perspective, it is imperative that the NEET and JEE are not postponed further. Postponing the NEET further would mean that no new doctors would enter the profession for a year and at a time when doctors are already a scarcity in the country, such an outcome cannot be risked. Similarly, postponing the JEE too would lead to issues of unemployment in the country.
However, it is entirely futile to blame students for their apprehension regarding the upcoming NEET and JEE exams. In the recently conducted Block Education Officer (BEO) Exam in Uttar Pradesh, only 44% of the candidates appeared. Furthermore, in July, of the 1.97 lakh students who had enrolled for the Karnataka Common Entrance Test, around 47 thousand individuals could not appear for it.
At the same time, official communications have not been issued by relevant authorities to combat the hysteria that has been surrounding the Coronavirus crisis. Of the 3.17 million cases in India, 2.4 million have already recovered from the disease. There have been 58,390 deaths so far which brings the death rate to about 1.84%. It is also speculated that the spread of the virus is much more than those who have tested positive and thus, quite clearly, the virus is not as deadly as it was previously thought.
However, that is not the message that the public receives through the news channels and the policies of the government (at the centre and state) as of this moment. It is an endless spiral of doom and gloom and the governments have come across extremely hesitant in opening up the economy. The truth is, however, there is no longer any justification for keeping the country under any kind of a lockdown.
There is no evidence to suggest the current spate of extended lockdown by state governments is helping curb the spread of the virus. If anything, it can only delay the spread for a while, nothing more than that. The initial purpose of the lockdown was to ‘flatten’ the curve and give the healthcare infrastructure enough time to pump up production to deal with the massive requirements for masks and other products. The initial nationwide lockdown, and the one or two that followed, was necessary to buy the time required to prepare our hospitals to deal with the crisis. However, there is no justification for its continuation in any form.
Data from across the world also indicate that the virus is not as deadly for those under the age of 45, even more so for those without an underlying health condition. Therefore, it ought to have been communicated on a war footing that the virus is not as deadly as it was previously thought and the same ought to have reflected on policies of the government.
What the students say
In the absence of such communication, it is only natural that students are extremely cautious and nervous about the possibility of contracting the virus. Students we have spoken to have expressed their apprehension about contracting the virus and what happens if the contract the virus during the journey to the examination centre or during their exam.
Primarily, however, their concern is related to transportation and related costs as train and bus services are not operational across large parts of the country. One candidate told us, “I was in a super 30 batch, that had kids from not so supporting backgrounds from all over Odisha. They were from places like Koraput and Kalahandi. We all had to vacate hostels a day before the lockdowns were imposed and all of them had to go back in great difficulty. Most of them couldn’t carry much of their books. Now even after changing centres to their respective locations, they have been allotted the one in Bhubaneswar.”
She continued, “Some of these are girls. Our hostel has closed down (it was funded by a state PSU). They have to travel a day before the exams in order to sit for them. They are from poor families. Most of them don’t have anyone living in the city who could provide shelter to them. Where are they supposed to stay? What are they supposed to eat? Some might skip even after dropping for a year and working very hard just because of certain policies.”
Another student remarked, “Doubling examination centres will work at all. 70–80 students will get exam centres outside their city. They will have to travel hundreds of kilometers with their parents. Aged parents will be at high risk of contracting COVID. There would be chaos everywhere.”
Said yet another, “Many states have still imposed lockdowns which would increase children’s problem in arranging transport and stay if they reach the centre a day before. Public transport and trains are already shut by the state and central governments. How will poor children arrange private vehicles in these conditions and high demands of these?”
Another student told us, “I live in Hyderabad. I had selected the same as my preferred centre but I was allotted Bengaluru. Bus services are not available and so, I will have to take a flight. From the Bengaluru airport to the main city, it takes approximately 2 hours. Also, I am not supposed to carry cash or phone to the examination centre. How am I supposed to return after my exam? All my friends from Bengaluru have left for their homes.”
In addition to concern regarding contracting the virus, most were concerned regarding the health of their parents. It was pointed out that many students have parents with underlying health conditions, which remains a cause for concern for the students. The students we spoke to also told us that their demands for postponing the exams have nothing to do with politics.
The need for proper communication
Needless to say, the dates of NEET-JEE entrance exams are not going to affect the results of any elections but there is a need for the government to communicate properly with the students the necessity of conducting the entrance exams at the designated date and addressing the inconvenience that the students could face due to the exams being conducted on the aforementioned dates.
There is a concerted attempt underway, of course, to politicise the whole matter but the concerns of the students do appear genuine and not tantrums. The government needs to alleviate the COVID hysteria that has generated in the country, which is not validated by the data at all.
Apart from its affidavits in the Court, there has not been any communication between the government and the students and that needs to be rectified. Misconception and unrest arise in the absence of a proper line of communication. This absence will inevitably be filled by the likes of Great Thunberg and other politicians who would be more interested in milking the concerns of students for political gains rather than addressing them properly.
We are already witnessing various political parties entering the fray to demand the postponement of the NEET and JEE. Such an outcome could have been avoided if the communication was on the spot from the beginning. It can still be rectified but the communication needs to be proper and urgent if the government is serious about conducting the entrance exams on the said dates as it should be.
What is the way forward?
There appears to be a great disconnect between the policies of the state and central governments and the decision to conduct the exams on the 13th of September. While it has been conceded that normal life cannot continue to hang in a limbo for students, the same follows that public transport cannot remain nonoperational indefinitely.
In the absence of public transport, it is a very genuine concern on the part of the students regarding the conductance of the NEET and JEE. One student informed us that the students would be happy to appear for the exams if public transport was available and related avenues for accommodation was opened by the government.
Simultaneously, it ought to be communicated properly to students that Coronavirus is not as deadly as it was previously assumed to be. For instance, of the 58,390 deaths in the country, 22465 has occurred in a single state: Maharashtra. And Maharashtra has spectacularly mishandled the crisis.
Thus, even though the threat of the virus is serious, it can be effectively combated through adequate social distancing measures. And it might be unpopular to say such a thing but a lot of it at this point does depend on luck since complete isolation from human contact is simply not feasible. Furthermore, it is not clear how not opening up transport services curbs the spread of the virus when large numbers of students would gather at specific examination centres after travelling significant distance.
Therefore, if the government is intent on conducting the entrance exams on the dates announced, it appears extremely unfair to the students if they are conducted without ensuring that the rest of the country is opened up and they do not face inconvenience for their travel.