New Delhi: It took the death of a young student, S Anitha in 2017 to catapult the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) to the centre stage in Tamil Nadu. Anitha was a brilliant student who had scored 1176 out of 1200 marks in Class XII State board examination. She, however, failed to secure the mandatory 40% cut-off marks to qualify for NEET. Overcome by her failure, Anitha took the extreme step and died by suicide.
The daughter of a daily wage labourer, she had earlier impleaded herself as one of the respondents in a Supreme Court case challenging NEET.
In the decade preceding Anitha’s unfortunate death, starting in 2006, successive governments in Tamil Nadu opposed NEET. Their main contention being that it is unfair to subject students who study in Tamil-medium until middle school to adapt themselves to the syllabi of NEET.
The skeptics would obviously seek to know as to why there is no such opposition to NEET from other south Indian states.
The simplest answer is that Dravidian politics has its kernel in ‘swayam mariyadai” or the self-respect movement, which in political rhetoric would translate into Tamil pride. Additionally, the state’s 69 per cent caste-based reservation system made education accessible to every backward section. Therefore, NEET is seen as an imposition from the Centre to crush the federal structure, which was strongly espoused by all Dravidian parties.
Additionally, anti-NEET votaries point towards the exorbitant fees that coaching centres charge from students preparing for NEET. Therefore, the demand for scrapping NEET and giving credence to grades obtained in state’s school-leaving examination which would make them eligible for admission to local medical colleges.
One of the major poll-promises of the current DMK dispensation was that the party would work to scrap NEET. In every campaign rally, Udhayanidhi Stalin, chief of the party’s youth wing, had reiterated his party position. The young fell for the rhetoric. It is another matter that the SC had given its go-ahead to NEET in 2017.
After a decade long hiatus when the DMK returned to power in Tamil Nadu earlier this year, NEET was a fait accompli. Chief Minister Stalin however decided to set up a committee chaired by Justice A K Rajan to study the impact of NEET.
The panel concluded what the DMK had been suggesting for decades: majority stakeholders were against NEET because the examination had adverse ramifications on the economically and socially backward students of Tamil Nadu.
Stalin is yet again attempting to table a draft legislation to annul NEET and this despite the fact that in matters pertaining to higher education, the powers are vested with the Union government.
According to DMK spokesperson, Saravanan Annadurai, the party shall make every effort to nullify NEET and even as it seems impossible this academic year, there is hope, he said for students next year.
However, this has been an ongoing debate in Tamil Nadu and what is perhaps glossed over by both for- and anti-NEET constituencies is that the state can boasts of one of the best gross enrolment ratio in the country. At 51.4%, Tamil Nadu’s GER, is almost twice the national average.
(This article was first published on September 3, 2021)