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Boycotting Schools in Nicobar for Education

Ajay Saini (writetoajaysaini@gmail.com) is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The Andaman and Nicobar administration, vide its Extraordinary Gazette notification on 7 September 2015, lowered the minimum percentage of marks required for the Scheduled Tribe candidates for admission to the MBBS course and admitted eight Nicobarese students at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Institute of Medical Sciences. In March 2016, the Medical Council of India argued these admissions as illegal and discharged the concerned students, which has stirred resistance among the Nicobarese.

1 An Extraordinary Situation

In June 2015, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare permitted the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) administration to upgrade the district hospital at Port Blair to a teaching institute, thus setting up the first medical college in the islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Institute of Medical Sciences (ANIIMS) was to provide medical education to local students and strengthen healthcare in the remote islands.

The ANIIMS offers an MBBS course, with the Medical Council of India (MCI) regulating admission. The A&N administration (in compliance with Ministry of Home Affairs order U–14040/5/96–ANL, 30 May 1996, and the guidelines of the MCI1) notified the procedure for admission to the first year MBBS course (2015–16) on 9 June 2015 (A&N Gazette No 123). Seats were reserved for various categories of students as per the Ministry of Home Affairs order. Of the 100 seats, 15 were allocated to the central pool (students from the mainland who appeared for the All-India Pre-Medical Test) and the rest to the A&N, of which 17 were reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST) students (A&N Gazette, No 259).2

A total of 858 candidates appeared for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Pre Medical Test (ANIPMT–2015) and 30 of them were ST (the Nicobarese). However, only one of them could score the minimum marks (40%) required for admission, creating an “extraordinary situation.” The A&N administration argued, “If the minimum marks of 40% in the ANIPMT for ST candidates is insisted, the college will be able to fill up only one seat by ST candidate and the remaining 16 seats will be diverted to other category students.” Therefore, to safeguard the interest of ST students, the Lieutenant Governor of the islands, as a “special case,” approved a relaxed standard for them for 2015–16.3 The A&N administration notified that the Lt Governor, “in exercise of powers conferred upon him under Article 239 read with Article 73 of the Constitution of India as well as other enabling provisions of law,” in “public interest,” has approved the following procedure for the admission of ST students to the MBBS course (Extraordinary Gazette notification No 259, 7 September 2015).

The seats reserved for ST candidates in category-I shall be filled based on the inter se merit of the ST candidates of the Union Territory of A&N Islands in the ANIPMT–2015, provided such candidates have obtained minimum of marks at 35th percentile in ANIPMT. The percentile shall be determined on the basis of highest marks secured in the ANIPMT in the common merit list for admission to MBBS course. The unutilised seats in category-I, if any available, will be diverted to category-V, as already notified in the brochure. All the ST candidates selected shall be given special coaching by director (ANIIMS) so that they are well equipped with adequate competence to undergo the MBBS course. The brochure of the A&N Islands (Institute of) Medical Sciences notified vide Extraordinary Gazette No 123 dated 9 June 2015, shall be treated as amended with retrospective effect for all purposes (A&N Gazette No 259).

2 Nicobarese Students Discharged

Through its Extraordinary Gazette notification, the A&N administration relaxed the minimum percentage of marks required for ST candidates for admission to the MBBS course and admitted eight Nicobarese students to the ANIIMS. In response to a complaint received from a non-ST student from Port Blair, the MCI sought a report from the A&N administration on “alleged illegal counselling” at the ANIIMS.4 Later, in a letter to the ANIIMS (No MCI–34(MC)/2015-Med/ 102311, 8 April 2016) the MCI communicated that it had received a complaint alleging “illegal admissions,” which its monitoring sub-committee discussed on 14 March 2016. It said,

Eight candidates has [sic] secured less than 40% marks. Their admission [sic] are not in accordance with the GMER 1997 which state that the ST candidates should secure more than 40% marks. The notification of the A&N Administration reducing the qualifying marks to 35th percentile is untenable … It is therefore recommended that these candidates be discharged.5

The ANIIMS discharged the eight Nicobarese students on 18 April 2016.6 The unexpected cancellation of admissions after seven months of study shocked the students as well as their community. The Nicobarese filed a writ petition at the Calcutta High Court, in response to which the court passed an interim order “restraining the Medical Council of India from giving further effect to the writing dated 8 April 2016. The college at which the petitioner is studying will permit the petitioner to continue his studies.”7 The community also took up the issue both at the local and national levels—Director (ANIIMS), the Department of Tribal Welfare (A&N), Lieutenant Governor (A&N), the MCI and the Prime Minister.

However, the failure of the authorities to settle the issue led the Nicobarese tribal councils to take the drastic step of boycotting schools in Nicobar. In their letters to the LG (A&N), the tribal councils of Car Nicobar and Kamorta said,

It is very disturbing to note that some of our tribal MBBS students … were disgracefully expelled … This is not only demoralising to our young aspiring tribals but also very demeaning to our community … their effort to progress in life through education is futile. Therefore, it is in their best interest to stay at home and help their parents in agricultural works rather than wasting time and their parents’ hard earned money on pens and books.8

We feel it is our right to avail opportunity under law, but this is not guaranteed by the administration and the Government of India. In the light of this situation, we have decided to boycott school in every village … from 18 July (2016).9

3 Education among the ST

After an exponential rise in the literacy rate from 33.63% in 1961 to 86.60% in 2011, the A&N is now ranked 10 in India in terms of literacy. The number of schools in the islands increased from 118 in 1965–66 to 455 in 2014–15, and they have 86,467 students on their rolls.10 With the establishment of new infrastructure, higher education facilities in the A&N have also improved, and 6,876 students now have access to higher/technical education. Despite an increase in the number of schools and an implementation of an affirmative action policy in the islands, the enrolment of the ST students in higher and technical education has remained low (merely 310 in 2014–15).11

Of the six indigenous communities in the A&N, five are on the verge of extinction and have been recognised as particularly vulnerable tribal groups. The Nicobarese are the only indigenous community that has responded well to the government’s modernisation programmes. The total ST population in the A&N is 28,530, the majority of which is Nicobarese, who traditionally lived isolated in the Nicobar, which, except for a few pockets, is entirely a tribal reserve. A total of 23,681 indigenes, mainly the Nicobarese,12 inhabit the three zones/tehsils of the Nicobar. Of them, 15,179 are literate. The archipelago has 58 schools—Car Nicobar (15), Great Nicobar (12), Kamorta (11), Katchal (7), Teressa (6), Nancowry (3), Little Nicobar (3) and Chowra (1).13 Of these, 4814 are in the tribal reserve.15

The ST students are entirely dependent on the administration/government for education. In 2014–15, 6,367 ST students were enrolled in schools in the A&N, the majority (5,644) of whom studied in the schools run by the administration. Only 375 ST students had access to private schools, of which 13 and three were enrolled for secondary and senior secondary education, respectively. A large majority of the ST students (4,755) study in Nicobar, which has a poor education system vis-à-vis the Andamans.16

Being a historically isolated archipelago and now a tribal reserve, Nicobar is devoid of rudimentary amenities such as regular electricity, water, and ration supply, a transportation network, and communication. A total of 565 teachers work in the archipelago—290 of them are non-ST and reluctant to serve in the islands. Nicobar receives demotivated and incompetent teachers, many of whom are on “punishment postings.” Their pedagogy, which is characterised by ethnic stereotypes and discriminatory practices, makes formal learning unappealing to students. A culturally insensitive curriculum and standardised medium of instruction also make learning difficult, especially for the indigenes in the isolated villages of Chowra, Teressa and Little Nicobar Islands. These students fail to comprehend basic concepts as they can neither relate to the curriculum nor understand anything other than their respective dialects.

Factors such as historical isolation, dependence on the administration, inadequate infrastructure, a culturally insensitive curriculum and pedagogy, teacher–pupil relations, and the local culture and polity encourage insouciance and a high rate of absenteeism among the Nicobarese that has led to stagnation in grades and eventual dropping out of schools. Therefore, Nicobarese enrolment in higher and technical education remains low, which restricts employment opportunities for them.

4 Discussion

Traditionally, the Nicobarese have lived in isolation with intermittent cross-cultural contacts. After India’s independence, the government set up its administrative apparatus in the Nicobar and extended various welfare services to the indigenes, which, however, have remained inadequate. Due to limited public health infrastructure in the Nicobar [hospital (1); community health centre (1); primary health centre (4); homeopathy dispensary (3); and sub-centres (37)], the death rate in this archipelago is higher vis-à-vis the other two districts of the A&N. In 2011, the death rate in the A&N was 5.46—South Andaman (5.20), North and Middle Andaman (5.20) and Nicobar (7.88). The infant mortality rate in the A&N was 19.95—South Andaman (13.67), North and Middle Andaman (17.49) and Nicobar (71.03).17

The situation in the Nicobar has become critical, especially after the tsunami, in which a large number of the elderly who had knowledge of traditional medicine perished. In the aftermath of the insensitive post-tsunami humanitarian aid, the Nicobarese have acquired numerous lifestyle diseases. In the absence of traditional medicinal practices and a lack of modern public health facilities, a large number of indigenes in the isolated pockets of the islands die of tuberculosis, heart attacks, diabetes mellitus, anaemia, pneumonia, respiratory diseases, injuries, malaria, and other fevers. In 2014, the total number of births and deaths in the Nicobar were 550 (269 in Car Nicobar, 225 in Nancowry and 56 in Campbell Bay) and 278 (186 in Car Nicobar, 62 in Nancowry, and 30 in Campbell Bay), respectively.18

The A&N administration’s decision to relax the admission norms for the ST students was motivated by the rationale of providing medical education to the Nicobarese students and thereby extending health services to the isolated indigenous community. The administration is aware that the Nicobarese inhabit remote islands where education facilities are limited, with no coaching or training opportunities for competitive exams such as for the MBBS course. As a “special case” and a “one-time measure,” the administration reduced the eligibility criteria for the ST candidates to 35% and admitted eight Nicobarese students to the MBBS course. The procedure, as the administration argues, was also in consonance with the judgment of the Guwahati High Court (Agartala Bench, 21 September 2011, W(C) No 354/2011 and WA No 35/2011),19 and a detailed report was submitted to the ministry of health and family welfare on 16 September 2015.20

5 Conclusions

As is evident in this article, the decision of the MCI has not only jeopardised the career of the discharged students, but also has serious implications for the health and well-being of the Nicobarese community. The unexpected cancellation of admissions has posed a policy challenge for the A&N administration and has created a dilemma for the community, which in a letter to the prime minister, said,

Your honour, finally I would like to clear one thing that all the eight tribal children are heartbroken on receiving their discharge letter and are in deep mental agony … Some children among the above eight attempted to sacrifice their lives21

We are in a shock state … I plead for your immediate intervention to direct the MCI to withdraw the order. Only our children after completing their studies serve in our community in every field.22

A multitude of factors such as remoteness, historical isolation of its indigenes, inadequate infrastructure development, lack of higher/technical education among the Nicobarese, and a general disinterest among the non-ST government employees to work in the Nicobar have led to a poor state of welfare services in these islands. The spokesperson of the tribal council argues that the tribal leaders were hopeful that after the completion of MBBS course, the eight Nicobarese students would serve their community, which would have strengthened public health services in the Nicobar and encouraged other students to pursue higher education.

The sudden cancellation of the admissions and a lack of favourable action after that, stirred resistance among the Nicobarese, who, as a last resort, decided to “boycott schools in Nicobar for education.” Though the local administration has succeeded in persuading the tribal councils to review their decision and the Nicobarese students have resumed classes, the core issue remains unresolved. The uncertainty about the future of the discharged students is causing unrest within the peaceful Nicobarese community. For the first time ever, on 28 July 2016, a large number of indigenes gathered in Car Nicobar in solidarity with the students and carried out a protest march against the MCI and the ANIIMS. The gravity of the situation demands an immediate intervention from the authorities so that peace is restored in the indigenous community of the islands.

Notes

1 The MCI regulates the admission to the first year MBBS course as per the Graduate Medical Education Regulations, 1997 published in Part-III, Section 4 of the Gazette of India, dated 17 May 1997 and the amendments made therein. The candidate must have higher secondary education passed in the subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and English individually and a minimum of 50% marks (40% for the SC/ST/OBC students) taken together in Physics, Chemistry and Biology at the qualifying examinations. See http://www.mciindia.org/RulesandRegulations/GraduateMedicalEducationRegulations1997.aspx.

2 Andaman and Nicobar Administration (2015): Andaman and Nicobar Gazette, No 259, 7 September 2015, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Port Blair (henceforth, A&N Gazette, No 259).

3 Letter (No 34–34(6)/2015–MPH, dated 16 September 2015), “Andaman & Nicobar Administration—Admission to MBBS course for 2015–16,” from the Secretariat, A&N Administration to the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (henceforth, No 34–34(6)/2015–MPH).

4 Letter (No 34–34(6)/2015–MPH, dated 18 November 2015), “Report on the alleged Illegal Counselling of Andaman & Nicobar Medical College,” from the secretariat, A&N administration to the assistant secretary, MCI.

5 Letter (No MCI–34(MC)/2015–Med/102311, 8 April 2016), “Complaint Received in the Commission from Anil Kumar” from MCI to ANIIMS.

6 Letter (No 5–1B/ANIIMS/Admission/2015 –16/ 67/424, 18 April 2016), “Admission First MBBS 2015–16” from ANIIMS to MCI.

7 Calcutta High Court’s interim order on writ petition No 7309(W) of 2016 (Mr Nadeem Ahmed v the Union of India & Others).

8 Letter (15 July 2016), “Reinstatement of Expelled MBBS Students at Port Blair Medical College,” from Tribal Council, Kamorta to Lt Governor, A&N.

9 Letter (16 July 2016), “Reinstatement of Expelled MBBS Students at Port Blair Medical College,” from Tribal Council, Car Nicobar to the Lt Governor, A&N.

10 “Statistics of Education 2014–15,” Directorate of Education (Statistical Section), Andaman and Nicobar Islands, viewed on 1 August 2016, http://www.dise.in/Downloads/best%20practices/A%20&%20N%20ISLANDS%20EDUCATION%20AT%20A%20GLANCE%202014-15.pdf (henceforth, Statistics of Education 2014–15).

11 “Education” (Basic Statistics 2014–15), Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Andaman and Nicobar Administration, viewed on 22 July 2016, http://andssw1.and.nic.in/ecostat/basicstatPDF2014_15/8.Education.pdf (henceforth, “Education”, Basic Statistics 2014–15).

12 Except for about 224 Shompens, the rest are the Nicobarese.

13 “District Census Handbook (2011), Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” Directorate of Census Operations, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, viewed on 26 July 2016, .

14 Primary (26), Middle (8), Secondary (8) and Higher Secondary (6).

15 Statistics of Education 2014–15.

16 “Education,” Basic Statistics 2014–15.

17 “Medical and Public Health,” (a) Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, viewed on 24 July 2016, http://andssw1.and.nic.in/ecostat/basicstatPDF2011 _12/12.%20Health.pdf.

18 “Medical and Public Health,” (b) Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, viewed on 24 July 2016, http://andssw1.and.nic.in/ecostat/basicstatPDF2014 _15/10.Health.pdf.

19 “In its judgment, the Court argued that the purpose of holding the combined competitive examination ought to have been only to prepare an inter se merit list of the various candidates who had appeared in the qualifying examinations conducted by various Universities/Board/Examining Bodies. No reason could be assigned, as to why there shall be insistence on obtaining 40% marks by candidate in Physics, Chemistry and Biology in the combined competitive examination for getting admission into MBBS Course. Accordingly, the said Court held that Regulation 5(5) (ii) of the Medical Council of India Regulation, which requires securing of 40% marks in the combined competitive examination as the basis for selection for admission into the MBBS Course is in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution” (as cited in A&N Gazette, No 259).

20 No 34–34(6)/2015–MPH.

21 Letter (27 April 2016), “Grievance of a Tribal Father in the Matter of Dismissal of His Daughter (1st year MBBS Student) from ANIIMS on the Ground of Qualifying Marks for the MBBS Seat,” from the Nicobarese to the Prime Minister of India.

22 Letter (undated), “Save Us from Action Taken by Medical Council of India,” from the Nicobarese to the Prime Minister of India.

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