ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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NEET Undermines Constitutional Provisions

OBC reservations for NEET are a constitutional necessity for ensuring social justice.

The Supreme Court was recently faced with petitions filed across party lines from the state of Tamil Nadu in the context of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). All the major political parties of the state filed petitions under Article 32 of the Constitution, demanding that 27% of the all-India allocation of medical seats in Tamil Nadu be reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). While the demand is reasonable and justified, the manner was questionable since Article 32 is meant to be utilised by fundamental rights bearers to protect their rights or by public interest litigants on behalf of those who cannot approach the court. Having met with resistance in the Supreme Court, the parties have been permitted by the Court to approach the Madras High Court with the same petition, seeking the same relief.

Although the case made news in the context of a stray, oral observation of one judge on the Supreme Court bench about reservations not being a fundamental right, the focus should, however, be on the problems created by NEET itself.

From the start, NEET has subordinated state governments on the matter of medical education to the detriment of the students from such states. Being one central examination, NEET has tilted the balance against those who cannot structurally access the private coaching needed to clear the examination. It has also subordinated states’ public health goals in the “national interest,” though what that “national interest” is supposed to be has never been clearly articulated, apart from vague assertions of “corruption” in the system.

While there is provision for reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the All India Quota under NEET, it does not provide the same to students belonging to OBCs. When the union government’s own medical institutions (such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences) provide for OBC reservations in undergraduate and postgraduate medical courses, why the same should not be applied to medical seats allocated to the union government under NEET has never been properly explained.

The only attempt at an “explanation” was given in December 2019 in a letter from the minister for health and family welfare to a question raised by Rajya Sabha member P Wilson. Here, the ministry expressed its inability to grant OBC reservations for two reasons: that the matter was sub judice in the Supreme Court in Saloni Kumari v Department of Health Services, and that each state had its own reservation policies qua OBCs. Both these reasons are absurd on their face.

On the issue of the matter being sub judice, the union health ministry’s position makes no sense since petitions in the Saloni Kumari case ask for the implementation of OBC reservations. There is nothing in the rule of sub judice that prohibits the government from acting to implement a decision being asked for by the petitioner, and this objection is utterly unfounded.

The other reason is just as absurd. Having centralised the process of admission into the medical colleges, the centre is now suddenly mindful of federal concerns in order to deny reservations to OBCs. This stand is also inconsistent. There is variance between the states in the matter of SC/ST reservations as well (based as they are on the proportion of such groups in the population), but this has not prevented the union government from providing for reservations for SC and ST communities in the All India Quota.

The absence of an OBC quota in the all-India allocation for NEET, therefore, amounts to an unjustified transfer of seats from Bahujan communities to Savarnas. Where such seats would have been allocated by state governments to OBCs within the state in accordance with their rules, the seats have now been left open only to those who can afford the expensive tuitions that help them clear NEET.

Blame must also be laid at the feet of the courts for this loss. The Supreme Court’s handling of the NEET litigation since 2012 has been mired in controversy as the initial judgment by the three-judge bench in 2013 was delivered without circulating it to the other judges on the bench. When a review was filed, the main judgment was recalled in 2016, requiring the matter to be heard afresh, giving NEET a fresh lease of life. The eight-year chequered history of the case finally came to an end in 2020, with the Supreme Court finally upholding the constitutional validity of NEET. At the same time, it has been four years since the Saloni Kumari case was filed, and no judgment is in sight yet on the issue of OBC reservations.

Reservation of seats is a way of ensuring representation for historically excluded classes in education and is a constitutional necessity for ensuring social justice. Legal nitpicking about its scope and applicability cannot come in the way of ensuring justice, and the union government must drop its indefensible positions and ensure reservations for students belonging to Bahujan communities in the All India Quota in NEET with immediate effect.

 

Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020

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