Uproar over NEET UG results points to systemic issues in National Testing Agency

The protests have snowballed into Modi 3.0’s first full-fledged controversy

PTI06_14_2024_000234B Anger in the air: Students in Bhopal protesting the alleged irregularities in NEET results on June 14 | PTI

THE RESULTS OF THE 2024 National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for undergraduates (NEET UG), which were announced on June 4, seem to be raising more questions than answers with each passing day.

The alleged discrepancies in the results, and the subsequent countrywide protests, have snowballed into Modi 3.0’s first full-fledged controversy. Within a week, the Union government changed its stance from “all is well” with the National Testing Agency, the premier body at the centre of the controversy, to “a lot of improvement is required in the NTA”.

The government has been under pressure from raging protests, allegations of paper leaks, NEET-related arrests in states and opposition attacks. The Supreme Court is also seeking answers from the NTA, saying the “sanctity of the exam had been affected”.

PTI06_15_2024_000094A Raging fire: Students clash with security personnel during a protest over NEET UG in Patna on June 15 | PTI

Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, one of the few in the new cabinet who have retained their ministerial portfolios in the past cabinet, is having a tough time defending the NTA. Established in 2017, the NTA conducts a range of national-level exams for admission to engineering, medicine, management, pharmacy and other higher education courses. Experts say that ever since the NTA became operational in September 2018, instances of mismanagement, technical errors and allegations of irregularities have been on the rise.

“Last year, the demand to re-conduct JEE (joint entrance exam) trended on social media, but nothing happened. In 2017, there was a major leak in SSC (Staff Selection Commission) exams. This year, the cutoff for NEET UG has gone up abruptly, indicating anomalies. The situation has worsened in the past few years,” said Keshav Aggarwal, president, the NGO Educators Society.

Experts say the centralisation of exams has made the process cumbersome and vulnerable to manipulation. “There is an inherent problem with ‘One Nation, One Test’,” said Dheeraj Sanghi, vice chancellor, JK Lakshmipat University, Jaipur. “Besides being wrong on academic grounds, it makes the test too important for the stakeholders, and some of them try to find ways to manipulate the system.”

Issues with this year’s NEET UG started even before the exams. After extending the deadline for registration multiple times, the exam was conducted on May 5 at more than 4,500 centres across the country. Controversy erupted when the results were announced ahead of schedule on June 4. The exam results coincided with the Lok Sabha poll verdict, raising suspicion that it was done to take attention off the exam results.

24-Minister-Dharmendra-Pradhan Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan | Josekutty Panackal

However, the sheer scale of anomalies soon drew the attention of students, parents and coaching institutes. As many as 67 candidates secured a perfect 720/720, while many others received 719 marks. This was dubious, since there were only two, one and three toppers in 2023, 2022 and 2021, respectively. “Not only was it surprising to see 67 candidates topping, but it was also impossible for the students to score 718-719 marks because of the negative marking system in NEET UG,” said Indranil Deshmukh, national convener of the Indian Medical Association’s Junior Doctors’ Network.

Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan (in pic), one of the few in the new cabinet who retained their ministerial portfolios in the past cabinet, is having a tough time defending the National Testing Agency.

Six candidates from an examination centre in Haryana got full marks, and a girl in Gujarat scored more than 700 despite failing in physics and chemistry. Aberrations in a test in which even a single mark is decisive triggered a public outcry, with affected students and parents demanding reexamination and inquiries into alleged discrepancies.

“This is a big scam in which everyone is involved, putting at risk the future of lakhs of students,” said the relative of a candidate who had spent a year to prepare for NEET UG. “We do not know which turn this controversy will take,” said the relative. “She is stuck. I do not understand why the Supreme Court is hearing the matter on July 8 when the counselling is scheduled to start on July 6.”

The NTA, an autonomous body under the education ministry, initially remained in denial. But as the uproar grew, it gave opaque responses, further harming its credibility. “It is sad that NEET UG results have caused such a serious controversy,” said Bhushan Dewan, adviser, University of Technology, Jaipur. “Undoubtedly, there have been unpardonable acts of omission and commission on the part of NEET functionaries, which have led to such negative turn of events.”

“I am not saying that the NTA did something wrong, but it is facing a serious credibility issue due to elements who are involved in unscrupulous acts,” said Aggarwal.

After a slew of petitions were filed in the Supreme Court, the NTA admitted a “technical glitch”―as many as 1,563 candidates were mistakenly given the wrong question paper, and grace marks were given as compensation for their time lost. The NTA again came under the scanner when the police in Bihar and Gujarat made arrests in cases related to the exam. In Gujarat, the police said they had unveiled a nexus between a coaching institute and the staff at a NEET exam centre. The modus operandi involved the candidates leaving their OMR sheets blank; a teacher later filled the sheets with the right answers. The police have seized cheques worth Rs2.3 crore from the accused.

In Bihar, the police have arrested 13 people and seized post-dated cheques in favour of people who allegedly facilitated question paper leaks. Investigations suggest that the papers were distributed to candidates at a safe house near Patna a day before the exam. Partially burnt papers have been recovered.

The NTA has had a chequered record. Besides being criticised for mismanagement, discrepancies and irregularities, it was accused of discrimination on the basis of language when Urdu was not included among the ten regional languages for the exam. In Warangal, Telangana, candidates received question papers in English and Hindi instead of Telugu. In Madurai, Tamil Nadu, nearly 100 students were given question papers in Hindi. In Dibrugarh, Assam, there was shortage of question papers. In 2018, the Calcutta High Court awarded 20 marks to a candidate because five questions were wrongly translated to Bengali.

The ongoing controversy has given ammunition to opposition parties. INDIA bloc members, including the Samajwadi Party, Aam Aadmi Party and DMK, have demanded investigation of the allegations. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge accused the Modi government of ruining the future of crores of youth. Rahul Gandhi, MP, said he would raise the issue in the Parliament session that starts on June 24.

As protests continue, there is growing demand for accountability. “The NTA must be held accountable for this irresponsible act and strict action should be taken to set an example,” posted All India Students Union on X.

For now, the NTA has agreed to conduct reexamination for 1,563 candidates who were given grace marks. While re-exams for all is not a solution, say experts, a middle ground needs to be reached. “[A] rational decision would be to allow about one lakh candidates who scored above 580 marks to reappear for the test,” said Aggarwal.

On June 18, the Supreme Court rebuked the NTA and said even if there was a 0.001 per cent negligence on anyone’s part, it should be thoroughly dealt with. “As the agency which is conducting the examination, you must act fair,” said a bench of Justice Vikram Nath and Justice S.V.N. Bhatti. “If there is a mistake, say, ‘Yes, this is a mistake, and this is the action we are going to take.’ At least that inspires confidence in your performance.”