NEET fiasco: Meet the heroes behind the massive protests

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Pandey was befuddled. So was Saurabh Pant, co-founder and academic director of Vijayawada-based coaching centre Sri Gosalites Medical Academy. Pant and his team of teachers were stunned for half an hour and were silent “as if someone had died”. In Mumbai, a parent working in the tea industry decided not to leave his daughter alone that evening.

Nearly 2.4 million students wrote the exam in order to gain admission in undergraduate medical programmes. Now, their fate hangs in the balance. What went wrong?

Some students secured abnormally high scores—67 of them scored 720 marks, the highest possible in the nationwide entrance examination. On 7 June, the Indian Medical Association Junior Doctors’ Network, a forum for young doctors, wrote to Pradeep Kumar Joshi, the chairperson of the National Testing Agency (NTA), the body which conducts the exam. “Total of 67 students scored a perfect 720 out of 720, which is highly questionable. This has never happened. Usually, only three to four students score perfect marks. Also, six-seven of these students, out of the 67 students, come from one just one centre in Haryana,” the letter stated.

Many received varying ‘grace marks’ because of delays in starting the exam at certain centres. Students said that the scores they calculated and the final declared result were vastly different. The NTA releases the correct answers to questions after the test. Allegations of paper leak at some centres started doing the rounds.

In the following days, students and parents from different states visited coaching centres, uploaded their stories on social media platforms, reached out to influencers and decided to move courts against alleged discrepancies in the entrance test.

 A screenshot of a tweet by Alakh Pandey, founder of Physics Wallah.

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A screenshot of a tweet by Alakh Pandey, founder of Physics Wallah. (X)

“The declaration of result was soon followed by news of a number of concerns involving grant of grace marks, abnormally high scores, high number of 100% scores, high cut-off scores etc. Resultantly, candidates started raising a number of queries relating to the non-transparency in the manner in which the results had been declared,” stated one petition filed by Pandey in the Supreme Court.

Pandey has also written mails to the NTA, uploaded 282 videos on social media platforms highlighting the problem, and wrote about the anomalies on X, formerly Twitter. In short, Pandey quickly rose to become one of the prominent faces leading the protests, demanding accountability from the testing agency.

“There are eight lakh students who have paid 4,000- 5,000 for our NEET exam course material. Right now, even a student with a high score is not celebrating because people may allege that the student has received the marks through unfair means,” Pandey told Mint.

Massive Scale

The NEET (undergraduate) tests students on physics, biology and chemistry.

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The NEET (undergraduate) tests students on physics, biology and chemistry. (Pixabay)

Before we tell you about the other faces behind the protest, let us understand how exams of this scale are conducted. The NEET (undergraduate) tests students on physics, biology and chemistry. Students have to answer 180 questions. This year, the tests took place on 5 May, between 2 pm-5.20 pm, in 4,750 centres across 571 cities in India and 14 cities outside the country. Students have to answer objective questions on their ‘OMR’ sheets.

OMR sheets, or optical mark recognition, is a technology that allows quick readings of surveys, large scale data and answer sheets where the responses are darkened on a specially designed paper. In the case of NEET, the answers were marked by students and scanners tabulated if the answers were correct.

Few days after the exam, NTA uploads the scanned OMR sheets and the ‘answer key’ is released. Students can therefore tally how much they scored. Once the final test scores are declared by the agency, students secure seats in medical colleges across the country depending on their ranks. Until last year, a score of 550-570 plus may have guaranteed a seat in a government college while 480 and above meant a seat in a private college. This year, the NTA declared that the minimum score to qualify in the unreserved category was 164 versus 137 last year. The average marks scored was 323.55 versus 279.41 last year.

While the costs of studying in a government aided medical college can start from a few thousands a year to 1.2 lakh, private colleges are six to 25 times more expensive—annual fees can range between 6 lakh and 25 lakh a year, say students and their parents.

This is why securing very high scores becomes an imperative for many students, particularly those from middle India.

Sharma-ji’s Angst

Student bodies have been active in protesting against the alleged discrepancies. One of them is the All India Students’ Association (AISA). It is trying to organize students who feel wronged.

“We met these aspirants at protests and in WhatsApp groups. These are young people. So, we try to help them understand the legal aspects of a protest and update them on any developments in court proceedings,” Neha, the association’s Delhi state secretary, told Mint. “We are coordinating with the students and their parents, whom we have been meeting throughout the week at various protests,” she added.

Members of various student organisations stage a protest against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 entrance exam result, in New Delhi.

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Members of various student organisations stage a protest against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 entrance exam result, in New Delhi. (PTI)

One student protesting is 17-year-old Manas Sharma. He alleged that while he scored 610 as per his calculation from the OMR sheet, the official result showed a score of 468.

The son of an Indian Railways employee, Sharma recently spoke to journalists in a presser organized by AISA in New Delhi. The room was crammed with people and a non-functioning air conditioner added to the woes. A seemingly nervous Sharma, who is from Shastri Nagar in Delhi, told scribes: “It is absolutely shameful that we put in so much effort and now have to suffer due to NTA’s mismanagement. Why wasn’t action taken on the FIRs filed against paper leaks? Why was the result declared 10 days early? We demand answers.”

NEET results were initially expected on 14 June and not 4 June. The fact that it was declared on Lok Sabha election result day surprised many.

The letter from the Indian Medical Association Junior Doctors’ Network, cited earlier, underlines this surprise. “The results were declared prematurely on a day when the media was occupied with broadcasting the results of the general election. What is the reason for this urgency?” the letter questioned.

It is absolutely shameful that we put in so much effort and now have to suffer due to NTA’s mismanagement.
—Manas Sharma

“My father always wanted to become a doctor, but despite his efforts, he ended up working for the railways. I want to fulfil his unfulfilled dream,” Sharma told Mint that day.

Private college is not an option for him—his family can’t afford the stiff tuition fees such colleges charge. Now, he plans to attempt NEET again next year.

Another student organization protesting is the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO). The body has filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging fraud. It wants the NTA to recall the results and conduct a fresh examination.

Roshan Mohiddin, national secretary of SIO, said his association conducted a survey of about 600 students in various states. About 50 students who scored more than 600 marks were also called. According to the survey, 51% of students found errors in their NEET exam scores. The impact on mental health due to NEET result issues was significant, affecting 73.2% profoundly, Mohiddin said. Additionally, 64.8% of the students faced issues at the exam centre, such as delayed starts. About 76% of the surveyed supported a re-examination and investigation.

“Based on this survey, we decided to file the petition,” Mohiddin said.

Anguished Dad

Like Manas Sharma, there are millions in India who wouldn’t be able to afford private education.

In Mumbai, a person who didn’t want to be identified, has written to the NTA protesting against his daughter’s marks, which was almost 70% less than what she had tallied from the scanned OMR sheet.

His elder daughter is a doctor and studied in Maharashtra in a government college. His second daughter attempted NEET for the second time this year. “We have written to the NTA. We could have accepted her last year’s score of 485 and attempted a seat in a private college but she wanted to study in a government one. Now, we do not leave her alone (the daughter is in a state of shock),” said the Mumbai-based person who works in the tea sector.

The family can’t afford private colleges and while education loans are an option, the father isn’t very sure. Unlike an MBA graduate, a doctor may not earn enough in the initial years to be able to pay back the borrowed amount. Depending on the city and the state, the starting salary for a doctor in a hospital can range between 50,000 and 1 lakh a month.

Pant’s Survey

Meanwhile, several coaching institutes are now counselling their students.

Sri Gosalites Medical Academy in Vijayawada claims to have coached more than 5,000 doctors. Co-founder Saurabh Pant, who also teaches chemistry, is advising students “not to take any drastic steps”. At the same time, he is looking at the data of 4,300 students his company coached. “For half an hour after the results came in, we were quiet. It felt similar to mourning a death,” he said. “I expected 2,000 students to get government seats. Now, about 1,200 will qualify,” Pant added.

Students take part in a protest rally against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 entrance exam results, in Kolkata.

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Students take part in a protest rally against the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 entrance exam results, in Kolkata. (PTI)

His analysis found that a score of 640 could get an All India Rank (AIR) of 38,872 this year. The same score would have secured a student an AIR rank of 10,305 in 2023. Pant is therefore telling his students not to celebrate even when they have secured high marks.

“There were parents ready to sell their land to ensure that their child becomes a doctor. The parents are just as angst ridden as the students,” he said.

Video from Kota

Students, meanwhile, have reached out to social media influencers, asking for their support.

“Several students have sent me messages on my social media handles and emailed me their grievances. Many had prepared for more than two years, relocated to places like Kota to study,” said Mitali Sharma, a content creator who is in her final year MBBS (bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery) at Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi. Sharma had scored 700 in her NEET exam in 2020 and has put out a video highlighting student angst. “One studies for 12 hours a day, sometimes for a couple of years. Now, those who scored well on their own merit may not want any retest. What if they do not succeed again?” she asked.

For the last couple of weeks, students contacted us to shoot their stories of disappointment.
—Akhilesh Dixit

A bunch of Kota-based content creators have been highlighting the mentioned discrepancies as well. More than 100,000 aspirants arrive at Kota every year to prepare for the medical entrance.

“There are seven of us who make video stories of students in Kota. For the last couple of weeks, students contacted us to shoot their stories of disappointment,” said Akhilesh Dixit, who runs a YouTube channel called ‘Kota Students Help Club’.

Hunt for the Guilty

Education minister Dharmendra Pradhan.

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Education minister Dharmendra Pradhan. (Jitender Gupta)

So, what should we expect, going ahead?

A Supreme Court bench, comprising justices Vikram Nath and Sandeep Mehta, has consolidated various petitions filed in the NEET case. They will hear them on 8 July.

On 13 June, the government informed the Supreme Court of its decision to scrap grace marks given to 1,536 students who took the medical entrance test. These students will be notified of their actual scores, excluding the grace marks, and will have the option to take a re-test on 23 June. The apex court, on 14 June, also sent out notices to the Centre and the NTA on pleas requesting a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the allegations of paper leak. Meanwhile, the NTA has held press conferences and met students to explain why it did what it did. The test results were advanced because the marks were ready, the agency clarified. “NTA has been working towards improving the result declaration time from year to year,” it stated in a statement. Perfect scores in many cases were attributed to revision of one physics answer key. CCTV footage and reports of functionaries at test centres were used to determine loss of time that led to grace marks.

The agency and the education ministry did not respond to clarifications sought by Mint. Nonetheless, last week, union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan told reporters that the government is committed to ensure 100% transparency in the exam; that the NTA needs improvement; that the guilty wouldn’t be spared.

The 2.4 million who wrote the exam would impatiently wait to know who the guilty is.

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