Deliberate plan to damage NTA’s credibility

by Jun 22, 2024Education0 comments

There is no evidence or even a hint to suggest that the NTA is in cahoots with ‘solver gangs’ or ‘cheating mafia’. Public posturing of political parties can’t be an argument for or against NEET


Some caveats are necessary in order to understand the context of this column in defence of the National Testing Agency and its director-general Subodh Kumar Singh.

The first is that on 30 August 2022, I had placed on record my appreciation of the excellent work done by the NTA in conducting over 25 examinations and recruitments involving more than 1.25 crore aspirants annually in 14 countries.

The NTA is now the second-largest testing agency in the world after the Chinese agency GaoKao. However, in the next few years, it will acquire the pole position as the students in India will soon outnumber those in China.

Second, during my tenure as a deputy director at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) from 1995 to 2001, I have had the privilege of training Subodh Kumar Singh, an IAS officer of the 1997 batch.

I can vouch for his personal and professional integrity, as well as his intent in the smooth conduct of the NEET 2024, which has now stirred a controversy that refuses to die out. TV anchors, YouTubers, and coaching institute owners are taking the lead in criticising the very same exam that is their bread and butter, and much more.

Third, when we look at large public systems, our prism cannot be black and white: The ‘proportionality of response’ has to be considered. Yes, there were errors, which have been accepted, and now need to be rectified. However, anomalies in decimal points do not make a scam— for a scam has a locus controlling its tentacles.

There is no such evidence—not even a hint to suggest that the NTA is in cahoots with the ‘solver gangs’ or the ‘cheating mafia’. The worst it is accused of is inefficiency in the logistics of conducting NEET and the criterion for awarding grace marks in lieu of lost time.

Finally, having spent 36 years in the government and serving under all possible political dispensations—from the Left Front to the TMC in West Bengal; the GNLF in Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, Darjeeling; the BJP and the Congress in Uttarakhand; and the NDA and UPA at the Centre—I am privy to how political parties change their position when in power, and out of it.

Therefore, the public posturing of parties cannot be an argument for or against NEET.

NTA has responded

Let us now consider the facts, juxtapose them with the factoids, and examine the correlation between probability and possibility to ensure that the issue is placed in perspective.

The medical entrance examination was held on 5 May across 4,750 centres and around 24 lakh candidates appeared for it. However, each centre had multiple rooms where the test was conducted. Each room had a CCTV camera and was under live surveillance.

For the smooth conduct of the exam, 2,10,105 invigilators and 7,500 observers were deployed. Forty dummy candidates were caught, 50 cheating mafia were reported, and over 14 FIRs have been lodged as on 15 June.Therefore, the claim that NTA did not take prompt action against those who tried to ‘game the system’ is untrue.

It is also important to note that the syllabus for NEET this year was reduced by about 25 per cent than in the previous years. It was comparatively easier, as covered by most newspapers including Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindu, and Money Control in their coverage of 5 and 6 May.

Naturally, when the paper is easy, scores are expected to be higher. Incidentally, many YouTubers have also commented on this ‘inflation of marks’. But higher marks, and therefore higher cut offs, are on expected lines, especially as more and more students are opting for professional coaching.

Dubious allegations

Let us now look at the allegations and issues raised regarding the NEET exam. The first of these is specious. It has been argued that the NEET results were announced on 4 June instead of 14 June to cover up the scam as the nation’s eyes were focused on the 2024 Lok Sabha election results. However, this is not the first time that the NTA has announced the result well before the expected date.

The second issue relates to a question in Physics for which the previous and current editions of NCERT had two different interpretations. Once the answer key was released by the NTA, there were 13,373 representations, and itsGrievance Redressal Committee decided to accept that both answers were correct.

The third relates to compensation for loss of time at centres where the examination was delayed on account of the distribution of question papers. Some students received papers in English instead of Hindi and vice versa.

In many places, time was compensated with time, but at centres where this was not possible, compensatory marks were given based on an earlier Supreme Court judgment with regard to the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT).

It is true that there is a difference between the online CLAT, in which the number of students is in thousands, and the OMR-based offline NEET, where the numbers are 25 times more.

But the factoid being spread is that the judgment of Justices UU Lalit and Deepak Gupta specifically barred the applicability of this principle for medical and engineering exams. This judgment is available in the public domain.

In any case, this matter has been resolved as the compensatory marks given to 1,563 students have been withdrawn. These candidates now have the option of either accepting their marks without compensation or take the exam again on 23 June.

The fourth allegation was of a possible paper leak in Patna. Although the NTA has denied it, the matter is currently under investigation by the Economic Offences Unit (EOU) of Bihar Police.

While this cannot be ruled out, there is an equally high possibility that the ‘solver gang’ and ‘cheating mafia’ gave ‘guess papers’/‘papers with a similar likeness’ in lieu of the actual papers, and fooled the examinees and their parents.

In this business, there is no code of ‘honour among thieves’. And in any case, the performance of the aspirant mentioned in the FIR was nowhere among the top scorers.

The fifth allegation claimed that in a particular centre in Godhra, candidates were asked to leave out the questions they were unsure of, as they would be ticked by the invigilators. However, given the surveillance on CCTV from the time the question papers are opened to when the OMR sheets are sealed, this seems highly improbable.

Sixth, there was a YouTube video from a distressed girl from Lucknow, who apparently received an email from the NTA saying that her OMR sheet was not checked because it was torn. I would not hold the girl responsible, but we also can’t rule out that some entities with vested interests are out to damage the NTA’s credibility.

The seventh allegation was about the 67 toppers. The NTA has explained that 44 of them have received full marks on account of the answer key discrepancy while six candidates did so on account of compensatory marks. This means that the number of the absolutely clear toppers is 17, which is high, but not earth-shattering.

A related question was about the possibility of scores like 718 and 719, but the NTA explained that they were “due to compensatory marks”.

The ninth issue was the emergence of six toppers from one examination centre in Haryana, the Hardayal Public School in Bahadurgarh, which inspired some ‘sniggers’. Would these comments have been made if the centres were La Martiniere Kolkata or the Modern School of New Delhi?

The school principal appeared on TV and gave details of the seating arrangement in the 21 rooms where the exam was held. No two toppers were in the same room. So, the possibility of a serial cheating in collusion with the examination centre and invigilators can also be ruled out.

Lessons to be learnt

Hindsight is of course the best sight, and for the next edition of NEET, the suggestions can be incorporated. But there are some issues of concern.

Is there a vested interest in keeping this agitation alive? Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has gone on record assuring the students and parents that each allegation would be looked into, and if anyone has been found guilty, necessary and appropriate action will be taken. The Supreme court is already seized of the matter. The compensatory marks have been withdrawn. A retest has been ordered. Investigating agencies are looking into aspects of if, when and how the question papers were leaked, and whether or not any invigilator involved with the examination tampered with the system after receiving an illegal gratification.

Then why run down the credibility of NTA? Whose interest will be served? The alternative solution of a retest is also a remedy fraught with equal, if not more, trauma for the young students. Let us not forget that in 2015, when the PMT (which has now been replaced by NEET UG) retest was ordered, just about half the number of total 8 lakh candidates appeared for the second round. Why are the coaching centre heads, who as Dharmendra Pradhan rightly pointed out are not teachers but entrepreneurs fuelling a Rs 60,000 crore industry, getting so hyped up about this when the matter is with the courts?

Of course, it is also clear that there is a demand-supply gap between medical, dental, veterinary, and Ayush streams. We need to address this through a transparent policy – the Union, state, corporate and the not-for-profit education foundations, along with Zilla Panchayats, municipalities that run large hospitals should be encouraged to establish new institutions. Uttar Pradesh took the pioneer role in establishing new medical colleges – one per district – with a fair amount of success.

The number of students from India who are studying medicine outside the country is growing, with China and Russia emerging as popular destinations. This also means that not only is there a ‘market demand’ that needs to be met within the country, India can also emerge as an inward destination for medical students from the rest of the world.

It is also important to bring in even greater transparency and leverage India’s AI potential in designing online tests (with randomised question papers), which may be held two to three times a year, with an option to improve the score until a fixed cut-off date for the counselling session of a particular year. Thus, if the cut-off date is 1 June in a particular year, all scores obtained in the exam until then may be considered for counselling in that academic year.

Let’s go back to some of the well-known adages: don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

And most importantly, let arguments be based on facts rather than factoids.

(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)

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