Over the last few days, Priyanka, a 20-year-old aspiring doctor from the east Indian state of Odisha, has experienced panic attacks. She is one of 1.5 million candidates registered for the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET), a qualifying exam for admission to medical school. However, she is dreading the prospect of taking an exam during the pandemic.
“People did not abide by social distancing norms at other exam centres, and I’m worried the same will happen here,” Priyanka, who requested her last name remain anonymous, told VICE News.
The devastating floods in her state that left 17 dead is another cause of distress for her, leaving her unsure if she will be able to travel to her exam centre.
Over the next two weeks, more than 2.4 million Indian students will answer the NEET on September 13, and the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), a qualifying exam for engineering schools from September 1 to 6. The government has refused to defer these exams despite vociferous protest from students and opposition parties.
On Sunday, the country recorded the highest single-day COVID-19 tally in the world with almost 80,000 cases,
On August 17, India’s Supreme Court dismissed a plea pushing for postponement of the tests, saying that it would make students lose out on an academic year and jeopardise their futures.
Since then, aspiring engineers and doctors have protested the government decision by spamming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently uploaded YouTube video with more than 880,000 dislikes and 155,000 comments. A quick scroll through the top comments conveys that these students feel outraged and ignored.
“This [spam] wasn’t planned in advance, but it shows the anger of students,” said Priyanka. She said that students were enraged to see that during his weekly radio show last Sunday, the Prime Minister spoke about how people should buy Indian breeds of dogs and that the country could become a hub for toy production, but did not address their concerns.
Priyanka is part of a student-led Twitter storm campaign calling for the exams to be cancelled through hashtags #CancelJEEandNeet and #StudentLivesMatter. On August 23, an estimated 4,200 students held a day-long hunger strike to protest the movement, while some students from India’s left-wing All India Students Union have called for an indefinite strike. On August 26, students announced they would wear black clothes, masks, bands, raise a black flag and change their Twitter profile picture to a black dot. As many said, this was to highlight their sense of hopelessness in the current situation. The students' protests received overwhelming support from public figures including international climate activist Greta Thunberg, and Indian actor Sonu Sood.
Students argue that the guidelines, which require them to wear a mask and gloves throughout the exam, could lead to oxygen deprivation, especially for students with asthma. They also point out that it will be unfair for those who live with COVID-19 patients who will not be allowed to appear for exams this year.
NEET will be conducted at 3,846 centres in 155 cities. JEE will be held in 615 centres across 234 cities.
“My exam centre is more than 100 kilometres away from where I live. I am not mentally prepared to travel as I could risk infecting my family and the entire village,” Raj Yadav, 19, an aspiring engineer from Mirzapur district of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh told VICE News. Many students have expressed on social media that their exam centres were afar and the lack of public transport to get there.
“The irony is that the government has enforced a weekend lockdown in Uttar Pradesh, which is when the NEET exam will be held,” Pratiksha Rawat, 19, who is preparing for the test told VICE News. Rawat said that public transport would be restricted during the lockdown, making it harder for people who can’t afford private vehicles.
In South India’s Karnataka state, 32 students who appeared for a school exam tested positive for the Coronavirus in July.
Opposition parties have moved a review petition against the Supreme Court’s decision.
On September 1, the Bombay High Court allowed the JEE exams to continue, and told students who live in flood-affected areas and couldn’t travel to apply to the National Testing Agency (NTA), the authority conducting the exam.
The NEET and JEE are highly competitive exams in India. Only a third of the NEET candidates are eligible for seats in medical colleges. For the JEE, considered one of the world’s toughest tests, candidates get only two chances.
Students pay an average of INR 150,000 to 200,000 (USD $2,044 to $2725) to receive coaching for these exams, often devoting two years to preparations.
“They are more concerned about losing money than their own students,” said Yadav, reacting to Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank’s satement that postponing the exams would cost the country INR 48,000 million (USD $656 million).
Those who support the exams schedule argue that not proceeding with the exams would hold back students in key professions from graduating in 2024-26, especially those who have spent large sums on coaching classes.
On August 30, about 150 academicians wrote a letter to PM Modi in support of the exams, which stated that “the dreams and futures of our youth cannot be compromised at any cost.”
When asked about whether mandatory masks and sanitisers could help contain the spread, Shahid Jameel, a virologist, told VICE News: “Studies have repeatedly shown that wearing a mask reduces the spread drastically, though it will be quite uncomfortable for the students.” Jameel also points out that the safety of social bubbles of 10 people depend on the size of the room and its ventilation system.
At the time of writing, India has more than 3.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 65,288 deaths.
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