While mainstream media outlets throughout India breathlessly cover Sushant Singh Rajput’s death case and spin conspiracy theories of their own, there is a mass student protest that remains neglected by these news outlets. As we make our place in the list of the worst affected countries, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian Government’s decision to conduct entrance examinations amid such petrifying times has invited a lot of flak and opprobrium from the students who would be appearing for these exams. These worried students have taken to social media to lead campaigns against the government’s decision to conduct the examinations, citing the various uncertainties that they have. Parents, too, are desperately appealing to the government and the concerned ministry to stall the organization of these examinations.
What are the JEE-NEET exams?
The examinations that have taken center stage in these protests are the JEE-NEET exams. JEE, or Joint Entrance Examination, is an exam conducted for engineering aspirants for admission into engineering colleges, while NEET, or National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, is an entrance examination for students aspiring to take up medical and dental courses at the Undergraduate level. JEE was normally conducted in April, while NEET took place a month later, in May. However, due to restrictions and lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the Coronavirus, these examinations were postponed until further notice. Having been deferred twice, a Supreme Court ruling finally dismissed all pleas seeking the postponement of the JEE-NEET exams and ruled that the exams remain on schedule.
However, frightened students, concerned parents, and political opponents have been up in arms against the Government for their indifferent attitude towards the demands of students, which are manifold.
What the anguished students are demanding
A number of students are worried that they might contract the virus since 8.58 lakh students have applied to appear for the JEE exams, while there are 15.97 applicants for the NEET exam. They believe that by commuting to the exam center, they would be putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus and, by extension, risking their family’s lives. In their opinion, the government’s decision is unscrupulous and against the interests of students. Many students have also cited the recent incident in Karnataka where the 32 students who had appeared for The Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) exam contracted the virus. “What if we were one of them?”, said a student in an interview.
The second and an important hindrance to the students is commuting to the exam center. Applicants from flood-battered states like Gujarat, Assam, and Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir, where internet restrictions continue to bother people, are finding it difficult as modes of transportation are limited. Many students have even complained of distant exam centers, which becomes a nuisance for children whose parents have been rendered unemployed in the wake of business shutdowns and hence, cannot afford private transportation. Students claim that the Government has taken no step to ensure the ease of transportation for these students. Also, students whose poverty status predates the lockdown have expressed their concern over lack of transportation. Much to the chagrin of these students, the Government, and media have completely overlooked their demands and not addressed their grievances.
Students have also expressed their fear of sitting while wearing masks all throughout a three-hour long examination. Those suffering from asthma are at a greater risk of suffocation. The authorities have also made it compulsory for the students to wear gloves, which lead to profuse sweating in palms. “We won’t be able to write exams in such an uncomfortable state”, said one of the students in a video message to the Ministry of Human Development Resources.
Mental Stress in Students
We have seen a significant increase in stress-related issues in the wake of extended nationwide lockdowns. The decision to conduct exams was just another layer of stress and anxiety heaped upon a mountain of mental health issues. Many students have been suffering from anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts. This has just been aggravated by many crude remarks from external authorities and individuals, such as the one made by an ex-student from Kota where he insinuated that “only non-serious aspirants and Modi-baiters want JEE-NEET postponed”.
Is the Opposition playing politics?
Various Opposition parties, led unanimously by the Congress, have supported the students in their fight against these exams. However, the BJP has accused the Opposition of playing politics and misleading students with their propaganda. A recent review petition filed by 6 non-BJP ruled state governments was dismissed by the Supreme Court, stating that the exams will be held, come what may. People have also trolled Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who expressed her support for the protesting students.
No easy way out
Academicians, politicians, and even the Supreme Court have presented arguments defending the government’s “pro-exam” stance. At the heart of this defense is the argument that postponing of canceling exams would only lead to the wastage of an academic year that has already been significantly delayed. There are no easy answers to this problem, but all we know is that even if the government was to comply with the students’ demands to postpone the exams until there is a significant decline in Coronavirus cases, we never know when it’d be safe enough to have these exams without the threat of Coronavirus looming large above us. It would also lead to the squeezing of the syllabus in a very short time, leading to a loss in the quality of education. With the looks of the current scenario, there are very little chances of respite in sight as the world scours for a viable solution to put an end to this persisting crisis.
Despite students’ persistent efforts, ranging from hunger strikes to social media campaigns to wearing black bands, to convince the Government to postpone or cancel the examinations, the administration has acted otherwise without paying much heed to the students. If anything befalls these students, will the government be ready to take responsibility?