There's a lot of anger and anguish that's still erupting in Tamil Nadu over the suicide of Anitha, the Dalit girl who was the visible face of the state's resistance to the central government's national medical entrance examination, the NEET.
For Anitha and thousands of meritorious students like her, who would have otherwise gotten into medical schools, what was snatched away was their hard-earned sovereign right to higher education in an increasingly centralising India.
In a "Union of States", where the architects of our Constitution had rightly ensured that the states had sufficient autonomy to manage their affairs, instruments such as NEET is an anomaly. In the case of Anitha, it was also a symbol for the tyranny of the Centre that took away what rightfully belonged to her and the states. NEET was a strange beast that young people such as Anitha were unable to figure out because her education under the Tamil Nadu Uniform System of School Education (Samacheer Kalvi) was not meant for an unsuitable evaluation of her merit at a national level. NEET was ugly and scary for her and thousands of others.
The Centre Cannot Control Education In States
Presently, NEET is one of the biggest injustices in India's uneven education system. It has created an inappropriate filter that doesn't find real merit, but lets only those with special entitlements pass through. Getting these entitlements, such as crash-training in cracking MCQ requires access to an expensive, premium coaching that people such as Anitha in the hinterlands of India cannot afford. If states such as Tamil Nadu had been able to expand the access to education even to the remotest areas because of years of hard work, filters such as NEET mercilessly roll them back.
Education cannot be taken out of the linguistic, socio-cultural and autonomous context of Indian states.
There was a purpose why the Constitution had left subjects such as education and health - the pillars of human development - with the state government. And that's precisely why every the Indian state has its own "state board" for school education and appropriate syllabi. Education cannot be taken out of the linguistic, socio-cultural and autonomous context of Indian states. In fact, the Kothari Commission, that was convened in the 1960s to advise on education in the country, wanted education to remain with the state despite its recommendation for a nationwide standardisation.
Kerala, the jewel in India's human development story, made all its early strides in education with this autonomy, and Tamil Nadu has produced high quality doctors, surgeons, engineers, scientists and academics with its own educational system and premier institutions. But when it came to NEET, Kerala topped the list in South India with 79.77 pass percentage, while Tamil Nadu fell to the bottom with 41 per cent.
The reason was not quality or merit, but access. This is how unjust NEET is.
Politics Surrounding NEET
Had former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa been alive, Anitha probably wouldn't have died. Jaya had clearly understood the need for autonomy in education and the unsuitability of entrance examinations in her state. She abolished them in 2005 and had vowed to put an end to NEET if she came back to power in 2016. Although she did return to power, she was mostly sick, and had passed away at a crucial time. Jaya had even promised new legislation if things didn't work. But her legacy-holders - the splintered AIADMK that is obsequious to the BJP-ruled centre for power and safety - are hardly interested.
Even without entrance examinations, Tamil Nadu still tops the country in both quality and numbers of technical talent. Its Anna University campus, which doesn't have an entrance test, is as prestigious and coveted as the IIT in Chennai, and about 1.2 crore students study under Samacheer Kalvi.
A subject in the concurrent list makes both the Centre and the state equal partners, but given the Centre's constitutional upper hand, it never works that way. NEET is a classic example.
Joining the statewide protests against Anitha and NEET, DMK leader MK Stalin has promised to bring education back to the state list and ensure that nobody meets with Anitha's fate again in Tamil Nadu. DMK had been among the most vociferous voices for state autonomy in its early years, but has long since watered down its policy thanks to its opportunistic alliances with national parties that ruled Delhi.
Had DMK been serious, it could have blocked NEET because it was a creation of the UPA. As Jaya once said, the DMK even had a second chance when the UPA government chose to appeal against a Supreme Court verdict that abolished NEET in 2013. In fact, it was during the same time, that Kapil Sibal, the then human resources development minister had developed such fancy ideas of unified screening tests for a complexly diverse country (common entrance exam for all engineering colleges across India that receive some funding from government of India). Creating such standards to national institutions is understandable, but imposing them on state institutions that are built on a different understanding of social justice and development ethic was totally insane. In terms of character, it's similar to the imposition of Hindi, that Tamil Nadu rose against and defeated on multiple occasions.
The only way to escape this absolutist injustice is to bring education back to the state list
In fact, most of the blame for today's mess should go to the Congress because it was Indira Gandhi who shifted education, which had been constitutionally part of the state list, to the concurrent list in 1976. The brutal suzerainty of emergency ensured that there was neither consultations with the states nor, resistance from them. Evidently, the Swaran Singh Committee that recommended such a move because the government then thought education required national policies, reflected Indira Gandhi's emergency ethos of a centralised India. A subject in the concurrent list makes both the Centre and the state equal partners, but given the Centre's constitutional upper hand, it never works that way. NEET is a classic example.
The Way Forward
The only way to escape this absolutist injustice is to bring education back to the state list, a larger campaign for retaining the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the states in letter and spirit. It needs icons such as Jaya, who defiantly stood up for the rights of the states. In a country which has Orissa and Kerala - and BIMARU states and southern India - at the two ends of the diverse development spectrum, one size doesn't fit all. Imposing such one sizes is to disincentivise good governance and innovation by enterprising states, and to pull all of them down to sub Saharan standards.
As Jawaharlal Nehru said in his Discovery of India, "India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads." He even called it a "myth and an idea" (Salman Rushdie also said something similar). The constitution embodied this reality, but politics of hegemony chooses to ignore it.
Finally, the NEET-advocates must learn from a tiny Cuba, that's as small as Uttarakhand in terms of population. It doesn't have NEET or any such unreasonable screens, but trains doctors by the thousands, half of them from different parts of the world. They deploy doctors all over the world where they need them, whether it's an Ebola-hit Liberia, where nobody wanted to go, or a Quake-hit Pakistan. It runs world-class institutions in rich countries such as Qatar and poor countries such as Timor Leste. Majority of their graduates end up serving government institutions, and hence the poor, because of the value system that they imbibe during their education. (Cuban model also calls for free medical education)
In comparison, in India, absurd centralist policies are killing its homegrown advantages, and the people such as Anitha who co-create them.