Of NEET, NPA, and Tamil Nadu’s call of freeing education from centre's control

Stalin said that only by transferring education to the State List from the Concurrent List could exams like NEET be abolished and students’ interests better-taken care of

By Ashraf Engineer  Published on  23 Aug 2023 10:30 AM GMT
Of NEET, NPA, and Tamil Nadu’s  call of freeing education from centres control

Hyderabad: Education is at the centre of the latest standoff between states and the Centre. And, as it is with so many other flashpoints, it’s the Opposition-ruled states taking the charge to the Bharatiya-Janata-Party (BJP)-led Centre.

On Independence Day, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin demanded the transfer of education back to the State List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. The statement followed an outcry in Tamil Nadu after a 19-year-old committed suicide because he could not secure a seat in a medical college despite clearing the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate) or NEET. A day later, his grief-stricken father also took his own life.

The NEET is an all-India entrance exam for those who wish to pursue undergraduate medical courses.

Stalin said that only by transferring education to the State List from the Concurrent List could exams like NEET be abolished and students’ interests better-taken care of.

Education was, in fact, originally a State subject but was moved to the Concurrent List by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. This allows both, states and the Centre, to draft laws around it and often leads to confusion and intractable problems – all borne by students.

For instance, a few years ago, aspirants who appeared for the NEET in Tamil Nadu were given a question paper framed in Tamil. This paper had 49 basic errors and hundreds of students lost a huge number of marks, crushing their dreams of getting a medical seat. The Central Board of Secondary Education, a Central Government body, never accepted its mistake.

Stalin pointed out that a demand to shift education to the State List had been made by former chief ministers CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi too. Another former chief minister, J Jayalalitha, had opposed the NEET. “All subjects that interact with people directly should be transferred to the State List. Especially education should be transferred [back] to the State List,” Stalin asserted.

After the suicide, he had written to President Draupadi Murmu asking her to clear the anti-NEET Bill passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 2022. Each day of delay, he said, costs deserving students valuable medical seats as well as “invaluable human lives”.

The NEET trigger

In Tamil Nadu, especially, NEET evokes great rage – it is seen as anti-poor and discriminating against students from government schools and underprivileged backgrounds. This is because rich students can afford expensive coaching classes for the exam but poor students, competent but unable to get the extra help, can’t ever catch up.

Since 2017, at least two dozen student suicides connected to the exam have been recorded.

As the anger boiled over, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government passed the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Act (2021). However, Governor RN Ravi rejected it. The government responded by passing the Bill again and it is now lying before the President for approval.

In the past, 100 educationists and activists had signed a statement demanding that Tamil Nadu adopt a resolution to bring education under the State List and sent it to the then Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. They said the provisions of the National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 are not in keeping with the federal structure or social justice. “NEP 2020 demolishes the federal character of India by promoting centralization, by controlling all decision-making from ECCE [early childhood care and education] and primary education to higher education, including professional education. This cannot be countenanced,” the statement said. It added: “As is known, originally education was a State subject in the Constitution. If we see the history of the Constitution, the Central Government is highly reluctant to allot more powers to the states. As and when chances arise, the Central Government stealthily usurps the meagre State powers and bolsters the Concurrent list. For example, of late, it is bent upon to transfer agriculture and water to the Concurrent list, just like education.”

These are strong words and why the Governor and the President should reject or delay Bills legally passed by a state legislature is a mystery. At the least, it represents a severe intrusion into state powers and damages the federal nature of our polity.

In fact, many chief ministers have complained that the Centre treats states as municipalities. It was once sarcastically said that in Tamil Nadu you need Central approval to cut the grass in the Secretariat.

Decentralization is the way ahead

As the battle between states and the Centre rages on, it would be interesting to compare the powers enjoyed by states in the US to those in India. In the US, the Central government cannot dismiss state governments or modify state borders. States even have separate Constitutions and keep the bulk of the powers. It’s the other way around in India. Hence the oft-quoted quip: “The US is an indestructible union of indestructible states, whereas India is an indestructible union of destructible states.”

In this age of decentralization, although the Central Government in India is trying hard to stay insulated from it, the future of education should be in the hands of the states.

This leads us also to the issue of funds allotted by the Centre to states. It’s been a long-standing complaint of the southern states that they are being punished for their success in population control. What they mean is that, while the Centre collects huge sums from them in the form of taxes, they get allotted much less from the Centre in return because they have smaller populations.

This is perceived as discriminatory. It means also that these states’ education budgets end up being smaller than their governments would like them to be.

The legal argument

In November last year, senior advocate and Rajya Sabha member Kapil Sibal, representing the Tamil Nadu government, told the Madras High Court that if Central high-handedness continues and education stays on the Concurrent List, there may arise a situation in which the state’s children would have to study medicine in Hindi. “This will invade the fundamental rights and the basic structure of the Constitution and federalism,” Sibal said. Each state, he pointed out, has its own cultural ethos and so there can’t be Centrally-imposed uniformity in education.

“The State should have the freedom to decide what is required for its children. Local ethos, culture, and arts should be taken into consideration while framing the curriculum. This is not to be decided by (the Centre) sitting in Delhi,” Sibal said, challenging Section 57 of the Constitution, 42nd (Amendment) Act (1976), which enabled the removal of education from the State List.

Uniformity, he said, would not work with education. “Uniformity has nothing to do with education. In fact, it is inconsistent with the concept of education. What is required in Himachal is different from what is required in Arunachal, Bihar, or any other State. There are local languages, culture, and arts that have to be taught,” Sibal argued.

Parliament, he said, could only set the standards required for higher education – after consultation with state governments to ensure seamless entry of school students into colleges.

All of these arguments make a lot of sense. There is no reason for the Centre to intrude into state rights on any subject, let alone education. Education, as Sibal pointed out, is closely linked to local culture, language, and human development indicators. Any interference by the Centre would lead to disastrous consequences, as we are seeing with the suicides.

The fact that the Centre refuses to acknowledge that, and the President is showing no indication of clearing the Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Act (2021), doesn’t bode well – not just for education but also federalism.

Ashraf Engineer has been a journalist for almost three decades, leading newsrooms and initiatives across print, digital, and audio. He is the founder of the All Indians Matter platform, a home for conversations with and about India on issues that matter, and the host of the podcast by the same name.

Next Story