Not so NEET

This is a guest post by Jeet H. Shroff. Jeet has completed his Masters’ in law from Harvard Law. 

The recent decision of the Supreme Court striking down, by a majority of 2:1, the common medical entrance examination conducted by the Medical Council of India (MCI) raises important questions on the now-obvious contradiction between the Court’s stated pro-merit, pro-poor pitch and its steadily growing record for handing down pro-rich, status quoist decisions on critical issues. For long, legal observers in India and around the world have feted the visibly activist tilt of India’s highest court. Whether in matters of environmental law, socio-economic rights or political reforms, Supreme Court decisions have usually preceded and often catalyzed changes in legislative policies. Yet, a growing line of decisions in the past decade or so, have bolstered claims by those who see the Supreme Court as being activist only in speech while being status quoist in practice. Its most recent decision, striking down the single-window National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET), which would have provided relief to millions of poor and meritorious medical students across the country, calls into serious question its progressive reputation.

The MCI-administered NEET was intended to provide medical students across the country a one-stop shop to appear for medical entrance examinations as well as to serve as a common admission standard to both government and private medical colleges. By striking down the NEET however, the decision restores the older system of separate medical examinations and separate admissions processes for different state and central medical institutions. More egregiously, it maintains the status quo on admissions by private and deemed medical colleges, which may not only conduct their own independent examinations but may also continue to profiteer from the scarcity of quality medical institutions by charging massively inflated capitation fees for admitting less meritorious students. Ruling that the MCI’s mandate to ensure ‘excellence of medical education’ in India extended only to the laying down of standards but not to actually conducting examinations, the majority found the NEET to be beyond the powers of the MCI as well as an unconstitutional interference with the right of private educational institutions to function autonomously. Yet, despite the majority’s strenuous reliance on the statutory text, the decision appears to be a classic case of form over substance. After all, many of the Supreme Court’s most well regarded decisions have been a result of creative statutory interpretations calculated to achieve just results. Given this past record, the majority’s literal and restrictive reading of MCI’s charter is not so much an indication of judicial discipline or helplessness as it is of judicial preference.

Troublingly, the NEET decision is one amongst a growing number of decisions, which point to a dichotomy in judicial speech and action. For instance, despite its pro-environment assertions, the Supreme Court preferred to allow the development of Mumbai’s mill lands as against leaving them as open spaces for the common enjoyment of all. Similarly, despite requiring elected representatives to make asset disclosures, the Supreme Court contested a similar demand in respect of itself and eventually gave in only after concerted political and public pressure. In the realm of socio-economic rights too, while the Supreme Court has been a trail-blazer in declaring the existence of un-enumerated rights to food, housing, employment and education, it has done little to enforce its declarations on a case to case basis. In the context of the NEET, this trend continues. Despite numerous Supreme Court decisions declaring education to be a strictly non-profit activity, the NEET decision fails to check the growing corruption and profiteering that are now commonplace in private and deemed institutions. Even as lakhs of medical students steel themselves for another round of frustrating examinations and admissions, hints in the dissenting opinion of inadequate judicial deliberations and undue haste could provide a narrow ground for a review of the decision. But whether or not the decision is formally reconsidered by the Court itself, its wider ramifications on medical education in India merit a comprehensive legislative response.

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