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8 February 2017 Editorial



Testing times on NEET

It is a measured gambit by Tamil Nadu. The State has taken the legislative route to grant itself exemption from the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), a uniform examination that will decide admission to medical courses all over the country. The two Bills passed by the State Assembly seek to retain its present admission system for under-graduate and post-graduate medical courses based on marks obtained by students in their higher secondary school examination. The Bills are likely to displease the Supreme Court, which insists that NEET marks be the sole basis for admission. The Bills will also require the President’s assent; else they would be repugnant to the provisions of the Indian Medical Council Act and the Dentists Act that prescribe the entrance test. Tamil Nadu, which abolished entrance examinations to professional courses in 2006, argues that NEET would be traumatic for both parents and children, as it would be based on a syllabus different from the one taught in schools under the board for higher secondary education. The fear is that NEET would be insurmountable for students from rural areas and under-privileged backgrounds and those who cannot afford coaching centres. Its concern that urban students, especially those from streams such as the CBSE, would dominate admissions under NEET cannot be dismissed easily.

Regulations introducing NEET were struck down by a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in 2013 by a two-one majority. Last year, a five-judge Bench recalled the verdict and NEET was back in place. Students all over the country were gripped by anxiety and tension following the sudden change in the admission method. The Centre promulgated an ordinance to grant relief for under-graduate medical admissions in 2016, but no such protection is available this year. There is now an inevitable conflict between the need for a fair and transparent admission system to curb rampant commercialisation of medical education and the socio-economic goals of the State, which is worried about producing enough committed doctors ready to serve in rural areas. Both objectives are indeed laudable. However, a moot question is whether uniformity should be thrust on a country that has wide regional, economic and linguistic disparities. Normally it is the political leadership, and not the courts, that should harmonise such differences and evolve a viable admission policy. At the same time, States cannot remain forever insulated from the need to upgrade educational standards. It may be easy to advise the courts to keep out of the policy domain, but a more difficult task is for institutions in the government and the private sector to maintain standards and pass the court’s triple test of fairness, transparency and freedom from exploitation.




Rollback in Romania

The protests that have convulsed Romania are the largest since the fall of communism in the country in 1989. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have taken to the streets against the government’s attempt to decriminalise graft involving sums below a certain threshold, ostensibly for practical reasons. The move has impressed neither the citizens of Romania, nor European Union officials in Brussels. Even the country’s President has thrown his weight behind the protests. The popular outcry against such a blatant move to relax the rules should have been anticipated by the government, especially as it had a direct bearing on the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which heads the current coalition. Its leader could not assume charge as Prime Minister only because an existing law bars convicted politicians from occupying the office. Similarly, judicial proceedings currently involving a number of elected representatives and officials are a measure of the independent functioning of the body in charge of fighting graft. It has been argued in some quarters that the agency has been overzealous in its endeavour to combat corruption. Either way, by venturing to ease the extent of the penalties, the ruling coalition has run the risk of being perceived as trying to protect the guilty.

Faced with popular anger, the government has rescinded (cancelled) the decree to let off offenders in cases where the financial harm is less than about $48,000. But it is still insistent on pursuing its controversial objective to pardon errant officials through the normal parliamentary route, citing in its defence the overcrowding of prisons. When Romania joined the EU in 2007, the precondition of membership — strict enforcement of the rule of law — sat uneasily with the realities on the ground. The country ranked high on the graft and crime index, besides attracting criticism for the treatment of its sizeable Roma minorities. Many of these concerns still remain. But they are being addressed systematically through the adoption of an institutional framework. It is these mechanisms that the government’s recent moves could potentially erode. Romanians have drawn huge economic and cultural benefits in the last decade from the freedom to move and work in a largely borderless EU. It may not be wide off the mark to suggest that their expectations of greater accountability from their rulers may reflect a sense of dignity and propriety arising from this greater exposure. Bucharest should not fritter away these fruits of integration.



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