About two hours before the chief ministers of seven opposition-ruled states, led by Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi, got together on a Zoom call on Wednesday afternoon to prepare a protest strategy against the Centre’s decision to go ahead with NEET and JEE (Mains) exams, the admission cards for the former were released online by the National Testing Agency (NTA) at noon.
By the time the virtual meeting concluded, more than five lakh students had downloaded their admit cards "in a clear sign that not all students were against the entrance exam that determines admission eligibility for medical colleges". Most students spend three to four years preparing for NEET and any further delay could mean they lose out on the entire academic year.
While there are some genuine concerns around students' health and safety, NTA Director General Vineet Joshi, in an interview to state broadcaster Doordarshan, said, "From students we have two kinds of representations – some want the exams to be postponed while some want the exams to be held this time. We were supposed to have JEE in April and NEET in May but on the behest of the students it was postponed to July. We have now come with the new dates in September. Both these representations of students are there with us. We want the exams to happen with the implementation of SOPs and students following advisory."
In an earlier statement, the NTA said 8.58 lakh and 15.97 lakh candidates have registered for JEE (Main) and NEET (UG) respectively. Joshi said that in a good sign, "out of the 8.58 lakh students for JEE (Mains) almost 7.38 lakh have downloaded their admit cards, which is 75%. And we opened NEET (UG) today at 12pm. In three hours, 4,30,000 students have downloaded their admit cards. This means more students want to sit for exams and hence will be following the rules."
Joshi said the NTA launched a new app 'Abhyas' to make study-at-home material available for students. "Every day there was a paper uploaded on the app and students solved it. The results were out as well and if they got the answer wrong, the app provided the diagnosis. So far, 16,50,000 students have downloaded it. We launched it on May 19 and will hold the 100th test," he said.
Joshi also elaborated on the strength and coordination with local authorities to ensure safe conduct of the examinations. "These are national-level examinations and the authorities have been preparing for quite some time, which requires logistical thinking. I amm not preparing for exams in about a day or two. We kept the pandemic and norms of social distancing in mind," he said.
There will be several queue managers and more invigilators present at examination centres this year. The NTA on Tuesday issued a statement saying in case of JEE (Main), which is computer-based, the number of shifts has been increased from the earlier eight to 12 and the number of candidates per shift has been reduced from 1.32 lakh to 85,000. There will be alternate seating arrangements.
In case of NEET (UG), which is a pen and paper-based test, the number of candidates per room has been reduced from 24 to 12 now.
The students will not be allowed to crowd and stand within the circles marked at the centre. Their entry and exit will also be staggered. Parents will not be allowed to stay after dropping the candidates at the exam centres. In case there is a sudden declaration of a containment zone, then students will use their admit cards for movement and functionaries at the exam centres can use their appointment letters. The NTA is in touch with city coordinators, observers and superintendents.
"We cannot lose more time in worrying about natural disasters like floods, nobody can foresee anything, we can work in saving the academic calendar, it is good for students," said Joshi.
Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare said there is no plan as of now to rethink the decision and that examinations will take place as per schedule.
On the other hand, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday appealed to other leaders to file a joint petition in the Supreme Court to postpone the exams. She was supported by Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, who has directed his state Advocate General to coordinate with his counterparts in other opposition-ruled states to file a collective review petition in the Supreme Court.
With 3.23 million cases and 59,449 deaths across the country so far, the candidates and their families have no trust in travelling for the exams as the fear of social distancing norms not being met will prevail. Students have also called for a campaign in which they will protest from home, starting 8am on Thursday, and "raise black flags, tie black bands on arms or forehead, wear black masks, turn their profile pictures BLACK!" These students have also found support from global climate activist Greta Thunberg and Bollywood actor Sonu Sood.