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NEET-UG: SC Agree “Exam Compromised” but Wary of Ordering Retest before Assessing Extent of Paper Leak  

NEET-UG: SC Agree “Exam Compromised” but Wary of Ordering Retest before Assessing Extent of Paper Leak  

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, July 8: Even while agreeing that the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for admission in undergraduate medical courses (NEET-UG) held on May 5 was “compromised” because of a paper leak, the Supreme Court on Monday advocated “utmost caution” in ordering a re-test because it was dealing with the careers of 23 lakh students.

The Supreme Court was hearing 38 petitions related to the NEET UG 2024 exam irregularities and a demand to conduct the exam afresh on grounds such as paper leak, OMR sheet manipulation, impersonation and cheating. A three-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, was hearing the petitions on the first day of resumption after the summer vacation.

Stating that the NEET-UG 2024 test was indeed compromised since a paper leak had happened, the bench ordered the asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to file a status report and the National Testing Agency (NTA), which conducted the test, to submit a full disclosure affidavit on the next date of hearing of the case on July 11. The court also noted that before a retest was ordered, “We must be conscious of extent of leak as we are dealing with 23 lakh students.”

The court also ordered the NTA to disclose the steps taken to identify the centres where the paper leak had happened.  “The fact that the sanctity of the exam has been compromised is beyond doubt, that there has been a leak. We take it that there is a leak, there is no question about it. But the nature of the leak is what we are determining,” the CJI said, adding that the extent of the leak would determine the need for a retest.

“Before we order a retest, we must be conscious of the extent of leak as we are dealing with the careers of 23 lakh students. This concerns costs to be incurred, travelling and dislodging of the academic schedule,” the CJI observed.

The CJI said that the court needed to know “what is the nature of leak, how was the leak, how was the leak disseminated, what are the actions taken, which centre did the leak take place at and what has NTA has done to identify the beneficiary students of the wrongdoing.”

The court said several questions needed to be answered before a retest was ordered to determine if there was a need for one. The court asked the NTA to submit a full disclosure on the nature of the leak, the places where the paper leak occurred and the time lag between the paper leak and the conduct of the examination.

The court asked whether the whole exam has been affected. The bench also questioned if it was possible to identify wrong doers, in which case a retest can be ordered for those students only. The Centre and the NTA have already told the court in separate affidavits that scrapping the entire exam and ordering retest would be “counterproductive” and “seriously jeopardise” lakhs of honest candidates in the absence of any proof of large-scale breach of confidentiality. The NEET-UG is conducted by the NTA for admissions to MBBS, BDS, AYUSH and other related courses in government and private institutions across the country.

“The Court is concerned about ensuring the sanctity of the NEET test, so that such instances are not repeated. It would be necessary for the government to consider setting up a multi-disciplinary team of renowned experts. If a committee has already been setup, full details should be made available to the Court. The Court may then consider whether the committee should be allowed to proceed or the composition should be modified”, the CJI noted in the order.

It said the “NTA must disclose – (1) the steps taken so far for identification of beneficiaries. (2) the steps which were taken by the NTA to identify centres/cities where the leak took place (3) the modalities followed for identifying the number of students who have so far been identified to be beneficiaries of the leak,” the CJI asserted.

Furthermore, the CJI has questioned about the paper leak that has taken place in two exam centres. The CJI has sought an answer on how the NTA sends question papers for printing, and how they are distributed.

“When were the papers pulled out? What time was the exam? How were the papers distributed abroad? When were they sent abroad? How were they sent to embassies? Diplomatic bag or courier?, the CJI asked. The top court has questioned whether the paper leak took place on the day of the exam, May 5, or before. “The beneficiaries need to be identified,” the bench said.

The Supreme Court said if the sanctity of the medical entrance exam NEET-UG 2024 is “lost” and if the leak of its question paper has been propagated through social media, then a re-test has to be ordered. “If the sanctity of the exam is lost, then a re-test has to be ordered. If we are unable to identify those who are guilty, then a re-test has to be ordered,” the bench observed, adding that if the leak was propagated through social media, then a re-test has to be ordered.

The court also stressed a re-test could only be ordered if there was sufficient time (the court did not specify how much this should be) between the leak of the questions and the conduct of the exam. “If time lag was too long then there needs to be a re-test or, if we can’t identify candidates who are guilty of wrongdoing, then a retest has to be ordered,” the Supreme Court said.

The CJI also said that the affidavit by NTA, Union and the one by the CBI shall be placed on record at 5 pm on Wednesday and submitted to the counsel of the petitioners as well.

On the Supreme Court’s hearing on the NEET-UG 2024 exam, Advocate Shwetank, who is representing petitioners, said, “The Supreme Court has raised some questions which have to be answered by the NTA and Union Government. Supreme Court has asked them to provide the data within the next three days.”

The advocate also pointed out that the NTA was saying different things about the paper leak case. On one hand, the NTA said the paper leak has happened at a minuscule level, and on the other hand, the CBI was investigating 6 cases with FIRs registered in Patna, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, the counsel stated.

Instead of ordering an immediate re-test, the court advised the constitution of a multi-disciplinary panel to probe this issue, which is already being investigated by the CBI and the police. The CBI’s investigation spans multiple states and has already led to the questioning of individuals and several arrests connected to the case.

The court also rapped the government for being in “denial mode” and said it should be “ruthless” in dealing with candidates who paid for the leaked exam and those who supplied the question paper. Let us not be in self-denial about what happened…” the bench said, adding, “Assuming we do not cancel, what will the government do to identify the beneficiaries? You have to be ruthless… bring some sense of confidence to the process.”

The NEET-UG exam – held annually for admission to undergraduate medical courses – were conducted on May 5. The controversy broke last month after results were announced. The first red flags were the unusually high number of perfect scores; a record 67 students, including six from one coaching centre, scored a maximum 720. Questions were also asked over the award of ‘grace marks’ – not exam protocol, the NTA said – to 1,563 students.

A retest for those 1,563 students was held last week, but thousands did not appear for the exam. After the UG paper controversy, and the cancelling of the UGC-NET exam, for appointment to professorial posts in colleges and universities, the NEET-PG exam was cancelled.



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