Officials associated with the National Testing Agency (NTA) for conducting the JEE (Mains) and NEET do not believe that 75 percent aspirants failed to appear in the examinations as is being claimed. They, however, admitted that the turnout had been low as compared to previous years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“At least 61 percent JEE candidates appeared in the first half of the exam in Siliguri centres today,” official sources said, adding, “On an average, over 55 percent aspirants appeared in the centres.”

Notably, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had claimed that at least 75 percent aspirants could not appear in the examinations in West Bengal and that the rate of absenteeism was 50 percent across the country.

Miss Banerjee also raised questions on the need to conduct the JEE amid the pandemic and has asked the Centre to review the matter.

It may be noted here that Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and other chief ministers held an online meeting on this issue, and under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, six non-BJP states opposed the decision and had filed a review petition in the Supreme Court. However, the apex court today rejected the plea against holding the NEET-JEE exams.

Notably, JEE and NEET were scheduled to be held in May and July, but the NTA could not do so because of the Covid-19, while the Supreme Court finally asked the government to go ahead with the exams in September.

The NTA has started conducting the exams from 1 September and it will continue till 6 September across the country. In West Bengal, the JEE is being held in Kolkata, Durgapur and Siliguri. The NTA is also preparing to conduct the NEET on 13 September across the country.

Notably, around 9,500 NEET candidates, following last year’s records, are scheduled to reach Siliguri before or on 13 September. Controversy also surfaced after the state government announced a total lockdown on 7, 11 and 12 September.

Guardians of thousands of NEET examinees in Bengal were confused, while some expressed unhappiness over the state government’s decision to announce the lockdown, especially on the day before the NEET. On the other hand, sources said that the Odisha government has made elaborate arrangements for free transportation and lodging for JEE and NEET aspirants.

A section of the parents are now asking whether Miss Banerjee will change the dates for the lockdown and also make arrangements for aspirants in both north and south Bengal.

Secretary of the Eastern Himalayan Travel and Tour Operators’ Association (EHTTOA), Sandipan Ghosh, said parents of NEET aspirants have started booking hotels in Siliguri, and that the present occupancy rate is over 50 percent. Records show only 81 of the 208 candidates appeared in the first half of the JEE on 1 September in Siliguri. The absence rate was 61.06 percent. Similarly, in the second half, the rate was 71.82 percent. But on day two, 70.82 percent aspirants appeared in the JEE in the first half, while on 3 September, 65 percent of the candidates wrote their exams.

“The average attendance as of today is 55.28 percent,” the sources said.

Records show that 74.60 percent aspirants appeared in the JEE on 7 April last year. A total of 2,805 (85.94) of the 3,264 candidates appeared in the JEE in Siliguri centres last year, while 459 candidates (16.36) were absent in April 2019.

Asked to comment, former Registrar of the North Bengal University, Dr Tapas K Chatterjee said: “The Supreme Court ruled on August 17 that the JEE (Mains) and NEET Exams cannot be postponed further for the third time in a row. The Court was quite explicit in its judgement and said ‘Life has to go on. Life has to move ahead. Precious year of students cannot be wasted.'”

“Though various state governments started preparing for the required logistics, even while the pandemic continued, so that these national exams may be conducted by the NTA as smoothly as possible, a few non-BJP state governments, except for Odisha planned otherwise. Sitting idle over 11 days, they jointly moved the SC on 28 August for a review of its order, leaving even the minimum arrangements in abeyance. Meanwhile, the exams started on 1 September as there was no further ruling from the Court,” Dr Chatterjee said.

According to him, parents and students in the states which went to the SC are spending sleepless nights for acute and multiplying nature of uncertainties of transportation to reach the exam venue, although the number of venues has been doubly increased by the NTA considering the circumstances.

“It must be noted that the students have prepared for these two highly competitive and extremely tough tests over the past 3-4 years,” Dr Chatterjee said, adding, “They are aspirational, career-oriented, ambitious and want to move ahead despite adversities. Their expectations from the government machinery are too simple and legitimate to be ignored. They only expect a reasonable arrangement of public transport and non-obstruction. Two consecutive days of lockdown in the face of NEET on 13 September is nothing but a nasty confrontation with aspirational groups of students.”