There are strong arguments on either side of the debate that rages on the timing of the Joint Entrance Examination and the National Eligibility and Entrance Test. Those in favour of a deferment including Chief Ministers of important states such as West Bengal, Maharashtra and Odisha argue that the holding of the examinations, which decide admissions to engineering and medical colleges, will endanger public safety and put to inconvenience candidates who will have to travel long distances to reach test centres. It will be impossible to enforce social distancing norms and safety measures needed to conduct the examinations, they say.
The Union Government maintains it will go ahead as it is under “constant pressure” from students and their parents who ask how long they can be expected to keep up preparations. Certainly, the task of conducting the examinations is a daunting one as nearly a million students have registered for the JEE (Mains) and more than 1.5 million for NEET.
The preparations the Government says it will put in place ~ seating in alternate rows, reduction of candidates per room from 24 to 12 and staggered entry and exit timings for candidates ~ will test resources, and likely result in some flouting of safety norms, inevitable because of the sheer numbers. But the alternative is that academic calendars will be thrown out of kilter and could even lead to the loss of a year. Besides, as many educationists have pointed out, there is no evidence to suggest that a postponement will lead to more propitious circumstances, for the public health emergency is not likely to go away in a few weeks or even months. On the contrary, India’s mounting numbers of Covid positive cases and the rate at which they are growing, suggest that things may get worse before they eventually get better.
Of course, while the decision on conducting the examination is within the province of the Union government, its implementation calls for the involvement and cooperation of states. Such involvement may in some cases be half-hearted considering that positions have hardened, and the debate has acquired political overtones. There are more than 600 centres around the country for JEE and nearly 4,000 for NEET and many are facilities under the management of states. Students seem reconciled to the examination dates, and most candidates for the JEE have already downloaded their admit cards.
The argument that many examinees are stranded far away from their centres has been blunted by the fact that a miniscule number have sought changes in examination venues. The Supreme Court has in a limited sense already weighed in on the matter, and unless it does so decisively if a petition is preferred by the states that seek a deferment, the examinations will go ahead. On balance, this may be the best solution to a seemingly intractable problem and if so, it must be accepted by all without reservation.