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The Supreme Court in the recent judgment of Christian Medical College Vellore Association v/s Union of India And Others, ruled that the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), which is given for entrance into medical and dental courses, does not violate the rights of aided or unaided minority institutions under the Constitution of India. The three-judge bench comprising of Justices Arun Mishra, Justice Vineet Saran, and Justice MR Shah passed the aforementioned judgment on April 29, 2020.
The main point of contention raised in front of the judges was that NEET violated the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article19 (1) (g) of the Indian Constitution and the rights of religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice as guaranteed under Article 30, read with Articles 25 and Article 26, which includes their right to admit students of their own choice. But the Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that in the view of national and public interest, NEET would be applicable for both aided and unaided medical colleges administered by minorities.
Introduction to NEET
As priorly stated, NEET stands for National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test and is a national level single medical entrance exam conducted to provide admissions to eligible candidates into MBBS, BDS, MD, MS, etc. courses in India. The purpose behind it was to create a single common entrance exam for all the medical courses in the country and ensure uniformity in the process of admission into the medical courses at various universities and colleges across India. NEET-UG is conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) and NEET-PG is conducted by the National Board of Examinations (NBE), both autonomous bodies set up by the Government of India. With approximately 15,00,000 test-takers, NEET is the most important medical entrance examination in India and is conducted once every year.
History of NEET
NEET is the brainchild of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India and Medical Council of India (MCI). The exam replaced the All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) and other medical entrance exams and brought uniformity in the admission process to the medical courses offered across the country. NEET was notified under the ‘Regulations on Graduate Medical Education 1997’ and ‘BDS Course Regulations, 2007’ by the Medical Council of India and the Dental Council of India and published in the Gazette of India Extraordinary in 2012. The modifications were related to the introduction of the single eligibility-cum-entrance exam for admissions to the medical courses, i.e., NEET, its qualification, rules, and eligibility criteria.
NEET was conducted for the first time in 2012. Several states including Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala opposed it stating that it infringed on their rights because education is a subject in the state list. The Supreme Court passed a judgment declaring the test ‘unconstitutional’ because it deprived the state-run universities and colleges the right to evaluate students on the criteria set by them. In April 2016, the Supreme Court recalled the 2013 judgment and ordered for NEET to be conducted from the 2016 academic year.
The petitions filed in the court challenged the constitutional validity of the NEET notifications issued by the Medical Council of India and Dental Council of India. In 2016, these notifications were incorporated as statutory provisions as Sections 10D of the Indian Medical Council Act of 1956 and similar amendments were made to the Dentists Act and the validity of these amendments was in question here.
The leading petitioner, in this case, Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore has been fighting a losing battle against NEET ever since the changes were brought about in 2012. It was urged on behalf of the petitioners that the State has no power to compel an unaided minority institution to admit students through a single centralized national examination such as NEET. They further claimed that the unaided minority professional colleges have the fundamental rights to choose the method and manner in which to admit its students, subject to satisfying the triple test of having a fair, transparent, and non-exploitative process. Another contention raised was that NEET cannot be the only parameter to determine the merit of a student and institutions have fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(g) and 30(1) of the Constitution to conduct and manage the affairs of the institution.
The Supreme Court did not find much relevance in the petitioners’ objections. They have taken the help of various decisions, which are of the view that some system of computing equivalence between different kinds of qualifications like a common entrance test, would not violate the rights conferred. They have pointed out that the unaided minority institutions under Article 30(1) of the Constitution of India have the right to admit students, but the merit may be determined by a common entrance test and the rights under Article 30(1) are not absolute to prevent the Government from making any regulations and the Government cannot be prevented from framing regulations that are in the national interest and that the State can impose such conditions as are necessary for the proper maintenance of standards of education and to check maladministration. The Court duly noted that large-scale malpractices, exploitation of students, profiteering, and commercialization of entrance examinations held by various institutions exist, and this further leads to failing the triple test of having a fair, transparent, and non-exploitative process.
Thus, the Court held that the regulatory mechanism for centralized examination is legal and constitutional and does not infringe on the fundamental rights of the minority or non-minority to establish and administer educational institutions.
Significance of the SC judgment
With this judgment, the Court has tried to strike a just balance between the fundamental rights of the institutions and the larger interest of the society. It has been stated that “There is no right given to mal-administer the education derogatory to the national interest. The quality of medical education is imperative to sub-serve the national interest, and the merit cannot be compromised. The decision to regulate admission in professional colleges on a national basis has been given to wipe out the corruption and various evils from the system.”
If such a decision would not have been taken, keeping in mind the national atmosphere, there would be no end to the multiplicity of examinations for the students and this also helps in ensuring fairness in the selection, recognition of merit, and the interests of the students. The SC pointed out, “To weed out evils from the system, which were eating away fairness in the admission process, defeating merit and aspiration of the common incumbent with no means, the State has the right to frame regulatory regime for aided/unaided minority/private institutions as mandated by Directives Principles, Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.”
Thus, the Court stated that they are of the opinion that rights under Articles 19(1)(g) and 30 read with Articles 25, 26 and 29(1) of the Constitution of India do not come in the way of securing transparency and recognition of merits in the matter of admissions and reasonable restrictions can be imposed in the national and public interest. They have ensured that the rights under Article 19(1)(g) are not absolute and are subject to reasonable restriction in the interest of the student’s community to promote merit, recognition of excellence, and to curb the malpractices and NEET as a Uniform Entrance Test qualifies the test of proportionality and is, therefore, reasonable. It is also intended to check several maladies that have crept into medical education and to prevent exploitation, profiteering, and commercialization of education.
The bench, led by Justice Mishra, set aside all the challenges to the common entrance exam and ensured that this will result in a meritorious and proper entry of the students in the medical fields. The Court opined that there is no violation of the rights of the unaided/aided minority to administer institutions under Articles 19(1) (g) and 30 read with Articles 25, 26 and 29(1) of the Constitution of India by prescribing the uniform examination of NEET for admissions in the graduate and postgraduate professional courses of medical as well as dental science. Organizing a single entrance exam solves many problems like providing uniformity to the profound system of admissions and making the process easier, reducing the pressure on students who now only have to prepare for one common test, reducing the financial strain on the applicants, and ensuring more transparency in the examination. Moreover, contribute towards generating and adding well-educated medical professionals into the public health workforce.
The Court once again through the means of this judgment reiterated that the regulatory measures are not made to interfere with the rights to administer the institution by the religious or linguistic minorities, but the idea is to bring the education within the realm of charity, the character which it has lost over time.
Author: Nimrat Dhillon from Government Law College, Mumbai.
Editor: Muskaan Garg from Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.