Exams During COVID-19: Legal Angle

Reading time: 8-10 minutes

On 6th August 2020, a group of 11 students from 11 different states appearing for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (hereinafter referred to as “NEET”) and Joint Entrance Examination (hereinafter referred to as “JEE”) filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking postponement of the said exams which are scheduled to be held in September 2020, to an unspecified further date, only after normalcy is restored post the covid-19 crisis.

Matters got interesting when a Gujarat based parents association also filed a writ petition on 8th August in the Supreme Court, seeking the Court’s direction to the National Testing Agency (hereinafter referred to as “NTA”) and the Ministry of Education to hold the exams as scheduled in September 2020. The NTA is an autonomous agency tasked with the conduct of these examinations and other national entrance examinations to various graduate and undergraduate courses.

The matters are scheduled to be heard in the coming few days in the Supreme Court. In this article, we try to analyse the two petitions, their background and the legal grounds for each of them.

Facts of the Issue

The JEE and NEET exams were originally scheduled to be held in April and May 2020 respectively. In view of the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown, they were rescheduled initially to July 2020 and later to September 2020.

Let us analyse the two petitions.

  1. Students Petition

The student petitioners’ argued the following:

  1. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many aspirants who may be infected or fallen ill will be deprived of their chance to appear for the exams. This, they allege is a violation of their fundamental right to equality under article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
  2. Keeping in mind the increasing number of covid-positive cases in the country,  and the possibility of the pandemic reaching its peak around mid-September, due to the congregation of students at the limited number of centres, there is a very high risk of infection of Covid-19.
  3. Where aspirants stay far away from the examination centres, the lack of transportation facilities like public transport, the limited restarting of railways, and the unavailability of safe food, accommodation and medical facilities near the examination centres, as also the added cost of these, will be a grave burden on parents whose financial condition has been affected due to the pandemic.
  4. Aspirants from Bihar, Assam and other North Eastern states which are badly affected by floods, will face severe problems in appearing for online exams due to connectivity issues caused by the floods and in reaching the offline exam centres due to lack of transport facilities.
  5. The petition requested for increase of offline examination centres and have one centre in each district of the country.
  6. The plea cites parallels with several other examinations including CBSE exams which were cancelled due to the pandemic.
  • Parent’s Petition

Parent Petitioner’s argued the following:

  1. Further postponement of the exam will lead to loss of the academic year for the students of the 2020-2021 batch.
  2. The admissions process, even post the result of these exam, is long and prone to errors and will severely affect the academic session of the students.
  3. The students have been rigorously preparing for these exams since they were in Class 10, and the repeated postponement will cause study fatigue, thereby affecting their result.
  4. Postponement will also increase their stress levels and lead to anxiety, trauma and other mental health issues, also severely affecting their performance in these crucial exams, which determine their academic career and affecting their whole future.
  5. The plea refers to the NTA notification dated 3rd July 2020 which had given students the option to make changes to their centre of choice and also assured the students that the NTA will make every effort to allot the city of choice to the candidates as per their choice.
  6. Like the students’ petition, this petition also cites parallels with other entrance exams which were also held during the pandemic.

The NTA’s Stand

The BBC conducted an interview with Dr. Vineet Joshi, the Director General of the NTA on 9th August where he was asked about the petition of the students.

While he said that he was unaware of the particulars of the petition, he made the following points regarding the conduct of exams:

  1. As per government guidelines, the number of test centres for JEE have been increased from 450 to 600, and for NEET from 2500 to 4000.
  2. Staggered timings for students to avoid congregation of students at one time in the exam centre.
  3. Provision of thermal screening and sanitizer at all centres for students. These timings will be mentioned on the admit cards.
  4. Admit card will be accepted as pass to enter and exit containment zones. The local administration will be informed about this.
  5. The aspirants were also given a window to change their exam centre of choice in July, as per their convenience.
  6. He also expressed hope that there is still one month to go before the exams, and by that time, the flood situation in the flood affected states will also improve tremendously.
  7. He also said that the Standard Operating Procedure issued by the Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development will be adhered to strictly ensuring safety of students.

Legal Provisions Involved

The students’ petition relies upon Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees the equality of law and equal protection of law for all persons in the territory of India.

According to them, conducting the exams in September violates this right as the students who do not have a high speed internet connection or those staying away from exam centres and not having the financial means to reach the centre, as well as students hailing from flood affected states like Bihar, Assam and the North East will face severe difficulties in appearing for the exam, which will affect their chances of succeeding and in turn affect their career and future.

Article 21 provides for the right to life and personal liberty of all persons. This Article may also be invoked as the congregation of large number of aspirants at the exam centres may lead to high risk of disease and even death due to the infection. This violates the fundamental right to life of the students.

Legal Precedent

A recent petition filed by Abdulla Mannan Khan with respect to the Karnataka Common Entrance Test (hereinafter referred to as “KCET”) has many parallels with the petition filed by the students and the order of the Karnataka High Court in this matter can provide some guidance as to how the Supreme Court may look at both these petitions.

The Petitioner in this case pleaded for the postponement of the KCET on grounds similar to the students’ petition. The bench of Justices Arvind Kumar and M.I. Arun ruled that the exam should not be cancelled or postponed indefinitely, and it must be held in the interest of the students.

The Bench also said that all norms of social distancing must be followed not only inside the Centre but also outside it. Also, congregation of students must not be allowed to happen. The order also stated that due to the lack of adequate medical facilities and general physicians, the students who are Covid-19 positive must also be allowed to appear for the exam and separate rooms for such candidates must be provided, and under no condition should such candidates be stopped from appearing for the exam. 

Critical Analysis

While the Covid-19 pandemic is indeed an extraordinary situation which has affected all aspects of life, the NTA and Ministry of Human Resource Development have revised the schedule of these crucial exams twice.

While one petition places great emphasis on the right to life and equality as enshrined in the Constitution, the other places a greater emphasis on the students’ mental health and career opportunities and the loss of an academic year.

The matter is still to be heard by the Supreme Court. If the precedent of the Karnataka High Court petition is followed, it is likely that the Apex Court may allow the exam to be held, while directing the strict implementation of Standard Operating Procedure and guidelines for conduct of such examinations, to ensure safety of the students.

On the other hand, the Court may take a more cautioned stand and may direct the postponement of the exam or even cancellation of the exam. But this can create issues of its own. If it is postponed, when can it be held? There is no certainty as to when the pandemic will end or even be controlled as the vaccine trials go on in full steam. But it is highly likely that this entire academic year might be lost for all these students.

There are precedents of exams supporting both the petitions. While on one hand, the CBSE, Chartered Accountants exams were cancelled which support the contention of the student petition; the KCET and some other state entrance tests have been conducted during the pandemic.

Conclusion

As we saw that both petitions have their merits. On the one hand the right to equality and life as fundamental rights of the students and on the other side, the adverse impact due to stress, anxiety and trauma suffered due to the uncertainty around these exams for students who have toiled for almost 2-3 years just for this exam.

It remains to be seen as to which factors the Supreme Court attaches more importance to and how it balances these two issues.

Author: Hemant Kelkar.

Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.

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