At a time when medical admissions in the country remain fraught due to entrance test controversy, the Assam government has chosen to tie itself up into knots further by tweaking OBC quota rules. If not wisdom, at least experience in such matters should have made the ruling dispensation in Dispur wary of changing goalposts after the game had begun. But the State cabinet in a decision on June 16 last raised the OBC quota in the six State medical colleges this year from 15 to 26.4 percent, while also raising the number of seats for tea tribes from 8 to 18 and Muttock and Moran communities each from 2 to 3. Accordingly, changes were incorporated in the medical admission rules for 2017, under which counselling was held for students who cleared the medical entrance test NEET (tiol Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test) held in May. There were under changes from the medical admission rules of 2015, most notably cutting down the central quota from 15 to 6 percent, as well as abolition of 13 seats reserved under NEC quota (of which 10 seats used to be allotted to Meghalaya and one each to Manipur, Mizoram and galand). Counselling was duly begun for the total 726 medical seats in Assam; students were also selected for the seats under OBC quota, which under the changed rules of 2017 went up to 156 from the 88 seats allotted under 2015 rules. So, 68 more students were selected under OBC quota this year and many of them have begun attending classes since August 1. And as it usually happens, there were aggrieved candidates who could not make it to the selected list and knocked at court doors. The aggrieved students challenging the new rules also include those declared non-eligible by OBC creamy layer clause.
Not surprisingly, the Gauhati High Court recently struck down the 2017 rules and directed the State government to abide by the 2015 rules. Why? Because, the 2015 rules were in force when the CBSE notification came out on January 30 this year on holding of NEET to select candidates for admission into MBBS/BDS courses across the country. The Assam government notified the 2017 rules only on July 11, nearly a couple of months after NEET was held in May. With around 35-40 medical students selected under OBC quota now likely to lose their seats due to resumption of 2015 rules, chaotic scenes have been witnessed at the Directorate of Medical Education in Guwahati while counselling has been suspended. A red faced Health Department then rushed to the court with a plea to review its order on ‘humanitarian ground’ as the affected OBC students, likely to lose their seats to general category and OBC creamy layer candidates, have already been attending classes in their institutions of choice. Quite a few of them have foregone admission in other courses including engineering, and are now set to lose a priceless academic year that can hugely damage their careers. Such outcome should have been foreseen by the powers-be in Dispur when they went about tinkering with OBC quota rules bang midway through the medical admissions process this year. Entrance exams ought not be held under one set of rules and admissions conducted under another set of rules. With stakes high due to intense competition, any changes if considered necessary should be carefully introduced much before the process begins, so the candidates know how the field is set out and where they stand.
After considering the State government’s writ appeal, the Gauhati High Court has now directed the authorities not to disturb those candidates already admitted to MBBS and BDS courses this year. So there is relief at last from the court for students adversely affected by the government’s muddling. But it is still unclear whether the 13 seats under NEC quota will be reinstated under the 2015 rules; there is already much heartburn in Meghalaya over losing 10 seats in medical and dental colleges of Assam, which would hurt the neighbouring State’s healthcare sector. It should also be kept in mind that another set of candidates moved Gauhati High Court this year against the Assam government’s move to further stiffen the 2015 rules by making it mandatory for candidates to study from classes VI to XII in schools in the State. The HC division bench has upheld this revised stipulation to be constitutiolly valid and the matter will be heard next week by the Supreme Court. What needs to be appreciated is that the CBSE conducted NEET is still a work in progress, having replaced only last year the All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) and entrance tests conducted by States and some premier medical institutes. As recent events in Tamil du go to show, the State board there failed to prepare students adequately for NEET, leading to suicide of a crusading student after the AIADMK government failed to pass an ordince to exempt the State from NEET. As for the Central government, it recently raised the income limit for OBC creamy layer to Rs 2 lakh per annum while setting up of a panel for sub-categorisation within OBCs. Given the complexity of entrance tests and caste equations both at Central and State levels, the least Assam government could have done was to exercise abundant caution in such matters and not add further to the confusion at this juncture.