Tamil Nadu: Will bringing education back on State List end NEET-linked suicides?

South Indian states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, enacted reformative education policies when education was under the preview of state governments.

ByLaasya Shekhar

Published Aug 19, 2023 | 12:00 PMUpdatedAug 19, 2023 | 1:01 PM

Government schools/ Education Policies

Single parent P Selvasekar, 48, vowed to fight the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) after performing the last rites of his son, S Jegadeeswaran, who died by suicide on Saturday, 12 August. The 19-year-old student took the extreme step after failing twice to clear the NEET.

A day after taking the vow, Selvasekar, too, hanged himself, prompting Youth Welfare and Sports Minister Udayanidhi Stalin to say that NEET has started affecting parents too.

Addressing the state on Independence Day, Chief Minister MK Stalin, too, referred to the “cruel” NEET while demanding the Union government to shift education from the Concurrent List to the State List.

“Only by moving education to the State List of the Constitution, qualifying examination methods like the cruel National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test could be completely scrapped,” he said.

He then went on to cite former chief ministers and Dravidian icons CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi, who stood for autonomy for states in a federal India.

Federalism, apparently, was in Stalin’s mind when he demanded education to be included on the State List. The state government had brought and passed the NEET Exemption Bill twice in the Assembly, but Governor RN Ravi refused assent.

Ravi has categorically said he would not give assent to the Bill. “…I will be the last man to give clearance. I do not want my children to feel intellectually disabled. I want our children to compete and be the best. They have proved it,” he said during an interaction with top NEET scorers at the Raj Bhavan.

Coincidentally, the Governor made the assertion on Saturday, the day on which Jegadeeswaran ended his life, the 16th NEET aspirant to die in Tamil Nadu since the suicide of S Anita on 1 September 2017.

Also Read: ‘I will never give clearance to anti-NEET Bill,’ says Governor Ravi

Fallout of Emergency

In the wake of the twin suicides, Stalin urged President Droupadi Murmu to give assent to the NEET Exemption Bill. 

He also demanded that all subjects, specifically education, having direct connection with people, should be brought under the State List. The demand, however, was not new. 

Stalin’s demand reignited a discussion that dates back to the Emergency period. Education was a state subject till the Emergency in 1975-77. 

The Union government moved education from the State List to Concurrent List through the 42nd Amendment in 1976. 

During the Emergency, education was moved from the State to Concurrent List without any discussion in the state Legislative Assembly. Several political leaders then were in jail,” said PB Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of the State Platform for Common School System-Tamil Nadu (SPCSS-TN).

“When the rights of the state were under threat and when the freedom of speech and fundamental rights were suspended, education was moved to the Concurrent List. It was an unjustified act,” Babu told South First.  

Also Read: Father found dead 2 days after NEET aspirant dies by suicide

Reformation policies 

When education was on the State List, South Indian states made important policies. In 1957, the then Education Minister of Kerala, Professor Joseph Mundasseri, introduced the Kerala Education Bill in the state Assembly.

The Bill was intended to end malpractices in private educational institutions and to standardise syllabi and the pay scales of employees. The Bill became the Kerala Education Act, 1958 in January 1959.

“The Bill put the onus of providing education up to the school level on the state. It also directed the private institutions not to collect fees till Class 5. The Supreme Court struck down the part about private schools, but the intention of the Bill speaks volumes about the responsibility of the state governments,” Babu pointed out.

The Kerala Education Act embodied the spirit of  Article 45 of the Indian Constitution (prior the 86th amendment) that said the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children till age 14. 

It was also in line with Article 41 which states that the state governments should ensure the right to education, according to the economic development of the state. 

Incidentally, the Bill, along with Agrarian Relations Bill, ran into stiff opposition in Kerala and the vimochana samaram — or the liberation struggle — was launched.

Spearheaded by the Syro-Malabar Church, the Nair Service Society, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Congress, the struggle culminated in the dismissal of the EMS Namboodiripad-led communist government on 31 July 1959.

Also Read: Gov has nothing to do with the anti-NEET bill: TN health minister

The Tamil Nadu example

K Kamaraj focused on taking education to the masses after he became the Chief Minister of Madras Province in 1954. 

“The government opened a primary school every three kms and a high school every five kms. The focus was to open schools in villages. Government colleges, too, were opened,” Babu said. 

Unlike Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Tamil Nadu did not make additional investment on opening junior colleges for higher secondary education. 

“Tamil Nadu introduced higher secondary education in the school education system by upgrading the high schools,” Babu said. The strategy worked well as the gross enrolment rate of students from schools to colleges is 50 percent in Tamil Nadu whereas the national rate is just 27 percent,” he pointed out.

“Most of the general schools are state-administered and state-funded. The state has the expertise to run it. It is only fair that the Union government provided resources and gave the powers to the state government,” Babu added

Also Read: NEET aspirant from Salem ends life while preparing for 3rd attempt

The NEET business

Data submitted to the Madras High Court revealed that 3,033 candidates in Tamil Nadu, who attended coaching classes, got MBBS admission through NEET in 2019-20. Only 48 students, who did not attend coaching classes, cleared the NEET.

“It shows that students are shelling out huge amounts to prepare for the NEET. Those who cannot afford the coaching classes, but are passionate about medicine, opted to commit suicide and this trend is on a rise,” DMK Rajya Sabha MP P Wilson, who moved a private member’s Bill to exempt Tamil Nadu from NEET, said

There were instances of impersonations during NEET and criminal cases have been filed. “Why should we have such a system which frustrates everyone,” he asked.

“NEET has not in any way multiplied the advancement of high-quality medical care. It led to broken hearts, and deaths. There are exceptionally talented students whose parents cannot afford fancy NEET coaching classes,” senior journalist R Bhagwan Singh said. 

Also Read: Centre open to views on NEP, says Union Minister Pradhan

Why state list?

According to Chief Minister Stalin, bringing education back on the State List is the only way to scrap the NEET. 

“When a subject is in the Concurrent List, both the state and the Union can legislate. But here is the problem: Once the Union legislates, it takes control of the entire entry/subject and the state can’t make independent legislation unless the President gives assent to it under Article 254,” Wilson told South First

For example, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed the NEET Exemption Bill two years ago. At first, Governor Ravi returned the Bill saying that the state has no jurisdiction on the subject since the Union government had passed a legislation on the matter. 

The Assembly convened specifically for the NEET Exemption Bill and adopted it for a second time and forwarded it to the Governor. The Governor was constitutionally mandated to either give assent or forward it to the President. 

Now, the Union government has been withholding the Bill despite the state clarifying its several doubts.

“This would not have happened if education was on the state list,” Wilson said. The President has not yet approved the Bill.

Also Read: Proposed NEP will result in ‘negation of religion’: Kerala Opposition

Opposition to NEP

A few experts South First spoke to advocated bring education back on the State List, especially since the National Education Policy (NEP) has run into stiff opposition.

Recently, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced the decision to discontinue the implementation of NEP in the state’s higher education institutions.

“Many committees, including the PV Rajamannar Committee, recommend that education should be on the State List. As bringing one law and nationalising education in the name of NEP is unfair, state governments should have exclusive power over education,” Wilson said. 

“MK Stalin is taking into account the new emerging socio-political-economic conditions. Tamil Nadu has seen excellent doctors, and has seen the evolution of world-class institutions before NEET,” Singh added. 

“As health is on the State List and is a fundamental duty, it makes sense if medical education is also within the state purview so that the state government can develop the medical infrastructure and simultaneously take care of public health,” Wilson said.

Also Read: 2026: Education, an emerging flash point

Counter view

“Practically, I don’t think any Union government would want to move education from the Concurrent to the State List,” political analyst Sumanth Raman told South First, adding that the government had enough opportunities to do so since 1976. 

The only advantage would be that the state governments could assess the situation and design better educational policies, he said.  

“Lot of courses are pan-Indian. There should be some broad standards across the country. How do you enforce national standards? A degree is valid across the country. Why do you have the All India Council for Technical  Education and National Council of Education,” he questioned. 

“You can’t have an MBBS degree that allows you the licence to practise only in one state,” Raman said.