Cambridge Assessment International Education

West Bengal: Good ill-wind

September 17, 2020

– Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

Mamata Banerjee IIT JEE NEETPostponed twice for fear of spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the IIT-JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) for admission into the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and top-ranked engineering colleges countrywide was held from September 1-6, even as the aggregate number of coronavirus positive cases in India crossed 4 million.

There has been a continuous chorus for postponement of this exam and NEET, the national common medical colleges entrance exam, because of fear of examinees contracting the dread virus. Opposition leaders including Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, her Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik, DMK leader M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu and Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had demanded postponement. However on August 17, the Supreme Court dismissed a public interest litigation writ seeking postponement of the two exams, stating a “precious year” of students cannot be wasted and life has to go on.

By some accounts the world’s most competitive exam, IIT-JEE is held in two stages — Mains and Advanced. It selects students to be admitted into the country’s 23 blue-chip IITs, 31 NITs (National Institutes of Technology) and Centrally Funded Technical Institutions (CFTIs).

IIT-JEE Mains was written by 9.58 lakh higher secondary school-leavers from September 1-6. The top-ranked 2.5 lakh students will become eligible to write the IIT-JEE (Advanced) exam scheduled for September 27 for mission
into the IITs, NITs and CFTIs. The other common national exam — National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), a pen-paper exam — is scheduled for September 13 with 1.5 million school-leavers having registered to write it.

The Central government’s National Testing Agency (NTA) claims that all arrangements were made to ensure smooth conduct of the exams, and that more than 99 percent of the candidates were given their first choice of centres and cities to write their exams with the number of examination centres increased to 660 from 570 for IITJEE, and 3,843 from 2,546 for NEET. Moreover, the number of examinees per shift was reduced from 1.32 lakh to 85,000 for IIT-JEE, with the number of shifts increased from eight to 12 to maintain social distancing norms.

However according to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, because of national lockdown constraints, 75 percent of IIT-JEE (Main) candidates from West Bengal couldn’t write the exam held on September 1. “Out of 4,652 candidates registered for IIT-JEE, in Kolkata only 1,167 wrote the exam despite all arrangements made as per NTA directives,” said Banerjee at a media conference held on September 2. With her forecast that conditions were not conducive for holding these two national exams vindicated, the chief minister urged the Centre to reconsider the situation of the 75 percent who couldn’t write IIT-JEE this year.

In West Bengal, 188 engineering colleges, including one IIT, one NIT and Jadavpur University (NIRF ranking 17) admit 32,700 engineering students in 1,588 courses every year. Moreover, 18 medical colleges  13 government-run, four private and one Central government-run — offer a mere 2,600 seats. Every year, 150,000-200,000 school-leavers from West Bengal (pop. 91 million) prepare for these exams with many of them signing up with coaching institutes such as FITJEE and Aakash in which test prep course fees are Rs.2-3 lakh. This year, a large number of thoroughly coached and prepared students couldn’t reach their chosen exam centres because of lockdown-related problems.

Although the state government had asked all state public transport utilities to commence services from 5 a.m from September 1-6, several candidates from North 24 Parganas, Berhampur, Malda and Siliguri districts claimed they had to endure long waits braving monsoon rains to get buses to reach their test centres, even as local train services remained suspended because of local lockdowns.

The desperation of school-leavers in the state to write IIT-JEE and NEET is understandable. During 34 years of uninterrupted rule (1977-2011) of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government in West Bengal — once post-independence India’s most industrialised state — there was a continuous flight of capital out of the state. As a result, unemployment has become a major problem inherited by the Trinamool Congress government led by stormy petrel Mamata Banerjee who routed the Left Front in the historic state legislative election of 2011, and again in 2016. Nevertheless with a population of 7.6 million registered unemployed youth, engineering and medical degrees are widely regarded as the only hope for gainful employment. Hence the hysteria over IIT-JEE and NEET exams.

With the next assembly elections less than a year away, political commentators in Kolkata believe that Banerjee’s aggressive stand against holding these entrance examinations amid the Covid pandemic has struck a responsive chord in the state’s struggling but influential middle class. Meanwhile, promulgation of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 by the BJP government on July 29, has been interpreted as a policy to radically privatise education and has rubbed the state’s influential intelligentsia the wrong way. Moreover, the Centre’s insistence
on staging these crucial public examinations amidst the pandemic has disenchanted the students’ community.

The IIT-JEE and NEET ill-wind that blew over West Bengal seems to have done Banerjee some good. The West Bengal legislative assembly elections are scheduled for next summer with Banerjee facing a third term anti incumbency wave.

Also read: How to Prepare for JEE

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