On Tuesday, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a bill regulating admissions to undergraduate medical courses in the state for the second time. The bill was first passed in September 2021 but was returned to the Assembly by Governor RN Ravi on February 3 for it to be reconsidered. Ravi said it would undermine the interests of the students, especially those from rural and economically poor backgrounds.

This bill puts medical seats in the state outside the purview of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, the national entrance exam for admission to undergraduate medical courses. If it is put in effect, then students from Tamil Nadu would get admission to medical colleges in the state on the basis of their class 12 marks.

Since the Assembly has passed the bill twice, the governor is bound to clear it. However, even after this, it has a long way to go before becoming law. To start with, the president of India will have to give his assent to the bill.

But how did this controversy begin? What is Tamil Nadu proposing? And what is the likely future?

Political parties joined the protest against NEET in 2017 after a student committed suicide due to performing badly in the exam. Credit: CPI(M)/Facebook.

What does the bill say?

Passed on September 21, the bill titled Tamil Nadu Admission to Undergraduate Medical Degree Courses Bill, 2021 takes a majority of undergraduate medical seats out of the ambit of NEET and routes admission through class 12 marks instead.

Currently, in all government-run undergraduate medical courses across the country, 15% are All-India Quota seats while the rest are for state domiciles. That means that 85% of students would be domiciled in the state where the college is, while 15% of seats could be from across the country. If the bill becomes law, 85% of seats in government-run medical colleges in Tamil Nadu would now be available through class 12 marks.

The bill will also be applicable to private medical colleges in the state. Currently in Tamil Nadu, if a private college is run by a minority community, then 50% of the seats are filled through a state government-controlled counselling process. In other private colleges, 65% of the seats are through this route. These state government-controlled seats in private colleges would also now be through class 12 marks.

Further, the bill says that 7.5% of all the seats where admission would be on the basis of class 12 marks would be reserved horizontally for students who have studied in government schools from classes six to 12. As a result, this 7.5% would apply to each group: general category, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and the economically weaker sections.

The bill also introduces the concept of “normalisation of marks” to level the playing field between different boards. This means that students’ marks from different boards will be adjusted according to the highest marks scored by a student in the state board in that subject. For instance, if a student secures a perfect 100% in a subject in a board while the highest marks in that subject in another board is 80%, then the two marks would be seen as equal for the purpose of college admissions.

Why was it brought?

Ever since NEET was made compulsory in 2017, Tamil Nadu has opposed it. The state has maintained that NEET, which is conducted by the Union government’s Central Board of Secondary Education, goes against the interest of state board students.

In 2021, the Tamil Nadu government appointed a committee under retired High Court judge AK Rajan to study the impact of NEET on medical admissions in Tamil Nadu. The committee in its report said that NEET is biased towards students who are part of the Central Board of Secondary Education, attend coaching services, study in private English medium schools and are from affluent, urban backgrounds.

This, if allowed to continue, would affect medical services in the state since Tamil Nadu requires “doctors from all social levels” who value their nativity and understand “complex social structures and beliefs”.

It concluded that NEET has “adversely affected” various student groups in Tamil Nadu and is also against the interest of disadvantaged groups. To remedy this, it suggested that the government conduct admissions on the basis of class 12 marks, normalised across different boards.

It was on the basis of this report that the Tamil Nadu government brought the bill in 2021.

Students in Chennai protesting against NEET in 2017. Credit: PTI.

What happens after the governor accepts the bill?

The bill, which was first passed on September 13, was sent to the governor for his assent. However, after nearly five months, the governor returned the bill, asking the Tamil Nadu Assembly to reconsider it. As per the governor, the bill went against the interest of rural and economically backward medical students.

Now the bill has been passed a second time.

As per Article 200 of the Constitution, the governor can only return a bill once. As a result, the Tamil Nadu governor will have to accept the bill. However, there is still a long way to go before the bill will become law. This is because admission to medical education courses falls under the legislative domain of both the Centre and the states given that medical education is part of the Concurrent List of the Constitution.

As per the Constitution, a state can have a provision that goes against a law made by the Centre for a subject under the Concurrent List. However, for that to happen, the Union government, represented by the president, has to give it assent. Since the NEET is regulated by a Central legislation, this assent is required for Tamil Nadu’s bill.

This may not be easy. Earlier as well, the president has returned such bills. In 2017, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government had sent two bills to the president seeking exemption from NEET. However, these were rejected by the president. Even the present bill has met with opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has a majority in the Central government.

Additionally, the Constitution also states that the Parliament can still make a law to amend or repeal a law made by a state on a Concurrent List subject, even if the president has given their assent.

There are other ways as well for the Centre to create hurdles in this bill’s implementation. For instance, Entry 25 of the Concurrent List says that this provision is subject to Entry 66 in the Union List. This entry gives the Union government the exclusive power to coordinate and determine the “standards in institutions for higher education or research and scientific and technical institutions”. Thus, the Centre could challenge Tamil Nadu’s bill and say that it did not have the legislative competence to enact it.

What would happen with other states?

NEET was introduced in medical courses through two notifications, one in 2010 by the Medical Council of India and the other in 2012 by the Dental Council of India. These notifications were challenged before the Supreme Court, which quashed it initially in 2013, but finally approved it in 2016.

In 2011, Gujarat, under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, had opposed NEET. Subsequently, several states, such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh opposed the exam. Their opposition was also on similar grounds as Tamil Nadu: that NEET would hamper the state-wise admission process and disadvantage students who study in local languages.

However, over the years, Tamil Nadu has come out the strongest against NEET. In case Tamil Nadu achieves any success in opting out of NEET, it might have a cascading effect with other states too. For instance, soon after the bill was passed in 2021 by Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra Congress President Nana Patole wrote to the chief minister asking him to scrap NEET. The Maharashtra government had then decided to hold a review meeting.

Alongside this, a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member of Parliament P Wilson introduced a private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha this December. The bill gives the option to states to opt-out of NEET. However, the chances of the bill going through are not much since very few private member’s bills have been passed to date.