Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal on Tuesday defended the Centre’s decision to go ahead with the national-level Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Mains and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) amid rising coronavirus cases in India. In an interview to DD News, Pokhriyal said that the government was under pressure from parents and students to conduct the tests.

“We have been under constant pressure from parents and students,” Pokhriyal told DD News. “They have been asking why we are not allowing JEE and NEET exams. The students are so worried. They are just thinking how long would they continue to study for the exams. They do not want to lose an entire year.”

Pokhriyal said that the safety of the students is the government’s top priority, adding that the National Testing Agency will ensure that the exams are conducted in a safe manner. “We stand with the students and their safety comes first,” Pokhriyal added.

The education minister said the decision to reopen schools will be made on the basis of the guidelines from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Union health ministry.

The Joint Entrance Examination or JEE Mains examination is a test for entrance to the Indian Institutes of Technology while NEET is a test for admission to medical courses in the country.

The National Testing Agency, which is responsible for conducting both NEET and JEE, said earlier on Tuesday that it will not change the schedule of the exams. JEE will be conducted from September 1 to 6, while NEET will be held on September 13. Nearly 8.58 lakh and 15.97 lakh candidates have registered for the JEE (Main) and NEET examinations, respectively. The organisation also released a set of safety guidelines for the exams, which include thermal scanning and staggered entry of students into centres. Students will also have to wear masks and carry hand sanitisers.

India has reported 31,67,323 coronavirus cases and 58,390 deaths so far, according to data from the Union health ministry.

Opposition leaders urge Centre to defer exams

Several Opposition leaders have urged the Centre to not hold the exams. On Tuesday, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told Pokhriyal that it would be “highly unsafe” for students to visit test centres physically due to coronavirus risks.

On Monday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for postponing the exams amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Now with the directive of Ministry of Education to conduct NEET, JEE 2020 in September, I would again appeal to the Centre to assess the risk and postpone these examinations until the situation is conducive again,” she said. “It is our duty to ensure a safe environment for all our students.”

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader MK Stalin also asked the Centre to postpone the exams due the coronavirus crisis. He added that many places in the country had not yet recovered from the floods. Stalin also said that given the current restrictions on transportation, exam centres are not equally accessible to all students.

Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg also weighed in on the controversy around the Indian government’s decision to hold the exams and extended her support to the students opposing the move.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi will on Wednesday hold a meeting with the chief ministers from her party to discuss the Centre’s decision go ahead with NEET and JEE exams, according to reports.