The Congress will stage protests across the country on Friday against the Centre’s decision to go ahead with the national-level Joint Entrance Examination Mains, or JEE, and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET, amid rising coronavirus cases in India, reported NDTV.

JEE is scheduled to be held from September 1 to September 6 and NEET is slated for September 13. Nearly 8.58 lakh applicants have registered for JEE (Main) and 15.97 lakh candidates for NEET.

“In line with concerted opposition to this mindless and dictatorial move of the central government, Congress will be holding protests on Friday at 11 am in front of central government offices at state and district headquarters,” Congress General Secretary KC Venugopal said in a statement on Wednesday. “They will oppose the decision of the government to hold these exams during the pandemic. While holding exams during Covid crisis has put students in a state of extreme mental stress, the grim flood situation in states like Assam and Bihar will further put students from those states at a severe disadvantage.”

On Wednesday, several chief ministers of non-BJP states held a virtual meeting to strategise their next course of action. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee suggested that they should jointly move the Supreme Court. The suggestion found support from Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh who ordered the state’s attorney general to speak to his counterparts in other states and draw a blueprint for an appeal in the top court. Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said the Opposition leaders should first go to Modi or President Ram Nath Kovind with their demands before approaching the Supreme Court.

The Centre has been facing escalating demands from political leaders and student organisations to defer the examinations. They have argued that the current circumstances are not conducive to hold exams.

However, Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal on Tuesday defended the Centre’s decision and said the government was under pressure from parents and students to conduct the tests. The National Testing Agency, which is responsible for conducting both NEET and JEE, also said it will not change the schedule of the exams. The organisation 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.

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No Parliament but JEE-NEET will proceed? Decision on exams shows arbitrariness of India’s Covid plan

Tamil Nadu urges Centre to promulgate ordinance

Tamil Nadu on Wednesday joined the opposition to the entrance exams, reported PTI. In a letter to the Centre, state Health Minister C Vijayabaskar said the decision would put the students “at great risk of infection”. The state has urged the central government to promulgate an ordinance to facilitate admissions to medical and dental courses based on their Class 12 marks this year.

“In the current scenario, it would be very difficult for the students to actively prepare/take up NEET this year,” Vijayabaskar said. “I would like to request that the admissions to medical/dental courses for the academic year 2020-21 can be based on the marks secured by the students in their 12th standard exams by dispensing with the NEET.”

India’s overall case count on Thursday rose to 33,10,234 with record 75,760 new infections in the last 24 hours. The country’s toll went up by 1,023 to 60,472. As many as 25,23,771 people have recovered from the infection in the country.

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More delay will have ripple effect: Higher education secretary

Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare on Wednesday reiterated that conducting the exams was important as students might lose a year due to further postponement.

“The exams were first to be held in April but were postponed to July,” he told The Indian Express. “When a large number of students tweeted for further delay, they [exams] were pushed to September. Now, a section of students is demanding that the exams should be held after Diwali. After Diwali, the Chhatt festival will be celebrated in the eastern parts of the country on November 26. If we take a week after that to organise the exams, then we can only hold them in the first week of December, and the results would be announced in 2021. This means students risk losing the entire academic year.”

Khare added that this would have a ripple effect. “...a delay in the semester would not only affect the current batch but also the future batches,” he said. “If 2021 admissions are delayed by a year, then you cannot have double the number of seats in 2021-22. Therefore, we want to start by November. Then, we can have shorter semesters with fewer holidays so that by August 2021 we are ready for the next batch. Otherwise, all subsequent batches will also be affected.”

The higher education secretary said the decision has been taken in the “overall interest” of students. “First, these arguments have already been made before the Supreme Court, which eventually dismissed the plea,” he pointed out. “While some students have argued about the health risks, there are also others who are asking why they should risk their career. These students have taken a gap year and have been preparing for 18 months... One has to balance between those who want the exams and those who don’t, and more importantly consider the academic schedule. The overall interest has to be seen.”