Seventeen-year-old Sheela and Anitha share many similarities. Hailing from Kuzhumur, a village in Ariyalur district, they both belong to poor families and aspired to be doctors. But little did they know that their dreams would be crushed because the state board exams that they were preparing for was not going to be the deciding factor in getting a medical seat. They had no idea that their wings would be clipped because they did not have the privilege or means to study at a coaching centre for NEET, the all-India medical entrance test.
Perhaps, the only difference between Anitha and Sheela is that one decided to give up her fight. Sheela, on the other hand, decided to change her path - taking up an engineering seat at Anna University in Trichy.
āWanted to become a doctor to serve peopleā
Sheela and Anitha studied at the St. Philomena School in Kuzhumur, with their houses about 500 metres apart. "From Class II, I wanted to be a doctor and I used to discuss it with Anitha. We both wanted to become doctors because we wanted to serve people," recounts Sheela.
While Anitha shifted to Raja Vignesh School after Class X, Sheela stayed back and continued her studies at the St. Philomena School, a government-aided school.
Image: Posters of Anitha in Kuzhumur village
But Sheela soon realised that achieving her dream was not going to be easy. "The cost of coaching classes for NEET examination is about Rs 1 lakh even for two months. This apart, we have to travel to Trichy from Ariyalur district," says Sheela.
Her parents, Mahalingam and Sulojana are farmers and Sheela was aware that coaching classes were way beyond their means.
"My father could not afford the monthly expenses at home when the yield from crops were bad and our relatives helped us. Then how do you think they will be able to afford such expensive classes?" she asks.
Sheela decided not to go for coaching class and instead focus on the extra lessons given by her school to attain good marks in Class XII. "Our school used to give us extra classes but that also only from the state syllabus. I used to be in school from 8:30am till 10pm then come back home and study for an hour," recalls Sheela.
After the hard work put in over the course of two years, Sheela scored 995/1200 and still believed that getting a medical seat was within her reach. But her hopes were dashed after she scored 47 in the NEET exam. āThe paper was very difficult and I could not understand the question paper which was in Tamil," notes Sheela.
Confusion over NEET added to their stress
After months of confusion, Sheela realised that it was the end of the road for her dreams when the Centre refused to exempt Tamil Nadu from NEET. The Supreme Court on August 22 ruled that the state government would have to conduct medical admissions based on NEET scores.
"I was very upset and did not know what to do. The state government kept saying that there won't be NEET and then in the end, they conducted counselling with NEET scores. If they had told us earlier, we would have been prepared for such a situation. Why do we have CBSE and state syllabus? We should just have a standard syllabus for everyone and then take an exam from that," says Sheela.
With thousands like Sheela unable to secure a medical seat, she emphasises that the Tamil Nadu government must prepare students for the NEET exam and allow them to write it.
Shutting the doors on their dreams
The 17-year-old says she settled for Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE) at Anna University in Trichy, even though her heart isnāt in it. "Iām not happy with the course but I'm the eldest child of the family. I have a responsibility of taking care of the family and even educating my younger brother," points out Sheela. But sheās aware that the engineering degree is going to be far from easy. She says, "I'm not interested in the subject and moreover, it being taught in English makes it more difficult. I will try to reach a good position and still help people however I can."
The devastation of losing Anitha, a girl who had taken the fight to the Supreme Court to make her dream of becoming a doctor come true, is a painful reality for many who knew her. The end of Anithaās dreams has also shut the door on the ambitions of many others in her village, who point out that students from rural areas and studying in government schools are at a disadvantage when attempting NEET.
"Now, I'm scared to tell my child to become a doctor after Anitha's death. It clearly proves how difficult it is for a person like us to become a doctor," says Anitha's neighbour, who wished to remain anonymous.
Durga, Anithaās friend from St. Philomena school recalls, "She was the teacher's favourite in class. Our principal was very sure she would get the highest marks in Class X. She would be very serious when it comes to studies but used also have fun with us. Her favourite subject was Maths and would always get good marks."
Image: People at Anitha's house to pay their last respects
So, how was it that a bright student like Anitha was unable to clear the NEET examination? Is the NEET examination, which is based on the CBSE syllabus to be blamed or the state's inability to equip the students for such an examination?
Educationist Prince Gajendra Babu feels that NEET is biased to students in rural areas. āNEET is just a filtration process where children from marginalized sections and economically weaker backgrounds withdraw from the process, thatās what it will achieve. It is biased and it is only serving the affluent sector of the society, who have all the access to coaching,ā he argues.
He believes that equitable access to education is the only solution to it. āThe common school system is nothing but providing equitable access to children. India in the last 70 years of freedom has failed in providing equitable access in education. It has only constructed a multi-layered school system where according to your income you go and get yourself educated. So, unless and until you provide equal and equitable access, one cannot improve the quality of education. Equitable access to education has to be provided from Class I. Will the collector or principal secretary or education minister admit their children in a school where the teacher is a sanitary worker and a security guard? If they wonāt, how will the general public?ā