Can a state govt overturn a central govt exam? Experts explain the theoretical and practical possibilities.

MK Stalin and Ramnath Kovid looking at the camera in an intense way.
news 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly Election Saturday, March 13, 2021 - 20:16

One of the biggest promises that the DMK has made in its 2021 Election Manifesto is that it will bring in a law to abolish the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for MBBS and BDS admissions in the state. DMK Chief MK Stalin announced this along with the party’s list of poll promises on Saturday at Chennai, as he released the election manifesto for the upcoming polls in the state.

“When Kalaignar was the Chief MInister, the admissions to medical courses in Tamil Nadu were based on the marks obtained by students in their Class 12 Board exams. The present Union Government has introduced NEET and snatched the opportunities of students in Tamil Nadu to fulfill their medical ambitions. Once DMK comes to power, a law will be passed to abolish NEET in the first Assembly session and steps will be taken to acquire the President's assent for the law,” the manifesto reads in Tamil.

It is a known fact that Tamil Nadu has been at the forefront of the fight against NEET. The state had received exemption for a year in 2016 from conducting MBBS and BDS admissions to medical colleges based on NEET. However, since 2017, medical admissions in the state have been conducted solely based on the NEET merit list.

So is the DMK’s poll promise theoretically — and practically — possible?

‘States can amend central laws’

Speaking to TNM, Chakshu Roy, Head of Legislative and Civic Engagement at PRS Legislative Research says, “States can amend central laws, but whatever amendments are made are only applicable to the state. Further, the amended law requires the approval of the President. During the pandemic, a number of states were amending labour laws, and some of these were central laws. For the amendment to carry though, the President will have to approve."

There are precedents for such amendments. One such example is the Jallikattu Ordinance brought in by the Tamil Nadu government after massive protests against the ban on the traditional sport.

Another instance, says Chakshu, is Tamil Nadu’s amendment of the central Land Acquisition Act. "Tamil Nadu Assembly for instance had amended the Land Acquisition Act. It's a central Act, and the President signed off on it. The amendment is applicable only to Tamil Nadu," he explains.

However, while it is theoretically possible, the practicalities may not be in favour of the state government, says Senior journalist t K Venkataramanan. “Unless you have the consent of the Centre, you can't do it,” he says, pointing out that Tamil Nadu did pass an legislation to exempt the state from NEET’s applicability in 2017 after Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman assured her support for the state’s attempt to gain exemption from the common entrance test. 

“There are two hurdles — the Union Government and the Supreme Court,” Venkataraman says. “I doubt if there will be any further relaxations on this. The only way it is possible is if the Centre takes a stand that they are going to exempt some states and convinces the court. Merely passing a law will not help because Tamil Nadu had already passed a law for this. So we will have to see what they (DMK) come up with,” he says.

The AIADMK government had, in fact, tried protecting state board students’ medical aspirations by passing a law granting 85% reservation for MBBS and BDS admissions in state medical colleges in June 2017, immediately after the NEET-2017 results were published. However, this law was struck down by the Madras High Court in July 2017 after a CBSE student filed a petition stating that the 85% reservation is discriminatory. The state government’s legislation exempting Tamil Nadu students from NEET was pending with the Union government back then.

However, the Union government, in August 2017, refused to grant assent to this legislation by stating that the rules of NEET cannot be changed for one state. This response, submitted to the Supreme Court, which was hearing a plea filed by six students who sought an order directing the state government to conduct MBBS and BDS admissions in Tamil Nadu solely based on the NEET merit list. The Centre’s response against Tamil Nadu’s legislation led to the apex court refusing exemption for students of Tamil Nadu from NEET.

‘States have power to decide’

However, DMK Rajya Sabha MP and former Additional Solicitor General of India P Wilson says that Tamil Nadu has enacted a law stating that medical admissions in the state will be conducted only based on the marks secured by a student in his or her class 12 Board exams.

“Conduct of examinations is a Concurrent list subject. Both states and Centre have the power to legislate. We have the power to legislate on this subject. If there is any issue relating to overlapping, we need to get the assent of the President. In 2007, when Kalaignar was the Chief MInister, he had already brought in a legislation, which said that qualifying criteria for MBBS and BDS admissions in Class 12 Board examination. That received the assent of the President and even if NEET is there, that law could have been used to defy it. But the state government never brought this law to the Supreme Court's notice. The court also did not notice this and passed a uniform order for the entire country,” he says.

Adding that the power is always with the state to legislate, Wilson says that when the AIADMK government sent two Bills in 2017 to receive Presidential assent, it should have followed up on those bills. “Like how the DMK says, they sacrifice the state's rights. They didn't even know when those Bills were returned. We can always follow our bills up and persuade the Union government. They didn't do it,” he says.

In January 2020, the Tamil Nadu government filed a fresh plea against NEET in the Supreme Court and called in unconstitutional. The petition filed by the state government said that NEET is against the welfare of students from rural Tamil Nadu and attached data-based evidence on how NEET has adversely affected a major chunk of students in the state. TNM had earlier reported on the petition, and a highly placed source in the state government said that the petition had details about the drastic decrease in the number of students from the state syllabus securing medical admissions in Tamil Nadu and also the increase in the number of students who attempted NEET more than once gaining MBBS and BDS admissions.

Moving Education to the State list: DMK

Another big promise made by the DMK in its manifesto is that it will take steps to move education to the State List from the Concurrent List of the Constitution.

To this, K Venkataramanan says that the only way to accomplish this is to take support of several other state governments and put pressure on the Union government. “It is a political move and it requires a two-thirds majority in the Parliament. It is very difficult as of now because the Centre has a high focus on education, which is part of their cultural and political agenda. They would want to retain control,” he says.