The Supreme Court on Thursday set aside the Madras High Court verdict which awarded 196 grace marks for students who had attempted the Tamil language paper of NEET, or National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test.
The exams determine the eligibility of students to pursue undergraduate medical and dental courses across government institutions in India. While the syllabus is homogenous around the country, the exams can be taken in a number of languages. The examinations conducted earlier this year were ridden with errors, with 49 questions being mistranslated in the Tamil paper.
Here is what the SC had to say:
Stating that the High Court’s verdict to grant 4 marks each for 49 questions in the Tamil paper due to translation errors was essentially arbitrary, the apex court stated that a simple reference to the English version of the question paper would have clarified the doubts due to errors in translation.
In its 13-page judgement, the Supreme Court essentially argued that the “division Bench seems to have lost sight of the fact that the students appearing for the NEET-UG, 2018 Examination applied for admission to the course of MBBS/BDS which is entirely taught in English. The facility of a bilingual question paper was essentially meant for the students who were more familiar in Tamil than in English.”
“Moreover, the expert body which set the examination seems to have contemplated the difficulty that may arise in translation of words from English to Tamil and had taken due precaution by inserting instruction (vi) (supra) that required the students to refer to the English version in case of any ambiguity. This implies that knowledge of the subject in English was considered a requirement and students were expected to resolve any ambiguity by reference to the questions in English Language. We must make note that there is no grievance whatsoever that there was any difficulty about the questions in English language,” the judgement further argued.
Citing examples of mistranslations, the SC observed that the word with the imprecise meaning could have been easily discovered to be faulty and a simple reference to the English version would have clarified the same.
The word ‘cheetah’ was mistranslated as ‘Sita’, and the word ‘octopus’ as ‘Aathadapuz’. The court chalked these up to mispronunciation errors. One question dealt with new varieties (ragam in Tamil) of rice. The Tamil paper erroneously asked students about nagam of rice. Nagam in Tamil means nail.
Tamil Nadu has had a rocky relationship with NEET over the years, with many students and academicians opining that the one-size-fits-all test simply does not suit students from the state who study in state board and Tamil medium schools.
However, the SC felt that the contextual reference would have sufficed to infer that there was an error in translation.
“A simple reference to the context in which the imprecise word occur in the Tamil version would show that the word could not have that meaning at all and there was obviously some mistake which needed to be resolved by reference to the English version,” it said.
The apex court opined that while a "plain reading" would make these words sound “absurd”, the errors could have been easily overcome by referring to their English version.
In a significant observation, the SC said that if a discrepancy in translation were to arise between the source language (English) and target language (Tamil, for example), the English language version would be held as final.
“We find this last mentioned clause is extremely significant to ensure that the students have some basic knowledge of English even if they are allowed the facility to write the examination in their regional language. Presumably, this is because the entire education for MBBS/BDS courses throughout the country are taught in English,” the court said.
Further, the SC found it difficult to sustain the plea given that the 24,000 candidates who took the exam in Tamil could have detected the mistranslations and avoided them. The court felt that this would 'unduly benefit' students who opted to take the exams in Tamil.
The SC argued that certain students who might have otherwise failed if not for the addition of the 196 grace marks have “scored higher than those who gave the examination in English and other regional languages,” attributing this to blind allocation of 196 marks to every student who attempted the exam in Tamil.
Stating that candidates enjoyed undue advantage due to the allocation of the grace marks, the court said “a student who got 260 marks has been awarded a total of 456 marks. A student with 137 marks becomes entitled to 333 marks and the student who got 92 marks becomes entitled to 288 marks. Even students who have 21 marks been entitled to 217 marks.”
The apex court also commented on the arbitrary nature of the grace marks allocation, and said the Madras HC “made no attempt to see whether the students have in fact attempted answers to the questions, which were claimed to be imperfectly translated and has proceeded to award full marks for 49 questions to all candidates who had opted to give the examination in Tamil.”
The SC, however, clarified that it did not endorse mistranslations with disparate meanings in question papers. Noting that the National Testing Agency would be conducting the examinations from 2019, the SC said on Thursday, "The NTA is established to ensure that the methodology of translation to conduct the examination is improved. In order to make it foolproof, it is proposed that the translation will be done by subject experts who are proficient in both the languages i.e. the source language and the target language."
"I was really disappointed to hear the Supreme Court verdict. Atleast a third of the questions were wrong and in others the answer options were itself incorrect. The High Court said they will give marks but now they have said no. In addition to mistakes, there is such a huge delay. This was the second time I wrote NEET. I didn't pass the first time," says 18-year-old Jeeva who has decided to do engineering instead.
"The future of students who waited for this judgement is shattered," says Nandhakumar, a member of the Parent-Teacher Association for Matriculation Schools. "When the mistake is that of the people setting the paper, why are the students being made to pay for it? The courts and government are playing with the life of students. First the court delays the judgement and now it is against the students," he adds.
(Inputs from Priyanka Thirumurthy)