After 14 days of intense agitations by resident doctors, the strike ended on Dec 31 after assurances by Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya that the NEET-PG counselling schedule would be published soon.

Resident doctors protesting delay in NEET-PG counselling at Safdarjung hospital in DelhiPTI
Delve Protest Saturday, January 01, 2022 - 13:55

At a time when healthcare workers are exhausted after working through two waves of COVID-19, resident doctors held intense agitations for 14 days against the delay in NEET-PG counselling, before ending the strike on the morning of December 31. Before that, the protests reached a disconcerting flashpoint on December 27. Protesting resident doctors in Delhi were allegedly physically assaulted by the police and were detained and booked, as they attempted to carry out a protest march to the Supreme Court. The protests pertained to the impending hearing on January 6 over the matter of reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in the All-India Quota in NEET-PG admissions, which resulted in a delay in NEET-PG counselling. Due to the non-admission of a fresh batch of resident doctors, the inadequate workforce in hospitals has overburdened existing second and third year PG students working as resident doctors. 

While an initial round of talks with the Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya had failed, the doctors have now called off the strike after Mandaviya assured them that the counselling schedule will be published after the January 6 hearing. He also expressed regret over the police violence on doctors, and assured that no action will be taken against the protesting doctors. 

However, the strike, which first began on November 27, was suspended on December 9 after similar assurances that the counselling schedule would be released soon. It was resumed on December 17, before being called off again on December 31. As resident doctors and NEET-PG aspirants who have cleared the exam await the counselling schedule, here’s an explainer on the reasons for the delay in counselling and the events that have happened so far. 

Why doctors were agitating

Under normal circumstances, the NEET-PG exam would have been held in January, the counselling and seat allotment process would have been completed in March, and the first year resident doctors would have begun work by April. This year, however, the exam was delayed due to the pandemic and was held only in September, 2021. The counselling was originally to be held on October 26. Due to the ongoing case in the Supreme Court, this was further delayed. 

The next hearing was to be on January 6, 2022, and the court had noted back in November, 2021, that the students’ term may only begin in February or March, 2022. Which means that nearly 50,000 students, who would have otherwise been added to the workforce in April 2021 (if not for the pandemic), or at least October (if not for the EWS case), have been kept waiting, while existing resident doctors have remained overburdened all these months. 

The protests, which first began on November 27 with resident doctors boycotting work in out-patient clinics, was later escalated to boycotting of all routine work including care of admitted patients and routine surgeries. The second leg of agitations reached the 14th day on December 30, as the demands to expedite NEET PG counselling and withdraw the FIR filed against resident doctors during their march to the Supreme Court were both not met after an earlier meeting with Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on December 28. The protesting doctors, headed by the Federation of Resident Doctors Association of India (FORDA), had even threatened mass resignation if counselling wasn’t hurried. 

Following the alleged police violence on protesting doctors, a letter petition was filed in the Supreme Court on December 29, seeking advancing of the hearing scheduled for January 6. It also sought the issuance of a direction to the Delhi Police Commissioner to initiate an enquiry and take stern action against those responsible for physical assault on protesting doctors by the police.

The letter petition written by advocate Vineet Jindal to Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, sought a direction to the Union government to form a committee to address the issues related to the doctors concerned.

Why the EWS quota has been challenged 

It was on July 29, 2021, that the Union government announced 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in the All India Quota scheme (AIQ) for undergraduate and postgraduate students in medical and dental courses. These courses include MBBS, MD, MS,  Diploma, BDS and MDS. 

The decision was announced days after the Madras High Court directed the Union government to make known its stand on the implementation of OBC reservation under the AIQ in the seats surrendered by Tamil Nadu for admission in medical and dental courses for 2021-22, while hearing a contempt petition filed by the DMK. 

Explainer: 27% reservation to OBCs and 10% to EWS in medical courses

The move to introduce 27% reservation for OBCs was welcomed, as it had been implemented in Central Educational Institutions since 2007, but not extended to the AIQ seats of state medical and dental colleges. Activists have pointed out that this has led to thousands of seats being denied to OBC students, as the state government reservation policies would have been applied if these seats had remained with the state-run colleges instead of being pooled into the AIQ. 

The 10% reservation for EWS category on the other hand was introduced through the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019. Seats in medical and dental colleges were increased accordingly since then, to accommodate the additional seats under EWS quota without reducing the seats available for unreserved category. 

On September 17, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear a batch of pleas of students against the July 29 notice for OBC and EWS reservation in the AIQ seats. These petitions raised various objections, from challenging EWS reservation itself and the income criteria for it, to objecting to the application of any reservation in the AIQ. 

Who is to blame for the delay

The alleged police violence against the resident doctors happened during a protest march to the Supreme Court. The letter petition filed in the Supreme Court to advance the hearing said that the mass protests by doctors was a result of the Union Health Ministry not taking any concrete steps to expedite NEET-PG counselling. A look at what transpired during the hearings in the case so far provides a picture of the stand that the Supreme Court and the government have taken on the matter. 

Commenting on why the criticism against the Supreme Court is unfair, Manu Sebastian of LiveLaw noted that while the OBC reservation was introduced in light of the contempt petition filed by DMK in the Madras High Court, the EWS quota was introduced simultaneously by the Union government without any judicial intervention. 

Soon after the results of NEET-PG 2021 were announced on September 28, in a hearing of the case on October 7, several questions were raised on the Union government’s decision to have an income limit of Rs 8 lakh per annum for EWS reservation. The Supreme Court bench questioned if the criteria for creamy layer of OBC had been mechanically lifted and applied for EWS as well, without much deliberation. 

During the next hearing on October 23, the court again questioned the income limit criteria for EWS, questioning if it was arbitrary to have the same income limit for both OBC and EWS categories, since OBCs are socially and educationally backward and hence have additional disadvantages compared to general category. The bench asked the Union government whether any exercise was undertaken before arriving at the criteria for EWS, whether the criteria are based on the 2010 report by Major General Sinho (which has been cited by the Union government as a basis for its 10% EWS quota policy), and whether regional differences across states and rural-urban areas were taken into account before fixing the income limit. 

On October 25, the Union government told the Supreme Court that the NEET-PG counseling would not commence until the validity of the OBC EWS reservation in AIQ was decided by the court. Since October 7, despite multiple extensions, the Union government delayed filing  an affidavit answering the court’s questions on how it arrived at the criteria to determine the EWS category. Finally, on November 25, the Union government told the Supreme Court that it had decided to revisit the Rs 8 lakh annual income limit criteria for EWS. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that a committee will be constituted to determine the criteria for EWS and it would take four weeks, and that NEET-PG counselling would stand postponed till then. 

At this point, Senior Advocate Arvind Datar appearing for the petitioners suggested that since a lot of time has passed, the Union government should push back implementation of EWS quota to the next academic year and the current year counselling should be allowed to go on. The Supreme Court bench also agreed with Datar, and asked SG Mehta if this was possible. However, Mehta insisted that the government has taken a decision to implement the 103rd constitutional amendment from the current academic year and pushing back would not be appropriate. 

The bench said that a period of four weeks is not unreasonable, and that it doesn't want to push the government to do it earlier, as this could lead to the criteria being fixed in an unscientific and haphazard manner. 

These proceedings indicate that the Union government might not have been fully prepared before introducing the EWS quota in AIQ, and further delayed the hearings by failing to file an affidavit and even refusing the option to simply introduce it next year in a more planned manner. 

 

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