NEW DELHI - India is grappling with whether entrance examinations for engineering and medical colleges should take place amid a pandemic as it prepares to hold the twice-postponed tests for an estimated 2.5 million students.
Saying further delay would jeopardize students’ future, the government is going ahead with the nationwide examinations, starting September 1.
Turning down a plea filed by a group of students against the decision to conduct the examinations, the Supreme Court last week gave the green light, saying “life must go on” and students “cannot waste a whole year.”
Those arguments have not convinced tens of thousands of students and parents who point to the rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus infections in the country to underline the risk they will face as they travel and take the test.
India has been reporting record high numbers in recent days – the country added nearly 1.5 million cases in the last three weeks.
Online campaigns against the examinations have gathered momentum, and groups of
students held sporadic street protests Friday in several cities demanding their cancellation.
The tests are crucial in determining the path for students aspiring to become engineers and doctors – the grades determine the students’ eligibility to attend colleges that include highly sought-after institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. High school students usually do intensive preparation for one to two years for these tests. Poorer families spend hard-earned savings to fund coaching for their children, hoping it will open doors to successful careers.
Opinion on the forthcoming tests appears to be evenly divided. While many academicians and even students want the examinations to be held, others have expressed deep concern.
Students living in distant towns say they are worried about the challenge of reaching examination centers while public transportation, such as buses and trains, have still not been fully restored. Others say they are apprehensive about taking the test that is crucial for their careers with gloves and masks, and amid anxiety over contracting the virus.
Speaking to India Today television, Ravikant, a student in Ludhiana asked who would take responsibility if he or his family gets infected. Another student from Patna said he was not afraid of the test, but his concerns about the virus run deep because of his asthma.
Opposition parties have thrown their weight behind demands for postponement of the tests.
“It’s important that the government listens to students,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said in a video statement.
Ministers in six opposition-ruled states -- West Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand -- Friday filed a review petition asking the Supreme Court to revisit its decision to green-light the tests.
“It would be impossible to make provision for the huge logistics required for lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of students appearing in the examinations, including transport and lodging during the pandemic,” the petition said.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in a tweet earlier this week also urged postponement, calling it “deeply unfair” that Indian students must take the exams during the pandemic and while millions have been affected by floods.
The government however has reiterated that further delays risk costing students an academic year and said tens of thousands of students want to take the test.
Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal said 1.7 million registration cards for taking the test have already been downloaded online.
“It shows that students want that exams are held at any cost," Pokhriyal said. “We are very mindful of the safety of our students, we will take full precautions,” he said.
Authorities say they have increased the number of testing centers and spread the tests over several days to ensure that social distancing can be maintained.
Preparations are in full swing – authorities are equipping centers with sanitizer and masks and gloves for the students.
The Indian Express backed the government’s decision in an editorial, pointing out that discussions everywhere are moving to “opening up while minimizing the risk.” It said “given that the COVID curve continues its upward climb at different rates in different states there is no evidence that delaying the exam by weeks or months will reduce the risk.”
The tests start Tuesday – those for engineering colleges will be held September 1-6, while the test for medical colleges will be held September 13.