Medical students in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh were expected to take to the streets in protest today, amid mounting outrage at the way state officials have replaced a national qualification with its local predecessor.
The protest is the latest in a series of confrontations between the students and authorities, which have led to scuffles and allegations of police brutality when Officers, apparently acting on orders from the state Government, attempted to break up otherwise peaceful protests. At the most recent incident, which took place in the state capital of Lucknow on the 25rd March 2013 an state official is reported to have told demonstrators that,
"It's an order from State Govt. to conduct [the new examination] at any cost, and we will break your agitation by hook or by crook as and when we want to."
Trouble flared shortly after the state's medical students had taken their nationally recognised National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) exams in November and early December 2012. Their grades determine whether or not the students get a place (locally referred to as seats) on the postgraduate courses they so desperately need to continue their medical careers.
However, NEET is unpopular with a number of private colleges, where seats - and, allegedly, results - are sometimes obtained in exchange for cash. Some colleges launched an action in India's Supreme Court to obtain exemption from the requirements of NEET, and, on December 13th 2012 the Court made an interim order that held the outcome of the just held November and December exams in abeyance until a final decision could be made.
On the 13th February 2013, the Uttar Pradesh Government suddenly announced that students would have to sit the local, postgraduate entrance called the UPPGMEE on the 31st March - a mere 46 days in which to prepare for exams in 20 subjects that would influence their whole medical career.
Understandably concerned, the state's medical students began a campaign to reinstate the exams they had already worked so hard for, and, indeed, had already sat. Speaking to the Director General of Medical Education, they were told,
"We are facing lots of pressure from many [private] medical colleges to conduct the exams. Whatever may be the circumstances 5-10 seats are filled through the 'backdoor'".
The Vice Chancellor of King George's Medical University, in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, told them, "The students of U.P. are weak in English and they can not understand the question paper of NEET. That's why UPPGMEE is necessary." No doubt this came as something of a surprise to the students who had, mere weeks previously, sat the NEET exams and were fully expecting to do well in them.
Clearly, there was more going on here than a simple change in educational standards - talk of "backdoor" places and blatantly ridiculous "explanations" reek of corruption at the highest levels of the state's medical establishment, especially in view of the private colleges' Supreme Court action. Concerning though this is, however, it is not the current generation of students' top priority. They, seemingly with justification, fear that their careers will be sacrificed in order to satisfy the avaricious demands of private medical colleges, and the politicians in their corporate pockets. This is a national problem as illustrated by CNN-IBN's sting operation report, however many of the colleges exposed were based were in Uttar Pradesh. .
Fortunately, the medical students of Uttar Pradesh are not easily discouraged. While continuing their fruitless dialogue with officialdom, they began a series of protests with candle-lit marches in medical colleges across the state, and a much larger rally was held in Lucknow on the 23rd February 2013.
Still determined to reach a peaceful solution, the students sought relief from the Uttar Pradesh High Court. The court, however, escalated to the case to the Supreme Court without making any ruling, effectively putting justice beyond the financial reach of medical students.
In desperation, 16 of the students began a hunger strike at King George's Medical University gate Number 1 on the 20th March 2013. Six days later, as the condition of 7 of the students deteriorated, police moved in to break up the protest, presumably because it was attracting the unwelcome attention of many high profile opposition politicians and community leaders who might support the students' cause.
The students remain undeterred, however. In a remarkably short time, they have launched a petition to have the NEET exams reinstated and have obtained 2,500 signatures in a matter of days. They have also established a firm online presence, which they are using to collect and disseminate information about their campaign, and have written to India's President for support.
After months of delay, during which the private colleges' application has languished some considerable way down the Cause List, India's Supreme Court has suddenly woken up to the difficulties it has - perhaps inadvertently - imposed upon a generation of medical students. As publicity has increased, so has the Court's willingness to reach a decision. All being well, the long awaited hearing should take place on Tuesday, 23rd April 2013.
The students have no hope of having their voices heard in Court, but that has not prevented them from organising a swathe of public protests to take place across Uttar Pradesh in advance of the hearing, in the hope that the Court will take unofficial note of their views. Their courage and determination in the face of adversity and apparent corruption is impressive, and shows that Uttar Pradesh could - and should - have a medical profession to be proud of, if only the politicians would allow them to get their careers off the ground.