Entrance Exams during a Pandemic

When my son has to take the JEE, he will wake up two hours before the exam, spend 15 minutes getting the printer to work so he can print out the Admit Card, get yelled at by me for not having an extra back-up pen, and grab a glass of milk before leaving for the examination center. If we are in the middle of the pandemic, he will get driven to the center (instead of being asked to take public transport) and during the ride will get a lecture from me on how to keep his N95 mask on all the time, and to sanitize all surfaces before touching them.

When he returns, he will sneak out of taking the dog for a walk, play an online game with his friends, before sitting down to revise for the next exam.

For him, the pandemic doesn’t make much of a difference. Yes, he will have to deal with his spectacles fogging because of the mask, and will have to be careful about maintaining physical distancing and sanitizing his hands, but apart from that, it would be just another year.

But my son is no the average candidate who appears for JEE.

The average candidate resides in a mid-sized village near the district headquarters at Vikarabad. On a normal year, he will get up at the crack of dawn and take an intercity bus to Hyderabad. After the first paper, he will go to the home of a distant relative where he will somehow adjust and stay for the duration of the examination. If it is difficult in regular years, it becomes near impossible in a pandemic.

Since public transportation is restricted, he would have to travel to the city the day before the examination. If he is lucky, he will get onto an intercity bus. If not, he might have to walk or take the unreliable shared transportation. When he reaches the city, he will have to look for a place to stay because his mother’s cousin doesn’t want him bringing the virus into her home and infecting her elderly mother-in-law. Even after he finds a room to stay in, he might go to bed hungry and sweaty, because there is no mess in the locality and no water in the tank. The next day, he will have to start early, because he would almost certainly have to take multiple share autos to reach the examination center. Exam over, he will have to worry about water to bathe and food to eat. Studying for the next day’s exam will be near impossible. Protecting himself from the virus even more so. If he contracts the virus, he will end up taking it back to their village with him, helping spread it in the hinterlands.

With all this uncertainty, it is likely that the candidate will not even appear for the exam, and even if he does, he will certainly not be able to give it his best shot.

Female candidates will almost certainly not be allowed to take the risks required to take the exam. In a pandemic free year, she may be allowed to go to the city with a few friends and stay at a relative’s place. But this year, her parents will keep her at home.

If NEET/ JEE is conducted this year, only candidates from well off families will be able to take the test. Candidates from lower and middle income families from the hinterlands will be kept out of the system. And yet, these are the candidates for whom the entrance exams mean the most.

A medical or an engineering degree is perceived to be the passport to a better life for most students from the lower and middle income families. They have literally spent every waking moment in the previous two years preparing for the tests. Their families have made immense sacrifices in terms of the cost of tuitions, and the opportunity cost of not taking up part-time employment to have more time to study. They have too much riding on these entrance exams, and they cannot afford to lose a year.

To dismiss the candidates who are asking for a postponement as lazy or disinterested is to miss the essential point; conducting the entrance examinations under current conditions increases the inequality in the system by denying a large percentage of candidates the right to take the exams. Their demands are logical, and should be taken into consideration.

If the government sees no choice but to go ahead with the exam in an offline mode, either (or both) of two strategies can be adopted.

Either increase the number of examination centers so no candidate has to travel more than 20 to 30 kilometers to reach one. One would need to leverage on technology, and conduct examinations in camera to ensure that the invigilation is conducted carefully.

Alternately, provide transportation and dormitory arrangement at a reasonable cost to all outstation candidates, so the only things they have to worry about is taking the test and keeping the virus at bay.

Unless either of these is done, the government should postpone the entrance examination, because going ahead with the exam will certainly increase the existing inequities in the system.

Needless to say, an online solution would be ideal.

But whatever we do, the one thing we should never ever do is to say, “Nobody is compelling them to take JEE/NEET against their wishes”. They do want to take the test, but only they understand how hard it is for them to do so.

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Natasha Ramarathnam

Mother | Education | Youth empowerment | Gender rights | Civic Action | Book slut | At home everywhere | Dances in the rain | Do it anyway | Surprised by Joy