How the Center’s ill-defined booking criteria for postgraduate courses led to a doctors’ strike
For nearly two weeks now, Delhi’s hospital services have been crippled by a strike by medical residents over the blocking of admissions to postgraduate medical courses. Police reportedly beaten and detained protesting doctors on Monday, filing a case against them, prompting their association to announce on Wednesday the complete shutdown of services.
Postgraduate medical students work as medical residents in hospitals while continuing their education. They handle a large part of the workload in public hospitals. They are protesting because admissions to postgraduate medical courses have been delayed by several months. With a new batch of students to join, medical residents say they are struggling to cope with work pressures as another pandemic year looms.
The delay in admissions was caused by the government’s inability to provide the information requested by the Supreme Court when hearing legal challenges to the newly introduced reservations for students belonging to economically weaker sections, or SAPs.
What are EWS reservations?
Reservations for economically weaker sections have been introduced by the government through a constitutional amendment in 2019. It is intended for those who do not fall under the reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes and who fall below a certain income test .
The constitutional amendment gave the government the power to set aside reserves for economically weaker sections. It also gave the government the power to inform economically weaker sections from time to time based on family income and other indicators of economic disadvantage.
On July 29, 2021, the government introduced a 27% quota for OBCs and a 10% quota for EWS students seeking admission to undergraduate and postgraduate courses in medical schools. Admissions to medical schools are made through the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, or NEET.
Currently, to be eligible for a reservation under the SAP category, a student’s family income must be less than Rs 8 lakh per year and the family must not own any farmland or residential land over a specified threshold. .
On what grounds were EWS’s reservations challenged in the Supreme Court?
Shortly after the government introduced reservations into NEETs, several pleas were filed with the Supreme Court to challenge it. A petition questioned the income criteria to be considered in the SAP category and argued that the amendment led to the reservation of more than 50% of the seats and is therefore unconstitutional. Another petition specifically opposed reservations in NEET-PG claiming that such a quota cannot exist in higher education.
The court issued an opinion in these cases during the first week of September.
During the hearings, the Supreme Court stressed that it does not address policy issues but simply checks whether the constitutional requirements for the implementation of the SAP quota are met. According to the court, since the constitutional amendment who brought in the EWS reservations, said the Indian state may advise economically weaker sections from time to time it wanted to make sure the government had undertaken a proper exercise to determine the criteria.
The court asked whether the Center had relied on the report submitted by Major General Sinho in 2010. This report was cited by the government to make the EWS constitutional amendment in 2019. The Supreme Court also demanded that the government provide a copy of the report if it relied on it.
The Supreme Court also request the government asks several questions about how the maximum income requirement to benefit from the EWS reservation is Rs 8 lakh. The court inquired whether the government had mechanically lifted the criteria for excluding the “creamy layer” in the OBC reservation.
Currently, an annual income of Rs 8 lakh is also the amount that determines the “creamy layer” for the OBC reservation. The OBC category candidates belonging to the creamy layer are excluded from the reservation because they have “progressed economically” and are less late. The court said that an OBC candidate with an annual income of less than Rs 8 lakh would be socially and educationally lagging behind someone in the EWS category in the same income bracket. Yet both would get reservations although one is more disadvantaged than the other. Therefore, he asked the Center to clarify whether this measure of income was not arbitrary.
The court also asked how the government had maintained uniform income and asset criteria across the country, as the value of a person’s income and assets would also be determined by the region in which they are located.
Why is the government responsible for the delay?
Counsel for the NEET postgraduate exam has been delayed since the Center consistently postponed filing an affidavit on how it arrived at the criteria to determine the SAP category. The Supreme Court granted several extensions, but the Center did not submit the affidavit. In the meantime, the Center has assured the Supreme Court that the council would not start until the court had ruled on the validity of these reservations.
Initially, on October 7, the Center requested a deadline to file the affidavit. However, at the next hearing on October 21, the Center did not file the affidavit. He then requested two more days. The Supreme Court allowed five days to file an affidavit, but the Center still has not done so.
Instead, on November 25, the Center Recount the Supreme Court that it will reconsider the criteria to determine the economically weaker sections for reservation in accordance with the constitutional amendment. He requested four weeks for this exercise.
The Supreme Court, during the hearing, also gave the opportunity to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to proceed with admissions without the EWS quota this year. However, Mehta replied that they did not want to delay the implementation of this quota. Mehta, instead, insisted that this year’s SAP reservation can be implemented using the current income criteria. But, the court rejected that.
The next hearing is now set for January 6, 2022. However, doctors have request to move the hearing date forward.
How does this affect doctors?
Because the board is not progressing, 50,000 students who have passed the NEET-PG exam cannot proceed to admission. Counseling is the next step after passing the exam and before entering college. Students fulfill their college preferences and the courses they wish to study. After that, colleges are allocated to them based on the number of places and applicable reservation quotas.
The exams are usually held in January and counseling begins in March. But, due to the pandemic, reviews were held in September and counseling was due to start in October. Now, this risks being further delayed due to the deadlock in the Supreme Court.
Since the admissions process is stalled, hospitals are not receiving a new batch of graduate students who would work as medical residents. Therefore, current resident physicians to complain that they are working with two-thirds of their strength and that they are exhausted. Given fears about a possible third wave of Covid-19 as well, doctors have called for the admission and counseling process to be expedited.
On Monday, after police reportedly beat and detained medics and recorded an initial information report, or FIR, against them for demonstrating, the protests escalated. Doctors on the other side the country has expressed support for the protests in Delhi and some have also stopped work in their respective hospitals.
Doctors met with Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Tuesday, who urged protesters to return to work and regretted any “misconduct” on the part of the police. However, the medics decided to continue the protest and also demanded that the police apologize and withdraw the FIRs.