‘Unequal footing’ for Kashmiri MBBS students

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PROTEST demonstrations led by MBBS students across Kashmir demanding revocation of the deci-sion to pool post-graduate National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (PG NEET) seats in the ‘all India quota’ appear to have brought to fore the reality of the chaotic aftermath of reading down Article 370, shockwaves of which continue to reverberate across the erstwhile state.

Until J&K had the ‘special status’, students told The Wire, around 537 seats* for PG NEET, which refers to the speciality courses the doctors pursue after finishing their graduate programmes, were reserved only for local candidates.

There are around seven government institutions that churn out around 1000 MBBS graduates in J&K every year, who then compete amongst each other for a few hundred PG NEET seats.

However, last month, the Medical Counselling Committee (MCC) under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in an official release said that the counselling for the eligible can-didates for NEET PG courses across the country will be “held as per schedule.”

The release also contained two fresh provisions that appear to have provoked the demonstrations.

While reiterating the requisition of 50% ‘all India quota’ in seats across all states, it said that “this year Jammu and Kashmir is likely to partici-pate in All India Quota counselling subject to con-firmation from competent state authorities.”

Furthermore, 100% quota in ‘Deemed Universi-ties’ has also been prescribed, which in J&K’s case means the allocation of all such seats at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), a premier tertiary care facility on the outskirts of Sri-nagar city, to a national level competition.

That, the students claim, translates into the reduction of PG NEET seats from the current 537 to just 204 for locals.

(And to only 117 for students competing in the open merit category, when ad-justed for another tier of affirmative action system at the local level).

This also means that for the remainder of seats (around 270), the competition will no longer be amongst a few hundred regional aspirants but the 1.5 lakh students who complete MBBS programmes across the country every year. Kashmiri students fear this will upend their dreams of pursuing medical careers in the Valley.

The entry of non-local doctors to the speciality care facilities in J&K might either be hamstrung on ac-count of the language barrier or will prefer relocat-ing to their own cities and towns, leading to a short-age of specialists in the Union Territory (UT), aspi-rants say.

The protesting students substantiate this asser-tion by citing a 2017 decision by SKIMS to adopt NEET for admission to its 14 advanced-level DM and MCh courses, opening avenues for candidates from outside the state.

As per reports which The Wire could not confirm independently, around 70% of aspirants studying in these super speciality courses at SKIMS hail from other states.

During several interviews, The Wire also came across locals, academics, businessmen and layper-sons who were supportive of the move, saying that it will increase the competition and bring in better doctors.

But they refused to be identified.In the politically febrile Kashmir Valley, where all kinds of political activism and mobilisations are subject to certain restrictions, the protests have opened up new avenues for regional political leaders who are competing for influence and traction, especially ahead of the proposed assembly elections likely to be scheduled for the next year.

Nearly all political parties have been vehement about the matter and have slammed the decision and supported the students’ demand to roll it back.
“We are not saying that we are short of caliber to compete at the national level,” said Murtaza Shah, an MBBS student at SKIMS Medical College. “But before taking such a decision, they should have considered the situation we are in.”

Shah referred to the tumultuous political nature of the Valley. “Our studies are experiencing disrup-tions repeatedly since the 2016 agitation [after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani]. After August 2019, Internet services remained either shut or restricted for more than a year. For students do-ing PG courses, the Internet is indispensable,” he said.

In absence of private coaching centres for PG NEET exams, Kashmiri students shell out anywhere between Rs 30,000-1 lakh to get tutored through online platforms like PrepLadder and Marrow.

“When we face situations like year round clo-sure of the Internet; when our resources and oppor-tunities are unequal, how can we compete at the national level? There’s no equal footing,” he said. This is not the only worry which seems to have plagued the students.

The absence of a legal bond system – which mandates a retention period for specialists after having completed their degree – is another. SKIMS does not have this system, which has meant that doctors, after finishing their super-speciality courses, choose to return to their own home states resulting in the loss to J&K’s health sector.

Most states elsewhere in the country have a proper legal bond system in place which ensures “retention” of doctors. Doctors acting in contraven-tion of this bond are liable to pay penalties that range from Rs 10 lakh to even two crores.

“A medic pursuing PG also gets a hefty amount as a stipend,” said Bilal Yousuf, another student. “These doctors will get their degrees here and then return to their states.

In the process, they will also be drawing stipends from the privy purse of the government. They will ultimately have a parasitic relationship with the J&K state exchequer.”—KMS

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