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Protesting The Government’s Incompetence, “Corona Warriors” Take The Streets

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With the government delaying the NEET-PG counselling, doctors have taken the streets and are protesting what they deem the government’s incompetence.

In India, Postgraduate Medical Admissions are conducted through a common, nationwide entrance exam, “NEET-PG”. In a normal academic year, this exam happens in January, and the Counselling Process for Admissions occur in the months of March and April.

About 1.75 to 2 lakh MBBS Doctors write this exam each year for around 40,000 Postgraduate Seats (about 15,000 of them in clinical branches, and the rest in either lab sciences or auxiliary branches).

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The NEET exam was postponed time and again in 2021.

The exam conducting body, NBEMS (National Board of Examinations in Medical Sciences), first issued a circular for the 2021 NEET Exam, announcing the date to be 10 January, 2021.

But to account for the academic delay caused due to the first COVID wave, and also due to the fact that the apex medical body was changed from Medical Council of India (MCI) to National Medical Commission (NMC), the exam was initially postponed to 18 April, 2021.

When the second COVID wave hit the country in mid-April, in order to depute MBBS Doctors for COVID duties to account for the workforce shortage, the Government took a decision to postpone the NEET-PG exam yet again, this time after having issued the hall tickets, with only 3 days left for the exam.

Subsequently, the Prime Minister’s Office unilaterally declared that NEET-PG would be postponed until “after August 31st”. Eventually, the NEET-PG exam was conducted on 11 September, 2021, with the results coming by the end of the month.

How Does The Counselling Scheme For Admissions Work?

During counselling, 50% of the total seats have “All-India Open Counselling” conducted by MoHFW. The remainder 50% of seats are filled by respective states by State-level Counselling.

Until 2020, the All-India Open Counselling had the following reservation scheme — 15% for Scheduled Caste Candidates, 7.5% for Scheduled Tribe Candidates, 5% Horizontal Reservation for Persons with Disabilities.

A petition was filed in Madras High Court by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), demanding application of 27% reservation for Other Backward Caste (OBC) Candidates in Postgraduate Medical Courses.

Before the final verdict could be pronounced on this case, the Union Government issued a notification announcing 27% OBC Reservation and 10% Reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in Postgraduate Medical Courses and MBBS Courses.

Since now the total reservation applied exceeded the 50% limit set in the Indra Sawhney Case, and since the 103rd Constitutional Amendment which instituted EWS quota is under review by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, two groups, namely “All Docs are Equal” and “Save Merit Save Nation” filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, challenging the Government Circular.

 

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The PIL demands an immediate stay of the New Reservation Policy for this academic year and a subsequent review of the same for the upcoming academic years. During the hearings, the three-judge bench called into question the rationale behind setting ₹8 lakhs as the limit for EWS quota eligibility, as no socio-economic survey/study preceded the 103rd Constitutional Amendment.

The Union Government then responded with an affidavit citing the 2010 Sinho Commission Report. The Court then took the Government to task for going back to a report that was specifically not intended for reservation purposes.

Seeing that the Government has put forward a weak case, the lawyers representing the Government started demanding time for responding, initially citing “Diwali vacation” and then giving other flimsy reasons (based on commentaries of the proceedings from Bar and Bench and LiveLaw).

During the last hearing on 25 November, the Government asked time to set up a committee to relook the EWS eligibility criteria, which the Court granted. The next hearing is scheduled for 6 January, 2022. Until this matter is decided upon, the entire counselling process has been kept on hold.

Why Are Resident Doctors Protesting?

An exam that was supposed to happen in January eventually took place in September. An admission that should have ideally happened by April is yet to begin. This has taken a toll on many NEET-PG Aspirants. They are already in a precarious financial and mental situation because the entrance exam is tough, requiring years of break from career to prepare.

There is a massive 33% shortage in the public healthcare system.

The delay, caused partly due to COVID and majorly due to the incompetence of the Government in drafting laws and in their inability to take all stakeholders into confidence before implementing anything, has put many aspirants between a rock and a hard place. Quite many come from poor and middle-income families, and going for so long without admission and a stipend can break many backs.

The other tragic implication of the delay is the acute shortage of workforce in the Medical College Hospitals — Government and Private. Postgraduate Medical Doctors work as “Junior Residents” who are the first-line responders in casualties, hospital wards and operation theatres.

The consultant doctors and senior professors work to oversee the care provided, but the initial treatment is given by these “Junior Residents” and MBBS House Surgeons. In an already overloaded health system, on the best of days, with all of the Residents present, there is a shortage of hands.

Currently, since July 2021, there are only two batches of Junior Residents present, leaving a massive 33% shortage in the public healthcare system. The Government has made no attempt to expedite the counselling, to overcome this lacuna in patient care. It has continued to look the other way while these overburdened resident doctors are torn down physically, emotionally and mentally.

They have now given up, and are asking the Government for some action, some movement to fasten the legal proceedings. The Government fears that a stay/scrapping of the New Reservation Policy would affect the ruling party’s chances in the upcoming state elections and is dragging its feet on the same.

Resident Doctors Associations across the country are holding OPD Boycotts, Protest Marches, Dharnas etc., from November, demanding some action from the Government. With the impending third COVID wave, the admissions must be done immediately unless we want a catastrophe of “lack of doctors” to fight the Omicron wave.

The FORDA (Federation of Resident Doctors Associations), representing Delhi hospitals like Safdarjung Hospital, RML Hospital etc., marched to the Supreme Court to press for their demands. In order to stop them at their tracks, the Delhi Police committed excess brutalities upon the protesting doctors, asking them to vacate the premises.

Doctors were mistreated on the streets, visuals of which have shamed the nation. We showered claps and flowers upon these “Corona Warriors” not so long ago, and now our hypocrisy and insensitivity as a society, as a nation, stands exposed.

It should be an immediate priority of the Government to resolve this impasse. Patient care has been greatly affected due to this standoff. Tragic stories of unattended patients due to the strike are being heard. The Doctors too have a valid point. The aspirants, waiting for their admissions, are also in limbo.

Nobody emerges as a victor if the Government continues to dither. The need of the hour is to immediately request an urgent Court Hearing and lift the stay on counselling, on an urgent basis, at least to avoid a catastrophe in healthcare if the Omicron wave hits.

The author is an MBBS Doctor and a NEET-PG aspirant.

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