Pradeepa was a brilliant student who cleared NEET in 2017. But she didn’t have the money for a management seat, and the disappointment in the exam this year was too much to take.
Pradeepa was a top scorer in her Class 10 exams in 2015 – she got 490 out of 500, and topped the Tindivanam education district in the government schools category. In Class 12, too, she scored brilliantly: A total of 1125 out of 1200. The young girl from a Dalit family had one dream: To become a doctor.
On Monday, June 4, Pradeepa killed herself in the Peruvallur village in Gingee taluk of Villupuram.
The 17-year-old had failed to clear the NEET exam, the results of which had been announced earlier that day.
Like Anitha last year, Pradeepa, too, shined in academics despite the odds being set against her. Her father Shanmugham is an agricultural labourer, and her mother Amritha is a homemaker. When her father had no means to support her education after Class 10, it was a private school which offered her free education for Class 11 and 12.
In fact, she managed to clear NEET in her first attempt in 2017 with a score of 155, and got admission to a naturopathy course under management quota. However, determined to pursue MBBS and unable to pay the exorbitant fee, she took a year off to prepare again.
But Pradeepa did not have access to any coaching institutes to help her out; even to avail coaching from the nearest government coaching centre was not an option for her, for it is at least 70 km from her village.
Critics of NEET have time and again pointed out how the exam favours those students who are privileged enough to attend coaching centres.
Journalist and anti-caste activist Kavin Malar says, “This is institutional murder. This is not a suicide. It's a NEET murder. Last year they did it to Anitha, this year to Pradeepa.”
“It is a known fact that you cannot clear NEET exams without the help of elite coaching centres which collect lakhs of rupees as fees,” says D Ravikumar, a writer, anti-caste activist, and member of VCK. “Structurally, this exam is against poor people, particularly those from villages. They do not have that much money to afford the coaching,” he says.
Further explaining how NEET discriminates against state board students, Ravikumar says, “There are various syllabi used in schools across the country, but NEET is based only on NCERT. How can you expect students studying in different streams to write an entrance exam of an entirely new stream?”
Kavin points out that the socio-economic background of students plays a huge role in who gets through entrance exams for streams like medicine. “When I was studying in my school, most of the students didn't even know the cut off mark. We have to consider the social discrimination here,” she says.
Activists say that they want NEET to go, and want states to be able to decide their own entrance exam and admission formula.
“In the last ten years when NEET was not there in Tamil Nadu, admissions were done on the basis of board marks alone. Ten or fifteen years back, Tamil Nadu did have entrance exams for medicine and engineering. That time admissions were based on both the entrance marks and the plus two board exam marks. But now, for admissions only NEET scores are considered,” Ravikumar explains.
“If entrance exams are to be conducted then the Plus 2 marks should also be considered. Students work hard for two years in Plus 1 and Plus 2 and they give the boards, but NEET completely ignores the board exam marks. What is the point of studying plus two?” he asks.
While in the aftermath of suicides, armchair commentators are quick to resort to ‘mental strength’ and ‘will power’ as arguments, in the case of Anitha and Pradeepa, the tone deaf commentary has also exposed caste privilege, say activists.
Student activist Iniyavan says, “People who comment on the Dalit-Bahujan students committing suicide don’t realise the routine life of a Dalit-Bahujan from a rural background. They put a lot of labour and effort in their everyday life. They go to work, come back; take care of their families, then study. In everyday life, they put a lot of effort. But these people commenting with a patronising tone of ‘try again’ don’t acknowledge their labour. This is what Brahminism does.”
“When they say try again – are these students getting any assurance that they will get 100% results in the next attempt? They don’t have the privilege of taking another chance. One year is huge for them. They are not rich and cannot venture into many fields, like joining IIT, then doing management studies and quitting everything to do photography. Dalit-Bahujans can’t afford such adventures,” Iniyavan says.
With inputs from Manasa Rao and Balakrishna Ganeshan.