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NEET-UG 2024 hearing: Cancellation of exam in its entirety is an ‘extreme last resort’, says Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on Monday (July 8) said the cancellation of the undergraduate National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET-UG) 2024 in its entirety was an “extreme last resort” as it affected the lives of over 23 lakh students who wrote the prestigious exam for medical admissions across the country.

However, Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud concluded that the fact that questions were leaked, and the sanctity of the exam was compromised was “beyond question”.

Follow highlights from the NEET-UG 2024 hearing in Supreme Court on July 08, 2024

“One thing is very clear, the leak has taken place. The fact that the sanctity of the exam is compromised is beyond question. Now how wide is the leak? We have to determine the nature of the leak… Before we order a retest, we have to know the extent of the leak. We do not live in an ideal world where there is no leak. But a retest affects the lives of 23 lakh students. The cancellation of the NEET-UG exam is the extreme last resort. It would be done only if we have no other go… If we cannot separate the wheat from the chaff, retest would have to be directed,” Chief Justice Chandrachud observed in court.

The three-judge Bench, also comprising Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, chastised the Union government and the National Testing Agency (NTA), which conducts the exam, to come out of the “self-denial” and aid the court in finding out the extent of the leak.

Chief Justice Chandrachud said it was vital to know the nature and extent of the leak to decide if the NEET-UG 2024, held on May 5, ought to be cancelled. The court is examining if there is any possibility to segregate the wrongdoers to spare students the trauma of a retest.

‘Systemic fraud’

But petitioners who are seeking a re-test, represented by advocates Mathew Nedumpara and Charu Mathur, argued that credibility of the exam was lost. They said it was not possible to bifurcate the frauds from the innocents. The fraud was conducted at a systemic level.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, said the leaks were an instance of local malpractice. He countered the “unprecedented” phenomenon of 67 candidates scoring perfect 720/720, saying the top 100 candidates were distributed among 95 sectors, in 56 cities spread out in 18 States and Union Territories. The NTA argued that the NEET syllabus in 2024 was comparatively easier than the previous four years when there was a total of only seven perfect scorers.

The Chief Justice said the law on whether retest was needed or not was based on settled principles of law.

“On the basis of the data on record placed before it, a court has to see if the breach is systemic; whether it has affected the integrity of the entire exam process; whether it is possible to segregate the beneficiaries from the untainted students. In case segregation is not possible, it would be necessary to order re-examination. On the other hand, if the breach is confined to specific centres, it may not be appropriate to order a re-examination, especially when it involves over 23 lakh students,” the CJI explained.

The Supreme Court demanded the NTA make a “full disclosure”. It said the time had come for the Centre and the NTA to use whatever technology, common sense and knowledge of law to identify the wrongdoers.

The court ordered the NTA to file a reply before Thursday, the next date of hearing, on pointed questions from the Bench, including when and where the leaks were noticed first; the manner in which the questions were leaked and disseminated; the duration between the conduct of the leak and actual conduct of the exam on May 5; the steps taken so far to identify the beneficiaries of the leak; the modalities followed to identify these candidates; the number of students identified as beneficiaries.

The court sought details on the status of the counselling process. It further directed the CBI, which was handed over the investigation into the NEET case, to file a status report and the material which had come to light in the course of the probe. “The Investigating Officer has to detail the modalities through which the leak happened,” the court specified.

The Centre too has to file a detailed response on steps taken to protect the sanctity of the NEET.

“Consider setting up a multi-disciplinary committee to oversee measures to obviate future problems. The Union and the NTA have to see if it is feasible to use data analytics by forensic labs to identify suspect cases. If this is possible, they have to identify the modalities to segregate the tainted from the innocents,” the court directed.

The government-appointed committee chaired by former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan was also asked to give full details of the work done so far. The court said it would examine if the panel required to be “sufficiently enhanced” to bring in more talent.

The court said it would consider on Thursday if the entire comprehensive results, except that of candidates under scanner, could be published.

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