2.65 million reasons: The Indian student community is fighting a solo battle against UGC before the Supreme Court

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 situation is anything but normal, the UGC is pressing for the conduct of final year university exams.
UGC Case in Supreme Court
UGC Case in Supreme Court

On July 6, 2020, the University Grants Commission (UGC) made an announcement regarding final year university exams amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some exceptions were provided for retaking exams at a later date, the regulations mandated that these exams be concluded by September 30, 2020.

On the date of releasing these guidelines, India recorded over 6.97 lakh cases of the novel Coronavirus and 19,693 deaths, according to figures released by the Union Health Ministry.

As of today, there have been 2.6 million recorded cases in India.

In the face of the government’s decision to allow exams to take place even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow, concerned students approached the courts. Various petitions were filed before the Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court, and the Karnataka High Court, among others, seeking cancellation or postponement of the exams.

Here is a look at the litigation filed before various courts so far.

Supreme Court

The first case in the Apex Court was filed by 31 students on July 19, 2020.

On the date of filing this case, there were more than a million cases in India and a death toll of 26,816. Advocates Anubha Shrivastava and Alakh Alok Srivastava are representing the students.

The spread of the virus as of the date of filing the petition and each date of hearing before the Supreme Court has been tabulated below.

Covid Statistics
Covid Statistics

When the Supreme Court hears the matter on August 18, the case rise will be at an average of 60,000 per day and the death toll would have crossed 50,000. From the date of filing the petition, the number of active cases has nearly doubled, and the same can be said for the number of lives claimed by the virus.

Karnataka High Court - Karnataka CET

The Karnataka High Court on July 29, 2020 allowed the state government to conduct the Common Entrance Test (CET). The state government had argued that it had followed all rules and regulations mandated by Union Ministry of Home Affairs. These precautions include thermal screening at test centres, increasing the number of test centres, special arrangements for COVID-positive students, and arranging transport for candidates, among others.

As of July 29, 2020 there were 1.12 lakh cases in the Karnataka. The death toll stood at 2,147, with more than 50,000 cases in Bangalore alone.

Students taking CET
Students taking CETTwitter

Today, these numbers have nearly doubled, with the number of cases increasing to 2.26 lakh and the number of deaths shooting up to 3,947. There are nearly 90,000 cases in Bangalore alone.

Delhi High Court

The first case before the Delhi High Court was a petition seeking provision of educational facilities for students with disabilities amid the pandemic. This plea was filed back in May 2020. On May 20, when the Court passed its first order, there were 1,06,750 active cases in the capital, with 3,303 deaths.

A number of applications were filed in that petition, with the matter eventually becoming centred around the preparedness of Delhi University to hold final year exams during the pandemic.

Today, the Delhi High Court directed for the final year exams of Delhi University to be conducted in physical mode, starting September 14. Earlier, the Court had directed for conduct of online open book examination for final year students starting August 10.

Entrance Exams vs UGC Exams

While the Supreme Court earlier dismissed a petition seeking to stay the conduct of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), it refused to allow postponement of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) today. Much to the chagrin of NEET and JEE candidates, the Court observed in its judgment passed today,

"Life cannot be stopped. We have to move ahead with all safeguards and all... Are you (students) ready to waste one whole year?…Career of students cannot be put under jeopardy for long.”

In this light, the challenge to the UGC’s decision to hold final year exams amid the pandemic - scheduled to be heard by the Apex Court tomorrow - will likely meet a similar fate.

However, it must be considered that these entrance exams do not have a strict bearing on the academic year and the scale of these exams is not similar to the scale of UGC exams.

Covid cases and deaths ever since UGC 1 guidelines of April 30, 2020.
Covid cases and deaths ever since UGC 1 guidelines of April 30, 2020.

What are the students asking?

The petitions before the Supreme Court have sought to quash the July 6 circular of the UGC. The students have prayed that the exams be cancelled and that their results be determined on the basis of their past performance.

In fact, in the initial guidelines issued by the UGC in April 2020, this was one of the clauses:

“In case the situation does not appear to be normal in view of COVID-19, in order to maintain "social distancing", safety and health of the students, grading of the students could be composite of 50% marks on the basis of internal marks and the remaining 50% may be awarded on the basis of marks of the previous semesters, if available”.

However, despite the fact that the COVID-19 situation is anything but normal, the UGC is pressing for the conduct of final year exams.

During the last hearing before the Supreme Court, Senior Advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Shyam Divan argued before the Court that the previous April 30 UGC guidelines were "flexible" and "compassionate".

Divan also argued that the UGC guidelines are advisory in nature, and that universities are free to chart out their own plan accordingly.

While there is no empirical data to link the holding of exams with the increase in COVID-19 cases or deaths, there is enough evidence to suggest that the congregation of human beings in enclosed places has contributed heavily to the spread of the virus in India. The physical infrastructure at Indian colleges (or lack thereof) is not adequate for universities or governments to ensure social distancing and other measures for the safety of students.

No matter what the urgency to hold the exams, the rise in cases has clearly demonstrated that conducting exams, especially UGC exams, where it would be impossible to maintain social distancing at most colleges, would invite some serious consequences.

Pallavi is the Editor of Bar & Bench

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