NEET row: NTA DG shunted out, Centre sets up panel headed by former ISRO chief for exam reforms

National Testing Agency (NTA) Director General Subodh Singh was shunted out on Saturday, amid a massive controversy over alleged irregularities in competitive exams NEET and NET.
In this Saturday, June 8, 2024 file photo, National Testing Agency (NTA) Director General Subodh Kumar Singh addresses a press conference regarding NEET-UG medical entrance exam results, in New Delhi.
In this Saturday, June 8, 2024 file photo, National Testing Agency (NTA) Director General Subodh Kumar Singh addresses a press conference regarding NEET-UG medical entrance exam results, in New Delhi.

New Delhi | Facing flak over alleged irregularities in competitive exams, the Centre on Saturday shunted out National Testing Agency (NTA) Director General Subodh Singh and set up a seven-member panel headed by former ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan to review the agency's functioning and recommend exam reforms.

The Union Health Ministry also announced the postponement of NEET-PG entrance, a night before the entrance exam, as a "precautionary measure" in the wake of recent allegations on the integrity of certain competitive exams.

The move comes a day after the June edition of the Joint Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and UGC-NET was postponed. The Joint CSIR-UGC-NET is a test conducted to determine eligibility for junior research fellowship and assistant professor and admission to PhD in science courses.

Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, however, denied any leak of CSIR-NET paper and said the exam was postponed due to logistical reasons.

He also asserted that anybody involved or responsible for any irregularity in NEET-UG will not be spared.

According to officials, Subodh Kumar Singh has been put on "compulsory wait" in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) till further orders.

India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) Chairman and Managing Director Pradeep Singh Kharola has been assigned additional charge of the NTA till the appointment of a regular incumbent.

According to sources, the education ministry might stick to its stand that the NEET-UG entrance exams do not need to be scrapped based on evidence gathered by Bihar police contending the investigation shows that the alleged paper leak at Patna was a "localized affair".

Bihar Police on Friday night detained six more people from Jharkhand's Deoghar district in connection with the case, an official said. Its Economic Offences Unit last month arrested 13 people, including prime suspect Sikandar Yadavendu, in connection with the alleged paper leak.

The EOU has obtained NEET reference question papers to compare these with documents recovered during a search operation last month from a flat here and is also exploring the "possibility of conducting narco analysis and brain mapping tests" of the accused, the sources said.

They also indicated that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) might investigate the money laundering aspect of the alleged irregularities in the medical entrance examination conducted by the NTA in May.

A fresh plea has also been filed in the Supreme Court seeking directions to the CBI and the ED to investigate the alleged irregularities in the NEET-UG.

The petition, filed by 10 students who had appeared for the exam, has also sought a direction to Bihar Police to expedite the investigation in the case and file a report before the apex court.

The top court had earlier sought responses from the Centre, the NTA and others on a slew of petitions, including those seeking scrapping of the NEET-UG 2024 exam and a court-monitored probe. The apex court had also stayed further proceedings on similar pleas pending before different high courts.

Amid litigation and protests in different parts of the country on the issue of alleged irregularities, the Education Ministry notified a seven-member panel headed by former ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan to ensure transparent, smooth and fair conduct of examinations through NTA.

The Centre has also operationalised a stringent law that aims to curb malpractices and irregularities in competitive examinations with provisions entailing a maximum jail term of 10 years and a fine of up to Rs 1 crore for offenders.

Nearly four months after President Droupadi Murmu gave her assent to The Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, the Personnel Ministry on Friday night notified the law.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, however, termed it as a "whitewash" and asserted that the BJP cannot evade its responsibility in "promoting corruption and education mafia".

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said exam cancellations are happening everyday because of the "total incompetence" of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the "people around him".

Education Minister Pradhan asserted that setting up of the high-level committee of experts is the first of a series of steps to improve the efficiency of the examination process, put an end to all possible malpractices, strengthen data security protocols and overhaul and reform the NTA.

Transparent, tamper-free and zero-error examinations are a commitment, he said, adding "students' interests and their bright future will always be our government's top priority."

The panel includes former AIIMS Delhi director Randeep Guleria, Central University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor B J Rao and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Madras K Ramamurthy.

People Strong co-founder and Karmayogi Bharat board member Pankaj Bansal, IIT Delhi Dean of Student Affairs Aditya Mittal and Ministry of Education Joint Secretary Govind Jaiswal are also among its members.

Earlier in the day, the Education Minister had said that the "top leadership" of the National Testing Agency is under the scanner over alleged irregularities in competitive exams NEET and NET.

The minister said he is the custodian of students' interests and has to take that into account before taking any step. Pradhan had said earlier this week that he cannot jeopardise the careers of the lakhs of candidates who cleared the exam rightfully.

Asked about any inquiry into the NTA's role, Pradhan said, "I have already said there has been an institutional failure. I have taken responsibility. NTA's top leadership is under several types of questions. But I have to safeguard students' interests first. I am a custodian of their interests."

Earlier this week, the ministry sought a report from the Bihar Police's Economic Offences Unit, which is investigating the allegations of a paper leak in NEET.

"The report has not been received yet... But it is certain that nobody involved or responsible for any irregularity will be spared," he said.

On alleged irregularities in Gujarat's Godhra, the minister said the issue in Godhra was not of a paper leak but of organised cheating and 30 students have been debarred.

"Gujarat case is not of leak... police took preventive action, a few telephone conversations were intercepted.

"There were attempts to cheat, 30 students who have been found involved have been debarred. They are in addition to 63 students from across the country who were debarred from NEET for using unfair means," he said.

The Centre is under fire over alleged irregularities in competitive exams NEET and NET. The UGC-NET was cancelled a day after it was conducted following inputs that the integrity of the exam was compromised.

The matter is being probed by the CBI.

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