Centre forms committee to review EWS criteria, even as junior doctors threaten to intensify strike to get NEET PG conducted soon

The 3-member committee will review the criteria in accordance with assurance given to the SC on the matter, the centre said. Here's why this is a bitter pill to swallow for resident doctors
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

The centre has set up a three-member committee to review the criteria for reservation for the Economically Weaker Sections, along the lines of its assurance to the Supreme Court in the NEET PG reservations case. Appointed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the committee includes former Finance Secretary Ajay Bhushan Pandey, Member Secretary, Indian Council of Social Science Research, VK Malhotra and the Principal Economic Advisor to the Government of India, Sanjeev Sanyal.

The panel will review the eligibility criteria of the EWS category for admissions into educational institutions and appointments at government jobs. During a hearing of a batch of petitions by MBBS students challenging the centre's decision to allot 27% and 10% reservation in the NEET PG All-India Quota to Other Backward Classes and EWS respectively, the Supreme Court had disapproved of the centre setting the same income limit for both the categories at Rs 8 lakhs, calling it arbitrary. "You cannot just pull a number out of thin air," said Justice DY Chandrachud in his reprimand, asking the centre to produce an affidavit explaining the criteria. The Economically Weaker Sections Bill was passed in February 2019. On July 29 this year, the Centre had announced that it would be reserving 10% of AIQ seats for EWS, and 27% for OBC.

The centre had, on November 25, asked the Supreme Court for 4 weeks' time to 'review' the criteria. This had put the counselling for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test Postgraduate exams on hold, impacting the admissions of thousands of PG doctors.

After the hearing last week, resident doctors across the country had announced strikes, exempting themselves from Outpatient Department Services, claiming 'inhumane overburdening' because of the lack of a whole batch of PG doctors for a year now. In fact, the Federation of Resident Doctors Association had met with the Union Health Minister on Saturday, November 27, and demanded an expedition of the NEET PG counselling, failing which, the doctors would intensify their protests. "The Health Minister had given a 'verbal assurance' that the centre will resolve the matter by today, December 1," Dr Manish Kumar, President, FORDA, told Edexlive in an exclusive chat. 

However, all they got was a committee and another delay. This has irked PG doctors all across the country, who are promising to follow through on their threat to intensify their strike. "As announced earlier, FORDA will be intensifying the agitation and will go forward with withdrawal from all routine services by resident doctors in hospitals from Friday, December 3 onwards, in case there is no concrete measure taken by concerned authorities regarding the NEET PG counselling," said FORDA in a statement. 

"Indirectly, they are doing what they wanted, extending it to January again with a different approach. This is not a solution," said Dr Sagar Dharmasula, President of the Junior Doctors Association, Telangana. The JUDA has also said in a statement that with a fresh wave of COVID-19 looking imminent, it is essential to start the counselling process to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system due to a shortage of staff.  

The NEET PG exam was originally scheduled for January 6, 2021, and the healthcare services have been deprived of 45,000 PG doctors ever since then, says Dr Manish. And now with the Supreme Court hearing scheduled for January 6, 2022, it could well be another few months before the counselling process is completed and the doctors finally join. 

The provisions for the criteria for determining the Economically Weaker Sections are mentioned in Article 15 of the Constitution. The committee has been asked to "examine various approaches so far followed in the country for identifying economically weaker sections and recommend criteria that may be adopted for identifying the EWS category in the future," according to the office memorandum of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. 

It is to be noted that the centre had submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court explaining its reasoning behind the criteria before the latest hearing, and had said in court that experts had been consulted before settling upon the numbers. 

No matter how divided the students and the doctors might be in their opinion on the reservation, they all agree that it is high time the NEET counselling is done so doctors can join the workforce. Swati who awaits NEET counselling too, says that there is a severe shortage of staff at government hospitals in Hyderabad, and she is apprehensive about joining as a fresh PG student in such an environment, fearing that her batch will be overburdened, with the current final year students also due to leave at the start of next year. 

The delay is causing a 'disastrous impact on the minds of the youngsters,' said Dr JA Jayalal, National President of the Indian Medical Association in a chat with Edexlive. "If they wish, they can simply pass an ordinance to implement the reservation next year. The IMA condemns the government's insensitive attitude towards the plight of the public healthcare system. It is unfortunate that the government is asking for 4 weeks time to review data in this day and age, where something like that shouldn't take more than a few days. It reflects the mindset that the government doesn't care about students and healthcare," he says.

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