Indian students evacuated from war-torn Ukraine on their arrival, at IGI Airport in New Delhi, India on Wednesday Image Credit: ANI

In the midst of his own personal tragedy, a grieving father whose son was killed in Ukraine is surrounded by television channels where he is forced to justify why 21- year- old Naveen Shekharappa went to study medicine abroad.

In a country where empathy is in short supply even during a war, this is a new low especially when images of distraught and scared Indians in different parts of Ukraine begging to be rescued have taken over our timelines.

Thousands of other parents irrespective of the why and where are still holding on to hope. The ask is big, 18,000 Indians — the largest nationality of students — were studying medicine in Ukraine when Russia attacked. If any questions are to be asked, then they should be about whether India’s response to evacuate was quick enough.

Instead, disparaging remarks quizzing the need to go abroad also came from Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi who gave a sweeping statement accusing 90% students- some currently holed in bunkers, others running out of food of being failures in the NEET examination.

Away from the ministerial photo-ops and blustering, once the rescue ops have been completed, it is imperative to accept that, a deep dive is urgently needed to understand why so many Indians migrate to study medicine in the Ukraine. Is it just the lure of a ‘foreign’ education or is it also about being pushed into a corner?

The next best path

There is the obvious number crunching. With limited seats in public colleges and cost of admissions and/or capitation fees in private medical colleges going into crores, many families who are either pursuing their child’s dream or society’s expectations choose to follow the next best path.

In Ukraine the 6- year MBBS course roughly costs Rs15 lakhs, in India they would have to shell out Rs60-80 lakhs to get entrance in a good private college, this does not include the collateral cost of coaching classes.

But why is getting admission in a public medical college almost impossible in the country? Scoring well in the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) examination which became a uniform entrance test for the country in 2016 is not an automatic guarantee as reservations have taken away a chunk of the seats available in the general category.

In January this year the Supreme Court upheld 27 per cent Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation and allowed a 10 per cent reservation for Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota within the All India Quota (AIQ) seats saying that “high scores in an examination was not a proxy for merit” and that “reservation is not at odds with merit.”

There are less than 50,000 public seats up for grabs in medical colleges through NEET and more than 15 lakh students sat for the examination in 2021.

With a disproportionately large number of applicants, thousands will not make the cut and it is not a reflection of their scores. Reservations mean that someone with a higher percentage can see his seat taken by another student with lower grades.

Ruffling a few feathers

Soon after the war broke out, PM urged students to not “study in smaller countries,” to which a evacuated student from Punjab who has been in Ukraine for the past 5 years responds by saying he may ruffle a few feathers, but reservations have forced their hand.

He is alluding to those who apply through the general category. On the other hand, it is no secret that children of many cabinet ministers are studying in universities abroad, middle- class India is managing with what it can. Between 2016-2019, 59 new medical colleges were approved but 33 of these are private.

Ukraine is also favoured because it gives admission to Indian students who have cleared the NEET exam. But the foreign tag can be a double-edged sword.

There is confusion even among students over the recognition of their degrees globally and the pass percentage of students clearing the FMGE test — a prerequisite to practice in India after receiving the MBBS degree in Ukraine is low. After 6 years of studying more than a few students have fallen through the cracks.

The shortage in health care especially in the hinterlands has been glaring during the pandemic and yet we play it casual by not rehabilitating the returning students who fail clearance. Under employment of doctors also hides the availability of manpower, the need is to not just fill the gap between supply to demand but also to improve the quality of education and training.

Our education system has long broken and is urgently in need of repairs especially at a time when Covid has only battered it and exposed its inequality.

The Kothari Commission in 1964 had recommended that 6% of India’s GDP should be spent on education, the country has consistently fallen way below target. In 2019-20 only 2.8% was spent on education while it was marginally higher at 3.1% in the next two budget years.

We speak about digital literacy, even more so now after two years of the pandemic but the 2022-23 budget allocation under the India e-learning programme came down to Rs421.01 crore from Rs645.61 crore in the previous financial year. Allocation for the National AYUSH Mission on the other hand increased to Rs800 crore from Rs553 crore in 2021-22.

Education and health care are the cornerstone of any society and in this instance, both complement each other. If one is unstable, the repercussions will filter down.

Reservations may politically correct a balance, but it is only through empowering with standardised education and resources that equality will come. For now, we need to save lives of these students, hopefully later we will introspect on how they can save other lives.