SC considers NEET-UG 2024 re-test amid question paper leak concerns

NEW DELHI — Observing that the sanctity of the NEET-UG 2024 has been “breached”, the Supreme Court on Monday said a re-test may be ordered if the entirety of the process is affected and sought details from the National Testing Agency and the CBI including the timing and manner of the paper leak, besides the numbers of wrongdoers, to know the extent of its effect.

“Let us not be in self-denial. Self-denial is only adding to the problem,” a bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud told the Centre and the NTA, which conducts the prestigious test, in a string of strongly-worded observations.

“One thing which is very clear is that the leak has taken place. That the sanctity of the exam has been breached is beyond doubt. The question is how widespread is the leak,” said the bench which also comprised Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

Posing a volley of searching queries, the bench said a re-test has to be ordered if the breach in sanctity affects the entirety of the process.

The court said if the sanctity of NEET-UG 2024 is “lost” and if the leak of its question paper has been propagated through social media, then a re-test has to be ordered.

It said the extent of question paper leak and the beneficiaries across geographical boundaries have to be ascertained before the top court may order a re-test in the controversy-ridden exam which was taken up by 23.33 lakh students at 4,750 centres in 571 cities including in 14 cities overseas.

It said if the breach was confined to specific areas and it was possible to identify the wrongdoers, then it may not be appropriate to order for a re-test in an examination of such a massive scale.

The apex court said it will have to scrutinise whether the alleged breach has taken place at a “systemic level”, whether it has affected the integrity of the entire exam process and whether it was possible to segregate the beneficiaries of the fraud with untainted candidates who undertook the test on May 5.

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“In a situation where a breach in sanctity affects the entirety of the process and it is not possible to segregate the beneficiaries of the wrongdoings from others, it may be necessary to order a re-test,” the bench said.

“One thing is clear that leak of question paper has taken place,” it said and sought information from the NTA about the number of wrongdoers identified so far and the methodology adopted for it.

The court directed the investigating officer of the CBI, which is conducting a probe into the allegations of malpractices, OMR sheet manipulation, impersonation and cheating, to place before it a report indicating the status of the probe as on Monday.

It said the NTA must disclose the steps taken so far for the identification of beneficiaries of wrongdoings.

The bench asked the NTA to apprise it about the steps taken to identify the centres and cities where the question paper leak took place, the modalities followed for identifying the beneficiaries and their numbers ascertained so far.

“Before we decide to pass an order for a re-test, we must understand what is the nature of leak,” the bench said, adding it was tough to ask over 23 lakh candidates to re-appear for the examination. “What is the modality in which the leak took place? If the modality of the leak is through electronic means like Telegram and WhatsApp …, then there is a possibility that the leak is widespread,” it said.

“From this perspective, the NTA is directed to clarify on the basis of the materials in its possession: (i) When the leak of question paper first took place; (ii) the manner in which question paper was leaked and disseminated; (iii) the time duration between the occurrence of leak and the actual conduct of exam which took place on May 5,” it said.

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While seeking information about the status of counselling of NEET-UG 2024, which has been deferred for the time being, the top court also asked the Centre and the NTA about the feasibility of using the data analytics from the cyber forensic unit or other expert agencies to ascertain suspect cases where they can be asked to take up re-test.

Expressing concern over ensuring the sanctity of NEET-UG, the court said it would be necessary for the government to consider setting up a multidisciplinary team of renowned experts so that such instances are not repeated in future.

The bench was hearing over 30 pleas related to the NEET-UG 2024 including those alleging irregularities and malpractices in the May 5 test and seeking a direction to conduct it afresh. It said if the question paper leak was taking place through Telegram, WhatsApp and electronic means, then “it spreads like wildfire”.

“There is no question that leak of question paper has taken place. We are determining the extent of the leak,” the bench observed. It said there were certain “red flags” as 67 candidates had scored 720 out of 720.

“In the previous years, the proportion was very low,” the bench added.

The pleas will be taken up on July 11.

The Centre and the NTA, which conducts NEET-UG, recently told the apex court through their affidavits that scrapping the exam would be “counterproductive” and “seriously jeopardise” lakhs of honest candidates in the absence of any proof of large-scale breach of confidentiality.

The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test-Undergraduate (NEET-UG) is conducted by the NTA for admissions to MBBS, BDS, AYUSH and other related courses in government and private institutions across the country.

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