Thorat Committee had suggested remedial coaching for SC/ST students

The suicide out of depression by a reserved category first year MBBS student, Anil Kumar Meena, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, on Saturday has brought to focus once again the plight of SC/ST students at this premier medical institution.

Anil Kumar failed in supplementary papers for his first-year examinations. Supplementary examinations are for those who fail to pass in the regular examination. He could not sit for the regular examinations because of insufficient attendance. His failure was apparently due to a lack of communication skills in English in which all teaching and examinations are conducted at the institute. He, it seems, had complained in the past to his friends of his inability to follow lectures in the classroom.

Hailing from Baran district in Rajasthan, Anil Kumar was the son of a poor farmer, Suraj Mal. By all accounts, Anil Kumar was a bright student except for being handicapped by lack of knowledge of English. In fact, he was a ranked student in the AIIMS entrance examination in 2010.

In this context, it is pertinent to highlight again some of the findings of the report of the three-member Thorat Committee constituted in 2006 to “enquire into the allegation of differential treatment of SC/ST students at the AIIMS,” which have a direct bearing on this suicide case. The report was submitted in May 2007.

The report observed that there was no initiative to arrange remedial coaching for undergraduate students in English, basic courses or any other spheres for SCs/STs as is required by educational institutions. About 84 per cent of the SC/ST students at the AIIMS had told the committee about the need for such remedial coaching. “In the absence of any special programmes to assist the SC/ST,” the report said, “…some of the students, if not all, face difficulties in learning, hence in completion of courses and in performance.” According to AIIMS sources, such a scheme is yet to be put in place.

The factor that most probably resulted in Anil Kumar failing in the examinations concerns the system currently being followed at the institute for assessment and examination of a student. The AIIMS examination involves both internal and external assessment, with 50 per cent marks for each. The Thorat Committee had noted: “With 50 per cent internal assessment, and significant role of individual faculty, gives scope for faculty to misuse this privilege, if he/she wishes to do so.”

At the supplementary examination stage, the weightage used to be 25 and 75 respectively. However, the weightage for internal assessment was recently increased to 50 like in the regular examination, which seems to have adversely impacted Anil Kumar's performance. Having been barred from appearing in the regular examination, he effectively got only one chance to pass, and that too without the benefit of a lower weight for internal assessment.

In principle, of course, as the committee had noted, internal assessment could have been effectively used by the teacher to mentor and hand-hold the student to get the best out of him/her while imparting skills and knowledge. However, this, on the contrary, became a tool for discrimination in teaching sessions, laboratory and clinical work, the committee had noted.

Based on statements by SC/ST students, the report observed that SC/ST students did not receive the kind of support the other students received from their teachers. “Given the dependence of students on teachers for learning and skill, the lack of adequate support to SC/ST students reflects in performance and psychological problems,” the committee observed. “The self-reported experiences of SC/ST students,” the report said, “indicate that discrimination takes the form of avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, discouragement and differential treatment by teachers towards these students.”

The report also observed that the AIIMS did not have a special cell for SC/ST students to deal with their difficulties (academic, financial, language) to cope with a strenuous academic programme, taking into account their backward origins. It also said that the institute did not have any grievance redressal system or mechanism to deal with complaints of non-compliance with constitutional protections and safeguards to the SC/ST community against the incidences of discrimination in the AIIMS. According to a member of the committee, none of the report's recommendations appears to have been implemented. In fact, without a redressal mechanism in place, Anil Kumar had apparently tried to meet the Director thrice but could not.

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