New Delhi/ Mumbai: The Supreme Court on Monday directed the National Testing Agency (NTA) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to submit a “full disclosure report” on the extent of the paper leak in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) to establish whether a retest of 2.4 million medical aspirants is needed. 

“We intend to direct the National Testing Agency to make a full disclosure before the court…on the following aspects: first, the nature of the leak; second, the locations where the leak occurred; third, the time lag between the occurrence of the leak and the examination; and fourth, the method of dissemination of the leaked question papers,” chief justice D.Y. Chandrachud said.

The top court bench comprising Chandrachud and justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra was hearing series of petitions challenging alleged malpractices and irregularities in the NEET-UG 2024 conducted by the NTA. 

The top court’s verdict could impact the fate of about 2.4 million students who sat the entrance exams this year aspiring to become a doctor.

While the court noted that a leak had happened, it wanted to establish the extent and manner in which the irregularities took place before taking any decision.

‘Some received question paper a few hours before exam’

“Now, one thing is very clear that the leak has taken place…If we are not able to identify students who are candidates who are guilty of wrongdoing, a retest has to be ordered,” the CJI noted. The almost-two-hour-long hearing saw advocates alleging that some of the students had received the question paper a few hours before the exam on 5 May.

The CJI wanted to know the modalities of the exam which took place in 4,750 centres across 571 cities in India and 14 cities outside the country. He wanted details of the supply chain, including at what time the paper was leaked as per investigations, how many days before the test the papers were sent to bank lockers for safekeeping, and how the papers are transported.

“If you can’t distinguish the grain from the chaff that is tainted from the untainted….On the other hand we are dealing with situation of 23 lakh (students),” he added. 

Also Read: NEET-UG fiasco: How to avoid trouble going ahead

So far, the government has refused to conduct any retest of NEET and did one only for 1,536 students who had been granted grace marks — but, here, almost half of them did not turn up for the retest.

“The petitioner students have expressed satisfaction with the Supreme Court’s acknowledgment that the NEET-UG 2024 examination paper was indeed leaked. The Court’s recognition of this breach significantly bolsters their claims of systemic irregularities and the vitiation of the examination’s integrity,” said Gauhar Mirza, partner at law firm Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, who has petitioned the Delhi High Court on behalf of three students challenging the grace marks given to some students who appeared for the exam. 

All petitions in various courts were clubbed and matter was taken up by SC.

During the hearing, the top court highlighted that it was important to gauge the extent of the leak — if it had happened via social media or an electronic platform then it would have spread “like wild fire”. 

The apex court also wanted the CBI to file a status report on the investigation into the allged irregularities in the medical entrance test.

Also Read: NEET-UG 2024 counselling expected to start by July end, additional seats may be added: Report

The CJI asked if it was possible for the Union government and the NTA to use data analytics and cyber-forensics to identify suspects. The court directed the NTA, the Union government, and the CBI to place all details of their investigations on the record by 5pm on Wednesday. The next hearing is on Thursday.

Petitioners, including parents, students and coaching centres, have raised objections to granting grace marks, demanded a fresh exam due to the paper leak and other irregularities, alleged discrepancies in Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheets, and called for investigations by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) into the way these exams are conducted.

The apex court said the government would have to take a decision on whether ‘counselling’ should be allowed to proceed. Counselling is the process through which students are informed if they have bagged a seat in one of the 108,940 medical colleges. 

So far, counselling has been postponed from 6 July until further notice.

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“The court is concerned about the steps which should be taken to ensure the sanctity of the NEET, so that such instances which have transpired during the present session are not repeated in the future,” the CJI said.

The court suggested that the government may consider setting up a multi-disciplinary committee consisting of experts to ensure measures are being taken to stop any further breaches in the future. If such a committee has been set up then full details need to be submitted to the court, it said. 

The government has already formed a committee to enhance the structure, processes, data management and security protocols of the NTA.

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