Over the past few months, the global coronavirus pandemic has changed lives dramatically. It has taken an emotional, financial or spiritual toll on most of us. Many of us have lost a loved one, friend or even a favourite public figure to this unforgiving virus. Students are hardly immune to this huge social strain. They were among those who suffered the worst disruptions on all fronts.
Amidst this pandemic, the ICAI student fraternity is filled with anxieties over the 24-day-long offline examinations proposed to be conducted nationwide by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India—from November 21 to December 14. Concerns over health and safety are natural given that almost half a million candidates comprising three different levels are set to appear for these exams.
Recently, the media had reported that hundreds of students and teachers from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka tested positive on account of educational institutions being reopened — even if it lasted less than a week, and in spite of safety protocols being in place. We have also seen the story of Mr Vishal, a NEET aspirant who appeared for his one-day exam and subsequently tested positive. He perhaps represents the face of many such unreported cases—a consequence of such silent “super-spreader events” that are not covered by the mainstream media.
This is one of the many reasons that has distressed students regarding the conduct of the ICAI exams—a sizeable body of them feel it jeopardises their fundamental right to safety and equality. They believe the lives of candidates and their families will be put at risk if these CA exams happen as scheduled as no amount of safety protocols can offer guarantees against Covid casualties, as witnessed in the above cases. The students reason that their own immunity may be strong but it would be selfish to risk the health of the elders at home. The harm a 24-day-long exam process could do is alarming and unimaginable.
Adherence to the MOH guidelines for lakhs of students over this sustained duration will be a challenging task. Students have cited concerns over the SOPs issued by the Institute with regard to MOH guidelines. They say there is “huge uncertainty” regarding situations where anyone’s home or centre suddenly falls under a containment zone, forcing the student to “opt out”. “There have already been multiple cases where the exam centres of students have been changed, or located at unusual, hugely inconvenient or unhygienic places,” a student says. Also, they report that the ICAI has obtained a compulsory consent from them while releasing admit cards (hall ticket). The student cannot download the admit card without ticking the check box, which binds them to compulsorily agree to the terms of their own “free will”. This is coercion of consent, which violates MHA guidelines of seeking a voluntary self-declaration.
On November 7, the Institute notified an “Opt-Out” scheme for candidates who themselves, or their family members, face a Covid infection or happen to reside in containment zones—along with a “carry forward of attempt to another exam cycle in Jan/Feb 2021 or to May 2021” as a relief measure. However, there is no further clarification on “set-off benefits, declaration of results, rank allotment, or exam schedule” which are important aspects for students, considering the opportunity cost and the large investment of time and effort that go into the preparation for these exams.
“This violates the constitutional right to equality, where a student due to no fault of his/hers has to opt out of an attempt,” says a student. “It’s not prudent on the part of the Institute to make a student suffer due to a pandemic which is absolutely not his/her fault. If a student is required to opt out in the midst of exams, it causes havoc and leads to undue stress.”
Disruptive events like elections (like the local polls in Rajasthan) and closure of educational institutes in a few states adds to the uncertainty. He adds: “Even the most dedicated of students lost track of their preparation owing to the perennial uncertainty. We are extremely stressed, anxious and exhausted as a result of it all!”
The Reality: WHO has confirmed that “In enclosed spaces, the virus spreads in clusters if people spend more than one hour with a Covid-positive person.” Other studies have reported that an asymptomatic but infective person takes “one to two weeks” before showing symptoms. The students note that as these exams will last 3-4 hours (excluding travel time), this could lead to high possibility of cluster transmission.
With the second and third wave hitting multiple states and the festive season round the corner, soaring numbers are inevitable. It is questionable if our health infrastructure would be able to accommodate more cases if they occur as a result of these lengthy exams. Enforcing a risk of infection—and the consequent financial burden—on students who may not come from privileged families would also be unjustified.
Students understand that they have to move on and learn to live with the virus. Also, ICAI has affirmed that they are doing their best to conduct safe exams. However, it would be reckless to turn a blind eye to ground realities. Does the Institute actually want to prioritise exams over the health and lives of its students? Many of them have been studying for numerous months, but is not a delay in careers preferable to endangering everything they have striven for?
“We have been taught the concept of professional scepticism and strategic management as part of our course,” says a student. “With one decision, the Institute can affirm that humanity precedes everything and there can never be a fair tradeoff with health and lives!” The students therefore urge prudent Council members and the Institute to decide from a humanitarian perspective. They trust the mother body will do the right thing.
(The students quoted in the article requested anonymity. The views expressed are personal)