Bengaluru: Anjali’s* father, a retired army officer, has spent his whole pension on her MBBS studies. Her family is supported by the meagre amount that her mother, a government teacher, earns.
Rishabh’s* father, a farmer in rural Uttarakhand, has spent his entire life savings so that his son becomes a doctor.
Priyank* has a dream of becoming a physician to support his family, who run a small shop in Dehradun.
Anjali, Rishabh and Priyank are among around 120 students who say they were not allowed to sit for their final year MBBS exams on March 8 after their college – the Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences, a private medical college in Uttarakhand – allegedly hiked the fees by “over 300%” a week before the final semester.
Since then, the students have been protesting against the fee hike.
As the Narendra Modi government urges medical students to stay back in the country in light of the many Indian medical students needing evacuation from Ukraine due of the Russian invasion, Rishabh feels harassed, disturbed and helpless.
“I have a paper in two days, but haven’t been able to concentrate since last week,” Priyank said. More than a hundred MBBS students have joined in the protest, their voices resounding the dismal state of Indian private medical colleges.
The college had asked state quota students to pay Rs 15 lakh and Rs 23 lakh for the all-India quota in order to allow them to appear for the final semester exams. Previously, the Uttarakhand Unaided Private Professional Educational Institutions Act, 2006, had capped the fee for the state quota students to Rs 4 lakh and Rs 5 lakh for all-India quota students.
According to Rishabh, during the third round of his NEET counselling, he was taken to a room after his admission was done and made to sign an affidavit that allowed the college to hike the fees in the future.
Anjali recalls the same, “We were given no choice. We had to sign it. I was this close to my dream of becoming a doctor.”
During their admission in 2017, the college authorities were not following the fee structure as capped by the state government. That was when the Uttarakhand high court had intervened, Naveen*, a professor and an advocate, said.
In 2018, the college authorities had hiked the fees for the second time, but 144 out of 150 students moved the high court again, Naveen said.
“Are we here to become doctor or to keep moving the courts?” another student asked.
After three years, today, the students have moved the high court again.
The students who could not pay the fee hike were forced to submit a post-dated cheque before being allowed to write the exams. The college authorities have claimed that they will follow the high court’s final verdict before cashing the cheque.
“My father earns Rs 20,000 a month from farming. I do not even have half of the money in my bank account the college is asking for, but I have submitted the post-dated cheque so that I can write the exams,” Rishabh said.
Mushtaq Ahmad, the Dean of Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences, has refuted the claims of the fee hike. “The matter is in the court and during their admission to the college, the court had asked them to take an undertaking, that in case the ruling is in favour of the college, the students would need to pay the difference.”
Because the students are at the end of their course, they were asked to submit a “conditional” cheque, that in case the court rules in favour of the college, they can pay the extra amount, he added.
Naveen said, “The 2017 writ petition that mentions the undertaking, however, becomes void in 2018, when the college wrote to the high court about withdrawal of the petition. The students can pay the difference when the court rules, so why ask for the cheque now?”
For Priyank, if the high court rules for the college, he knows he will never be able to pay the remaining money.
On February 26, Prime Minister Modi had asked, “Our children today are going to small countries for study, especially in medical education… Can our private sector not enter this field in a big way?”
As documents accessed by LiveWire show, the state-quota fees for Shri Guru Ram Rai Institute of Medical and Health Sciences, a private college in Uttarakhand have increased from Rs 4 lakh in 2017 to Rs 18.3 lakh in 2019, a 350% jump.
While Indian private medical college fees can go up to Rs 60-70 lakh, colleges in countries like Ukraine cost about Rs 16 lakh for the entire course.
“I wish I had gone abroad for my MBBS studies,” Rishabh said. “I have a loan of Rs 12 lakh already; how will I pay another Rs 15 lakh hike? If we sell our land, where will we farm?”
In 2021, out of 88,120 MBBS seats and 27,498 BDS seats, 1.6 million candidates had registered for the NEET test. A shortage of seats coupled with high fees continues to propel Indian students abroad, every year.
A Redseer report mentions the number of Indian students studying abroad grew 75% from 2016 to 2019.
When Rishabh’s younger sister had asked him for advice in pursuing MBBS, Rishabh had said, “Please do not study MBBS; we won’t be able to afford it.”
As the Modi government blames the past for faulty college policies, Anjali and Priyank are looking at selling their property and belongings to continue their studies in the country.
Rishabh, whose family income depends on the farm lands, is scrambling to find other ways to arrange the money.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy
Souptik Datta is a student at IIJNM, a photojournalist, and a storyteller, who believes in bringing truth to people through new media, often in long-form. He is interested in issues related to human rights, politics, and the environment. When not working or studying, he likes solo-traveling.