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How the judiciary got into the medical education mess

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CJI recommended removal of an Allahabad HC judge after an internal panel found serious allegations against him in medical admission scandal.

New Delhi: The judiciary’s bid to fix medical education in India has hit hurdles with at least two of its high court judges — one retired and one serving — being implicated in bribery cases. The issue has also brought the office of the chief justice of India under the scanner.

But how did the court get into the medical college mess and what is the way out?

The Madhya Pradesh government had passed a law to regulate admission and fix fees for students in postgraduate courses in private educational institutions. A group of unaided, private medical and dental colleges moved the high court and then the Supreme Court challenging the law.

The case was referred to a constitution bench of five judges since the challenge was also related to reservation of seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Judges Anil R. Dave, A.K. Sikri, R.K. Agrawal, Adarsh Kumar Goel and R. Banumathi were part of the bench.

Since prescribing standards for higher educational institution is the exclusive domain of Parliament, the court examined the role of the Medical Council of India (MCI) to see if the state law had overstepped into the Centre’s domain.

The 92nd parliamentary standing committee report on “The functioning of Medical Council of India” that came up before the court had torn apart the functioning of the MCI and called for its replacement.

The court heavily relied on the report that said MCI had been diagnosed with “total system failure” and needed a complete revamp.

The court in its May 2016 ruling went on to exercise its powers under Article 142 and set up a three-member committee, headed by former chief justice of India R.M. Lodha, to oversee the MCI for a year. Besides Lodha, the court also appointed former CAG Vinod Rai and director of the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences Dr S.K. Sarin.

The sweeping power under Article 142 to pass orders that is “necessary for doing complete justice” has to be cautiously used, according to the court’s own jurisprudence.

A month before this ruling, Dave, who headed the constitution bench, had in another case already instituted the first big shakeup in legal education. In April, he also headed the bench that brought back the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) — the unified entrance for admissions to medical, dental and postgraduate medical courses.

Dave had recalled the court’s 2013 judgment declaring NEET unconstitutional. Interestingly, he was the lone dissenting judge in 2013 who held NEET to be constitutionally valid.

Dave, however, retired six months later and could not guide the reform.

Lodha committee

The Supreme Court appointed-committee to oversee legislative actions of the MCI was in a turf war with the health ministry and the MCI itself from day one.

The committee prepared the ‘Assessor’s Guide-2017’ as the standard to verify medical colleges that sought permission. But both the MCI and the committee overlooked the guide and granted permissions to many colleges.

The ministry had rejected around 150 proposals for new medical colleges and more than 100 proposals for super-speciality courses in existing colleges. The Lodha committee extended deadlines for these colleges and asked them to re-apply for permissions.

The MCI then debarred 34 colleges which were granted approvals by the committee because they did not meet required standards

The committee’s efforts to introduce the National Exit Test (NEXT) for MBBS graduates to qualify themselves as doctors and to secure registration for clinical practice had few takers — only 12 states and four UTs.

Round 2 of court’s involvement

The widening rift was brought to the court’s notice as well. Vyapam scam whistleblower Anand Rai moved the top court alleging that the Lodha panel had overstepped its mandate in awarding “hundreds of permissions” without fresh inspections.

The apex court duly appointed a fresh committee of eminent doctors of Delhi after the Lodha panel was disbanded. 

Naturally, many of these colleges affected due to this turf war moved not just the apex court but many high courts across the country. Before the admission season ended, the apex court heard over 200 such cases.

Most of the cases were listed before now Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra when he was still the second most senior judge of the court.

Subsequently, over 25 colleges that were barred earlier also got partial or full relief from the court.

The ‘bribery case’

One such medical college involved in litigation over permission was Prasad Education Trust in Lucknow. The college had received a favourable order from the Allahabad High Court in Lucknow, which was challenged by the MCI.

On 19 September, days before the final hearing in the apex court, the CBI launched a preliminary investigation based on an FIR saying that I.M. Quddusi, a retired judge of the Odisha High Court and members of Prasad Trust, had engaged a middleman to obtain favorable court orders from the apex court by paying a bribe.

All those named in the FIR were arrested and subsequently released on bail. The CBI is yet to file a charge-sheet in the case.

On 9 November, advocates Prashant Bhushan and Kamini Jaiswal moved the apex court seeking a judicial probe into allegations that attempts were made to bribe SC judges.

The case was heard by justices J. Chelameswar and Abdul Nazeer who referred it to a constitution bench of five-senior most judges of the court. Bhushan and senior advocate Dushyant Dave argued that since the Prasad Trust case was heard by a bench headed by the CJI, he should not be part of the larger bench.

Instead, the CJI hurriedly set up a separate five-judge bench on 10 November, which effectively recalled Justice Chelameshwar’s order and sent the case to a three-judge bench he picked.

Later, the fresh bench comprising justices R.K. Agrawal, Arun Mishra, and A.M. Khanwilkar dismissed the plea seeking probe and said that raising such questions on the conduct of the chief justice was an “attempt to scandalise the court”.

Meanwhile, Misra ordered a probe against judge Shri Narayan Shukla of the Allahabad High Court who had heard the Prasad Trust case. He has now been indicted by an internal inquiry committee of the court. As per CJI Misra’s instructions to the chief justice of Allahabad High Court, Shukla has not been allotted any judicial work since he refused to resign or seek retirement after his indictment.

CJAR, a non-profit led by Bhushan, has once again made attempts to initiate an inquiry against the CJI but the other senior judges are yet to take a call on the issue.

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