Over 15 lakh candidates are expected to appear in medical entrance exam NEET on Sunday which will be conducted amid strict precautions in view of the COVID1-9 pandemic, according to officials of the National Testing Agency (NTA).
In order to maintain social distancing, the NTA has increased the number of exam centres from originally-planned 2,546 to 3,843, while the number of candidates per room has been reduced from earlier 24 to 12.
The crucial National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), which is a pen and paper based test unlike the engineering entrance exam JEE, has already been deferred twice in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The exam was originally scheduled for May 3, but was pushed to July 26, and then to September 13.
A total of 15.97 lakh candidates have registered for the exam.
"For ensuring social distancing outside examination halls, a staggered entry and exit of candidates has been planned. Adequate arrangements have also been made outside examination centres to enable candidates stand with adequate social distancing while waiting," a senior NTA official said.
"Candidates have also been issued an advisory guiding them about the 'dos and don'ts' for proper social distancing. We have also written to state governments to extend support in local movement of candidates so that they are able to reach their examination centres in time," the official added.
The testing agency has also changed centres for a few candidates this week in compliance with social distancing norms and COVID restrictions. However, the city of the exam centre hasn't been changed for any candidate.
Making hand sanitisers available at the entrance of the examination centre and inside the exam hall at all times, replacing the process of checking the admit cards of candidates with barcode readers, increasing the number of examination centres, alternate seating plans, fewer candidates per room and staggered entry and exit are among the steps the NTA has taken.
"While all candidates will be asked to come to the exam centres with masks and sanitisers, once they enter the centre, they will have to use the masks provided by the examination authority.
"Each candidate will be offered a three-ply mask at the time of entry…He/she is expected to wear the same during the examination in order to avoid any form of unfair means at the time of examination," the official added.
While the governments of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have assured students that they will provide them transportation, a group of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumni and students have launched a portal to provide transport facilities to exam centres for candidates in need.
The Metro Railway in Calcutta is planning to run special services for NEET candidates on September 13 to help them reach their examination centres.
There has been a growing chorus for postponing the exams amid the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
The Supreme Court had earlier dismissed a plea seeking postponement of the exam amid a spurt in the number of COVID-19 cases, saying a "precious year" of students cannot be wasted and life has to go on.
Several opposition leaders, including Congress' Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, her Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik, DMK president M.K. Stalin and Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had also demanded that this, as well as JEE, be postponed.
When the JEE exams were just a few days away, the issue had escalated into a full blown political battle with ministers from Rajasthan and Punjab (Congress), West Bengal (Trinamool Congress), Jharkhand (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha), Maharashtra (Nationalist Congress Party and Shiv Sena) seeking postponement of the exams "in a manner that achieved the twin objectives of ensuring that the academic year of the students is not wasted and their health and safety is not compromised".
They filed a petition in the apex court to review its order of conducting JEE and NEET UG 2020 during the novel coronavirus crises. However, the plea was dismissed by the Supreme Court.