Students of the Tribal Residential Hostel, Bowenpally, prepare for exams in Hyderabad. Photo: The Times of India

It’s a battle students have been fighting alone. Now, leaders of India’s political parties are joining in as they see a chance to find favor with the youth, a large percentage of the population.

The issue is tests for admission to medical and engineering colleges. Students want them postponed until the pandemic eases. They cite other factors affecting studies such as lockdowns, floods in some states and public transport still shut down.

The Congress party is leading the charge of chief ministers and students against the decision of the Narendra Modi led government to hold the exams.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi and seven chief ministers Wednesday moved in the Supreme Court against holding the exams. States against the exams include West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Pudducherry, Punjab and Maharashtra, which has the most applicants and exam centers.

For once the Modi government could be on the back foot with so many protesting, though Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal counters that he is flooded withrequests to hold the exams so students don’t lose out on the academic sessions.

Several students groups and others are leading online campaigns, mainly against holding the exams.

As many as 1.6 million students have applied to appear for medical college places and almost 900,000 for engineering places.

West Bengal chief minister cited absence of railway services as an impediment besides the virus risk. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray cited the United States where he said 97,000 children were infected by Covid-19 because of the rushed opening of schools. Parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and Rajasthan are still battling floods. Others such as Odisha complain of very limited number of centers for the entire state.

India has added more than 60,000 cases a day for most of August, the highest in the world. The 3.3 million total is the third worst after the United States and Brazil. Students are loathe to risk their own and family members’ lives commuting to the exam centre, along with mingling with other examinees and their relatives.

Students from villages and smaller towns commute hundreds of kilometers to exam centers where they risk catching the virus.

Students in India aspire for these places in the hope of getting well paid jobs within the country, or becoming globally marketable as a professional and getting qualification upgrades outside India.

Getting quality education for many can be a struggle at every stage from the primary school right up to medical or engineering colleges. Students put in most of their waking hours immersed in books, while parents work overtime to pay for extra tuitions, hefty fees and donations to get admission to an acceptable institution.

For most students, putting in months of hard work and spending a fortune on tuition and course materials, making the grade is often like a life-and-death contest.

India produces about 67,000 doctors and more than a million engineers each year. This often is not enough for a population of 1.38 billion. Many leave to work overseas.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy said holding examinations now would go against poorer students with little access to the internet or online training during the lockdowns. It would skew the opportunity in favor of the urban affluent.

Almost 190 million Indians are aged 15 to 24 years. Most are either lealving school or studying for a professional qualification. With India’s minimum voting age of 18 years, political parties also see it as a large chunk to find favor with in future elections.

The lower house of parliament or the Lok Sabha is likely to be reconvened in September, and exposing students to the virus could become a potential hot topic for opposition parties to corner the government.

The government is pushing to complete the process of holding entrance exams after postponements in April and July. A group of students earlier this month petitioned the Supreme Court and lost their case against conducting the entrance exams. Now they also have public opinion in their favor.