The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the controversial National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill 2019, proposing sweeping reforms to medical education amid a storm of protest by the medical fraternity.

The bill was passed with two new amendments introduced by the Upper House. This means the bill will be referred to the Lok Sabha once again before going to the President of India for his assent.

The bill, aimed at bringing about one of the biggest reforms in medical education in India proposes to replace the Medical Council of India (MCI), the overarching central authority regulating medical education, with a National Medical Commission (NMC).

The MCI was dissolved in 2010 following corruption charges against its president Ketan Desai by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The NMC will have responsibilities such as approving and assessing medical colleges, conducting common MBBS entrance and exit exams and regulating course fees.

There was a long and heated discussion in the Upper House over the bill before its passage. Health minister Harsh Vardhan said that the bill will improve access to quality and affordable medical education and ensure the availability of adequate and high-quality medical professionals.

The bill proposes a common final-year MBBS exam, called the National Exit Test (NEXT), which has to be cleared for practising medicine, seeking admission to post-graduate medical courses, and for enrolment in the State Register or the National Register. It will serve as a screening test for foreign medical graduates.

“Once the NMC bill is approved, exit examination will be implemented in the next three years. NEXT would ensure that the proposed NMC moves away from a system of repeated inspections of infrastructure and focuses on outcomes rather than processes," said Harsh Vardhan. “The bill will benefit MBBS students and doctors. It will be listed as a major reform of the Narendra Modi government."

The bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on 29 July, is strongly opposed by medical students, doctors and members of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), a voluntary organization of doctors. Several Opposition members of the Rajya Sabha also spoke against it.

Calling the bill “draconian", Dr Santanu Sen of the Trinamool Congress, a medical doctor and national president of the IMA, said the entire medical fraternity is out on the streets to oppose the bill.

“Provisions of the bill are such that it will lead to complete corporatization of medical education in the country. The bill completely outrages federalism and snatches the autonomy of the state medical councils as they will remain bound to follow the decisions of the National Medical Commission. The bill will indirectly lead to mushrooming of private medical colleges across the country," said Sen in his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha.

Outside Parliament, the IMA has warned the government that protests against the bill will be intensified.

In last two days, medical students have continued an agitation with hunger strikes, boycotting of classes and marches to governor’s offices. “They will continue the agitation tomorrow as well and the stir will be intensified if grievances of the medical fraternity are not attended to," said R.V. Asokan, Secretary General, IMA.

The Rajya Sabha passed the bills with two amendments seeking increased representation from state medical councils and vice chancellors of medical universities on the NMC

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