The Union of India’s question “who is to blame if a student dies” saw the Supreme Court toss out insistent pleas by some parents who claimed that Covid graph is in a free-fall and the internal assessment schemes for Class 12 CBSE and ICSE students should be chucked in favour of physical exams.

But a Bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari, on Tuesday, stood by the Union’s principle that “every student’s life is precious”.

“Suppose a number of students who attend written exams get the infection, suppose a student dies… Who is to blame? It is neither safe nor prudent to have written exams,” said Attorney General KK Venugopal for the Union.

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The court asked Andhra, which intends to conduct State Board exams but has deferred a final decision to July, to make its position clear in an affidavit by Wednesday. “If there is even a single fatality, we will make the State responsible,” the court warned. Kerala has already filed an affidavit opting for exams for Class 11. The court said it would pass orders on the State’s choice.

The court found the insistence on physical exams “irrational”. Justice Maheshwari said students cannot be left in uncertainty about their health and future.

The CBSE and Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), which conducts ICSE exams, shared the Union’s apprehensions about putting children in harm’s way, especially with medical experts warning about a looming third wave.

“Children are most vulnerable, that too, without vaccination,” advocate JK Das, appearing for CISCE, said.

‘Fair and reasonable’

The court said the CBSE and CISCE assessment schemes were “fair and reasonable” and caused no prejudice to the students. Senior advocate Vikas Singh, for a parents’ association, argued that students should be allowed, at the very threshold, to choose between internal assessment and written exams.

“In the present system, a student gets the best of two worlds. If he or she has not scored good marks in the internal assessment, they can opt for physical exams, which would be held when the situation is conducive. Singh’s suggestion takes away the student’s choice to improve his marks,” Venugopal countered with success.

The Attorney General quelled apprehensions that different dates for declaration of results by CBSE, CISCE and State Boards would lead to students of one Board stealing a march over the others.

“The UGC would wait for all the boards to declare their results before announcing the dates for admissions to colleges and institutions,” Venugopal assured.

Venugopal refuted claims that the assessment schemes facilitated “manipulation of marks”. He explained that every school would have a Result Committee to certify the marks based on reasoned decisions. “Besides, manipulation would mean forgery, which attracts a punishment of seven years’ imprisonment… Will any school principal want that?” the Attorney General asked.

The top law officer objected to a submission that CBSE and CISCE should follow the same criteria in their respective assessment schemes. The court acknowledged his reasoning that CBSE and ICSE were “independent and autonomous bodies” and the criteria were fixed by experts after long deliberations.