New Delhi: When war sirens blared in Ukraine last year, medical student Mohit Kumar used to scramble to take cover in a bunker. But now, he simply carries on with his classes. Kumar says he has adapted to living in a war-torn country because the Indian government has given him no other viable choice — he must finish his medical degree in Ukraine.
Last October, the fifth-year student took the Poland route to go back to Ternopil National Medical University in west Ukraine. He has since learned to endure the sights, sounds, and hardships of war.
“I have just started my last semester and have opted for offline classes. Although there are war sirens going off at least twice every day, some of us don’t even feel the need to go into bunkers anymore. Sometimes when we are attending an important lecture, we just continue studying. We are so used to it now,” Kumar says.
Shubham Sharma, another final-year student at the same university, said that war was also exacting a financial toll and depleting his family’s coffers.
“The prices of food and basic amenities like electricity and housing have almost doubled. As international students, it has really increased our living expenses,” he said. However, like Kumar, he is used to the sirens warning of possible air raids.
But students like Kumar and Sharma are not immune to fear. The first anniversary of the war, 24 February, has everyone worried that Russia will mark the occasion with a renewed wave of missile strikes. West Ukraine has not been so hard hit by war, but things could change. The frequency of phone calls from home has increased, but all anyone can do is wait and watch.
Two months ago, in December, Union Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi had told Parliament that 1,100 Indian students are still in Ukraine. She also said that the Indian mission in Kyiv issued an advisory on 25 October, asking all Indian citizens to “immediately leave Ukraine by available means”.
However, Indian medical students whose careers were at stake claim they found little help within the country and had to return to Ukraine.
Why did Indian students return to Ukraine?
When the Russia-Ukraine conflict first erupted, more than 20,000 Indian students hastily returned home in search of safety.
However, many medical students say, home proved to be a hostile environment to continue their studies, forcing hundreds to return to the very place they had fled.
The primary reason was National Medical Council (NMC) guidelines that prohibited medical students who had been enrolled in Ukraine universities to complete their degrees from Indian colleges.
The NMC, which regulates medical education and professionals in India, does not recognise degrees earned via online classes — which the Ukraine returnees were attending while back home — and requires students to complete at least 12 months of practical training.
Since the students could not be accommodated in Indian institutions, the NMC last August finally approved an academic “mobility programme” offered by Ukraine — although the regulator was initially opposed to the idea.
This programme allowed Indian medical students from Ukraine universities to apply for transfer to medical colleges out of a list of 29 countries. The degree would be conferred by the Ukrainian university in which the student was enrolled.
The idea was that once the students finished their degrees, complete with practical training, they would be eligible to sit for India’s Foreign Medical Graduate Exam (FMGE), a screening test to practise in the country.
But for many students, there were serious practical pitfalls. While Indian colleges offer a five-year MBBS programme, Ukraine offers a six-year course. On top of that, preparing for the FMGE can also take students up to a year.
Transferring to another foreign university, students say, would have put them at an even greater disadvantage in terms of the duration of study since they would have to repeat some semesters to meet the requirements of the host university.
In addition to this, the cost of transfer and living in another foreign country was simply unaffordable for many.
‘They don’t care about their own young doctors’
With their career and future in the balance, hundreds of medical students booked their tickets back to Ukraine despite warnings from professors and classmates that they would be coming at their “own risk”, and would have to cope with possible air raids, blasts, and inflated prices.
Many of those who returned were in their final year of study. For them, transferring to another country seemed like a greater risk since they felt they were running out of time.
Shubham Sharma of Ternopil National Medical University said shifting to another foreign university was not a feasible option for him since he was in the last leg of his education when the war struck.
“The Indian regulation helped first- and second-year students as they could immediately get a transfer to other countries, but students like us had no other option but to come back,” he claimed.
Asking not to be named, another 23-year-old final-year student from Jaipur said that he had been studying at Kyiv’s Bogomolets National Medical University when the conflict broke out. He has now shifted base to Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine.
Uzhhorod shares a border with Slovakia, a NATO member nation, so Indian students see it as a safer option. But, this, they are well aware, could change.
The 23-year-old said this arrangement allows them to complete the course from Ukraine, as demanded by NMC guidelines. So, while his university is in Kyiv, which has been under fire from Russia, he attends his classes online.
There’s a growing community of Indian students, he added, who are finishing their education in this manner. The student said he is hoping his university finds a way to allow him and fellow students to complete their practical training in a safe manner as well.
“The Indian government said that we should get a degree from Ukraine while living in Ukraine, so that’s what we are doing,” the 23-year-old said. “They don’t even care about their own young doctors.”
Last month, the Supreme Court adjourned a batch of petitions seeking to allow Ukraine-returned Indian medical students to complete their education in India. It said that an expert committee constituted by the central government would take a decision on the issue.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)