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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Spate of teenage suicides puts spotlight on India’s high-pressure coaching centres

Spate of teenage suicides puts spotlight on India’s high-pressure coaching centres
Pupils flock to India’s top coaching centres every year in the hopes of securing coveted careers as doctors or engineers. But the stress and competition can prove too much. Last year, 17 teenagers committed suicide. Leila Nathoo reports

A cram-school class in Kota, northern India, where students hope to improve their odds of winning a place at a professional college AP

Every April, more than 100,000 of India’s brightest teenagers pack their bags and leave behind their families and friends, bound for an unremarkable city in the northern state of Rajasthan. 

Their destination is Kota – hub for India’s top coaching centres – where they will begin cramming for one or two years for some of the toughest exams in the country, hoping for a way into coveted careers as doctors or engineers. 

A recent spate of suicides of more than a dozen students has highlighted the pressures facing the children of India’s new and expanding middle class, for whom stable, conventional jobs remain the only marker of success and the sole means of securing a better future. 

“It’s a competitive life here – whenever I am away from my books I feel guilty,” says aspiring medic Sampurna Saikia, setting down her bulging backpack branded with the name of the institute she attends. 

“My parents, friends, teachers – they are all expecting [success] from me. I have to do it,” says the 16-year-old, as she contemplates her daily grind more than 1,300 miles away from her home in Assam.

The coaching industry now dominates Kota, a bustling city of one million on the banks of the Chambal River that is dotted with historic Rajasthani palaces. 

It also sustains its economy, which previously revolved around light manufacturing, agricultural produce and the processing of a distinctive variety of limestone quarried from nearby mines. Scores of institutes have set up in the city over the past two decades, as word spread among the middle classes of the success of the first few enterprising tutors in the early 1990s.
Billboards plastered with the faces of star performers and boasting of success rates stare down at major junctions – a constant reminder to students that their only reason for being there is to improve their odds of winning a place at top professional colleges.  

Annually around 1.3 million applicants seek admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to train as engineers – just 10,000 make the grade.

The coaching institutes promise a massive boost to their chances, with some claiming that up to a quarter of their students will be accepted. 

Parents determined to give their children a head start will pay an average of around 70,000 rupees – or £700 a year – in fees at one of the main institutes. Living expenses take the annual cost per student in Kota to roughly 200,000 rupees – or £2,000 – almost double India’s average income and a huge sacrifice for many families.

For some coaching students, well aware of the financial and emotional investment in their success, and burnt out by punishing schedules, the pressure proves too much.

Sampurna Saikia says life as an aspiring doctor at Kota is ‘competitive’
Last year, 17 committed suicide, according to Kota police, up from eight in 2014. In one of the most recent cases last month, a boy left a note apologising to his parents for failing to meet their expectations, according to local media reports. 
“They do not know how to face failure,” says Ramesh Sahni, a retired doctor who runs a charity working with troubled teenagers in the city. “They are all brilliant in their home towns... but here, when everyone is so good, it is difficult to be the best,” he says. 
Struggling to keep up with their workloads and fearful of being demoted to a lower set, students lead monotonous and sedentary lives, chained to their textbooks during every waking hour. Most of the students typically combine their final two years of schooling with an array of dedicated exam-preparation classes.
Six days a week, they shuttle to and from faceless, sprawling campuses for six hours of lessons and spend at least the same amount of time daily studying alone in the single-sex hostels where most rent dingy rooms. There is usually a test to prepare for every other Sunday.
The institutes acknowledge the intensity of the students’ experience, but say that suicides are often the result of many other issues. They also point to the introduction of activities such as yoga and meditation, as well as counselling and mentoring services to help manage stress. 
“The set-up both motivates and adds pressure, it depends on the individual,” says Pramod Maheshwari, founder and director of Career Point, one of Kota’s major coaching centres. 
“We know not all the students coming to Career Point are going to get into IITs or medical college, so it is our responsibility to give them options,” he says. 
With the biggest institutes reporting as much as 25 per  cent annual growth in student numbers, the boom in Kota’s coaching industry is only making the college admissions process more competitive. 
But despite the proliferation of new, private universities across India, often with impressive facilities, parents and children remain wary of untested institutions without established reputations. 
Neither are most small-town families enticed by the explosion of potentially lucrative but risky business opportunities in India’s booming metropolises. So the steady, respected professions of medicine and engineering remain the dream and Kota’s cram schools the gateway. 
The Rajasthan state government recently announced that the city’s coaching institutes would be regulated, mandating free time and recreational activities for students as well as requiring refunds to be offered to those who drop out due to stress. 
Guidelines will also be issued to hostels and dormitories, which officials say have become overcrowded, and an online portal setting out each institute’s track record is being developed to improve transparency.
“The coaching institutions are bringing a lot of stress on young minds... the suicides have triggered decision-making,” says C S Rajan, Chief Secretary of the Rajasthan government. For their part, the centres are introducing helplines and promising to work harder to identify vulnerable students.
As night falls in Kota, students stop for quick dinners at roadside stalls, eating alone or briefly socialising with friends who double as competitors, before heading back to their desks.  
“Everyone has their mind on their goal – we don’t make best friends here,” says 18-year-old Arvind Rajan, from Kerala, who is intensively training for engineering exams, a year after finishing school. 

 “I have to make it. I don’t think about the possibility of not [succeeding]. In life there is only one chance – this is my chance.”