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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Why Kota is so killing - TNN



18-hour study schedules. A brutal sorting system that segregates 'average' students. No fee refund policies for those who want out

'We can't take it anymore. Our parents have told us to return home only after cracking IIT-JEE," said two distressed young students to psychologist Dr ML Agarwal in Jawaharnagar, Kota. The boys were both from Bhatinda, Punjab, where they lived in large joint families. They found themselves unable to cope in their new environment, with daily tutorial classes, and having to study for up to 18 hours a day. "It took months of therapy at a rehabilitation centre, and the involvement of their families, to restore them," says Dr Agarwal.


These breakdowns are all too common, across a city that reinvented itself in the late '90s as coaching hub for the hyper-competitive engineering and medical school exams. Roughly 1.6 lakh teenagers from the surrounding states flock to Kota's coaching institutes every year, paying between 50,000 and a lakh for annual tuition. Some begin early, as coaching centres also run ghost schools where they enroll middle-school students. In a few institutes, they are taught by IIT alumni, who claim salaries of Rs 1.5-2 crore for their expertise. Neither coaching centres nor hostels have exit policies or refunds, so for students who borrow money to come to Kota, the stakes are even higher.

Most students live in rented rooms with minimal facilities. They may desperately dream of IIT, but many of them are unprepared for the psychological costs. Kota has now become a byword for student suicides. A 14-year-old boy killed himself recently, the 30th suicide last year. Purushottam Singh, whose nephew Shivdutt committed suicide on December 22, is in tears as he talks of the boy. Back home in Kollari village, Dholpur, Singh says, "there were high expectations of him. His family and neighbours had already started calling him doctor sahib." The parents of 17-year-old Suresh Mishra (name changed), from Vidisha, now regret having sent him to Kota. "It started with headache, fatigue and bed-wetting. He now suffers from blackouts, partial memory loss and occasional hallucinations," says his father Mukund.

Around the world, student burnout is caused by high rates of physical and emotional exhaustion, a sense of being depersonalised, and a shrunken sense of personal achievement. Kota is a cauldron for all these feelings, with other factors like the fear of letting down one's family, or not having any career alternatives.

All around Kota, the message is to excel, or be left behind. Billboards celebrate success and star students. Entry into IITs or the other engineering and medical schools is seen as the only measure of worth. Coaching institutes, though, admit anyone who can pay the fee. Then begins the brutal sorting of students into different batches on the basis of their performance. Those who lag in their studies live in terror of these internal assessments, and struggle with their sense of inadequacy. Some are doubly challenged, with the Class XII board and the competitive exams.


The problem, though, is that while Kota's coaching centres can find and hone smart students into the perfect JEE test-takers, they are thrown by "weakness" in students. Their performance criteria does not factor in vulnerability or burnout at all, making it hard for students to seek help. As Naveen Maheshwari, the director of Kota's largest coaching institute puts it, "average performers are bound to fail" in this competitive place. "In such an environment, parents should understand that IITs and AIIMS are not the end of the world. They should stop imposing their own dreams on children."

And yet, the idea that coaching centres have a responsibility for the mental wellbeing of students in their tutelage is only now dawning on them. Maheshwari now plans to institute random silent psychometric tests to detect vulnerable students who can be kept under watch. However, he claims that students get even more depressed if their parents take them back home.

Meanwhile, jolted by the serial suicides, the district administration is also awakening to its responsibility. Kota collector Ravi Kumar, says, "We have taken some steps, like an advisory to coaching institutes to screen students for aptitude. We are setting up a helpline to counsel students."