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Monday, May 9, 2016

A degree to die for: Of the 2 lakh aspirants for IIT admission, only 5% will sail through - Economic Times

By ET Bureau | 8 May, 2016, 06.29AM IST

Ravikumar Surpur, district collector of Kota, has in the recent past made several interventions to ease the pressure in the system.

By Vanita Srivastava

The streets of Kota have only one story to sell: the IIT dream. The entire city, in Rajasthan, roughly 250 km south of the state capital Jaipur, is dotted with hoardings of coaching institutes, competing with each other by splashing the photos of young, cheerful boys and girls who have made it to the IITs, along with their fancy scores. Some billboards even promise to "tap them young" — start IIT coaching from Class VI.

But camouflaged behind these huge, colourful posters is a story of a less cheery kind. Be it the vegetable seller or the fruit vendor on the streets, the mention of IIT is enough to bring a gleam to their eye. Even a housemaid of this city has an IIT aspiration for her kid.

Inevitably, many of those dreams turn out to be empty ones, and it is around these extreme emotions that the city is knitted — hope that can quickly descend into frustration. In the meanwhile, housewives have gone on to become entrepreneurs, opening hostels and messes for students who have arrived in the city to be coached. Parents have sold their ancestral properties and shifted base to Kota just to give the "right" environment for their children preparing for IIT; in some cases, families are dislocated as mothers choose to accompany the children in their training endeavours. Students from Class VI have started attending coaching institutes to get a "preliminary" taste of the exam.

Kota has a population of around 12 lakh; this includes nearly 1.5 lakh students who come here for coaching.

The Big Pressure After two years of self-exile, intense sacrifice, no social life and zero entertainment, the results are mixed. A few students walk out accomplished. But a large number of them are left disenchanted and drained.


Recently, an IIT aspirant, who was studying in a coaching institute in Kota, committed suicide. It was after the Joint Entrance Examination ( JEE) Mains held in early April, a filter for the big one, JEE Advanced, which will be held on May 22.



Student suicides aren't unusual in Kota; there were 17 in 2015 and four till date this year.

Ravikumar Surpur, district collector of Kota, has in the recent past made several interventions to ease the pressure in the system. Through regular advice to coaching institutes, notes to children and, more recently, through a five-page letter to parents, he has spelt out the need to reduce stress and to look at life in a broader perspective.

"It is a matter of fact that today young children are facing immense amount of pressure relating to their academic performance and... many of them go through various levels of stress," Surpur wrote in his letter to the parents.

Towards the end of last year, the district administration asked the coaching institutes to introduce career and psychological counsellors, mandatory weekly holidays, easy exit options and a series of helplines. They were also asked to introduce recreational activities, yoga and meditation sessions.

Geetanjali Kumar, a Delhi-based counselling psychologist, recently got a call on her helpline from a girl studying in Kota. "She shared with me the pressure on her when she went home and mingled with her community. They would ask her: 'Aur engineer saheb, kaise ho?' Never mind that she had only just started preparing for the exam. Can one imagine the state of mind of that girl? How frustrating it must be to live under such extreme pressure," says Kumar.

She cites another case of a father who called her up and said that his son had distanced himself just because he had refused to send him to a coaching institute. In most cases, however, the pressure comes from parental expectations. "Why should we live with the notion that only those who study science are academically brilliant? Parents should help the child explore his or her interest. They will then stand a better chance of being successful," says Kumar.

Brand IIT Pramod Maheshwari, director at Career Point, a popular coaching institute in Kota, reckons that it is incorrect to attribute student suicides to pressure. "I agree there is parental and peer pressure, but how can you avoid it? Pressure is a vital ingredient of growth. But more than that I feel kids are not exposed properly to different career options. For most, engineering or medicine is an end in itself. Time has come when they should take a peek outside this world."

Kota may be the epicentre of IIT coaching, but the stress on students is building up across the cities in the country.

RL Trikha, director of the Forum for Indian Institute of Technology and Joint Entrance Examination (FIIT JEE), a coaching institute, points out that these days any prestigious competitive examination like the JEE is more of an invitation to rejection rather than selection.


"The number of aspirants is far higher than the number of openings/seats available. Even one mark can make a difference. IITs are institutions having international recognition but this cannot be the final destination for everyone," says Trikha.

He says that it is imperative that students and parents set — and reset — their goals in an honest and transparent manner. "They are advised to relook their goals as the preparation progresses, based on performance."

Sanjiva Dayal, who runs a coaching institute in Kanpur, says, at the end of the day, it is the survival of the mentally fittest. "I was selected for IIT in my first attempt and without any coaching. I never found the stress to be unbearable. Excellence cannot be achieved without stressful training. Those who lack calibre and passion find the stress unbearable and the IIT system cannot be blamed for that," he says.

Beat the Stress Soumya Sharma speaks fluent German, loves to play the keyboards and is an avid chess player. These days the 18-yearold is devoting a minimum of seven hours a day for the JEE Advanced. "More than the number of hours, being consistent is important for JEE. I take frequent breaks after practice sessions and am quite relaxed," says Sharma, who lives in Delhi.

After scoring 325/360 in the JEE (Mains) this year, Sharma has some pearls of advice for those contemplating a similar path. "You have to like the subject, be passionate about it, to crack the exam. I do not mean that those who do not like the subject don't succeed but the chances are slimmer." In fact, Sharma contends that the eagerness to write the exam will determine the level of stress. "If it is a personal, self-motivated choice, the stress will be less. But if you are writing the exam because of parental or peer pressure, it is bound to be more."

Sixteen-year-old Puru Mathur, an IIT aspirant in Kota, has already decided that if he is not selected this time he will spend one more year preparing for it. "My JEE (Mains) marks were a little below my expectations but I am sure that with a little more effort, I will do better next year."

Acknowledging that parental pressure should be checked, he says: "In my case, there has been no such pressure. Parents should know whether their child is oriented towards IIT or not. Blindly following what others are doing is unjustified."

Mathur feels that children should not neglect their school boards for the IIT exam. "There has to be a balance between the two. An extreme tilt towards any exam can be frustrating and depressing. There should be a system where one-year preparation in Class 12 should be enough." Stress, he says, is a natural offshoot of intense and focused preparations. "It is, therefore, essential to indulge in something that you like. I like to play the guitar and sing songs — this helps me relax."

Not the End of the World Abha Srivastava has had a flavour of Kota for more than four years — first with her elder son and now with the younger one. "It is like a self-imposed sanyas. The first time I was alone; this time my husband is with me so life is relatively easier. Both my kids were self-motivated and there was no pressure from our side. But I have seen how parents push their kids without actually analysing their capacity."

The child's mind, she explains, is fragile at this age. "A system has to be gradually evolved where cracking the exam is not linked to coaching alone. There has to be a fine balance."

Ashok Rathore, an engineer, got a posting in Kota four years back. "It was a golden opportunity" to fulfil his daughter's desire of entering an IIT, he says. Rathore insists that it is his daughter's "dream, and we have always supported her. The child has to be self-motivated. Parental pressure of any kind will not help".

So what happens if his daughter doesn't make it? "IIT is a dream, not a final destination," says Rathore. "Parents also need to explain that IIT is not the end. There are so many who have been successful despite not having an engineering degree from IIT."

As the countdown begins for the big exam, Puru Mathur picks up his music system, clears his vocal chords and belts out All izz well.... from Aamir Khan's movie 3 Idiots. His friends join in.

Life is much more than the three-letter word, grins Mathur.


(The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist)