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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Behind Kota student suicides, a boulevard of broken dreams and longing-Daily0.in


It's easy to buckle under pressure. But can you blame the racing track or the goal post for casualties on the way?

SEEMI PASHA @seemi_pasha

When a fifth suicide was reported in Kota this year, I was asked to travel to the coaching hub and file a report on why students were killing themselves.

A Google search threw up a variety of results: from suicide letters to names and addresses of coaching centres promising successful careers. There were news articles and videos with catchy headlines, stressing on alliterations such as "Why Kota kills"; "Why Kota is so killing"; "Kota coaching factory"... I scanned through all of them and sent my "story brief" for approval- with a headline that read - "Kota's killer classrooms".


Is it fair to say that Kota has killer classrooms?
I thought I'd cracked it. Even before I reached, I had somewhat decided that Kota was to be blamed for student suicides and its coaching centres were killing factories...but I was in for a surprise. Here's the report I filed:

It's a breeding ground for academic excellence. A city that helps thousands of students every year realise their dreams of becoming an engineer or a doctor. But five suicides this year and about 19 last year have cast a shadow of doubt over Kota's report card. Can Kota actually be blamed for unrealistic expectations... is it nurturing dreams or destroying them in a pressure test?

The heat-induced dullness of the railway station is broken by a familiar ring, followed by the chirpy voice of an announcer, reporting the arrival of train. The blue reptile slowly creeps in, heavy with a fresh load of hopes, dreams and aspirations its bringing into this town.

Tired after a long travel, passengers step out into the heat. For some Kota is their final destination. For youngsters like Krishna and Praveen, it's the beginning of a long journey. These brothers have come to this small town to fulfil their big city dreams.

"I've cleared the entrance for NIT this year, all thanks to Kota. I've come back to get my younger brother admitted to a coaching centre," said 18-year-old Krishna Kanth Gautam. When I ask 16 year Praveen why he wants to become an engineer, he says "paisa kamayenge, aur kya"( to earn money, why else)".

For students like Krishna and Praveen, who weren't born in the lap of luxury, Kota provides an equal footing to compete with their more privileged contemporaries.

The new arrivals are greeted with representatives of coaching centres, aiming to catch them at the doorstep. As soon as we turn our cameras in their direction, they flee, leaving behind empty kiosks.Kota's skyline is dotted with billboards, every light post, every electric tower, every inch of concrete, which can be used to celebrate academic success, is used up.

Driving past a coaching centre, we find a family looking a little lost. Dinesh Aggarwal, 40, who sells readymade garments in Dauji, a small village near Hathrus, has come to Kota to secure an admission of his first-born.

"I have four children but I won't be able to send all of them to college. If he can become an engineer, it's enough," he told me. A shy 17-year-old, who is used to standing behind his parents, Pawan is determined to use this as an opportunity to turn the fortunes of his family.

Inside classrooms, students sit tucked behind a row of desks, listening intently to teachers whose classes their parents have paid for with their hard earned money. Scribbling copious notes, twirling pens between their fingers, intent on finding the value of X and Y - they try to soak in as much as they can.

As the teacher winds up, students pour out of the class, rushing to the next. While speaking to most children, we realise, they don't necessarily want to become engineers. They want to become IITians.

17-year-old Riya Singh, who has come to Kota from Madhya Pradesh, said, "I have an elder brother who is in IIT Delhi. My father is also an engineer. I have no specific dream, I just want to get admission into an IIT."

In the race to the country's top technical institutes, there is no space for weakness. Lakhs of students spend thousands of hours pouring over books with a single-minded goal.

Coaching institutes drive students to perform their best. They're paid to do so, they say. "Toppers and brilliant students can manage anywhere. It's the average students who have to work harder to reduce the gap between their performance. They need to study more," said Narendra Awasthi, who runs Vibrant Academy. He's worried about the coaching centre's reputation.

It was here that 17-year-old Kriti was pursuing, if not hers, then her parents' dream of securing an admission into an IIT.

The owners takes great pains to distance the coaching institute from her suicide. "She was a good student. She took the exam with 12 lakh students and made it to the shortlisted category of two lakhs, but sometimes students get pressurised for a variety of reasons. I don't know much. From what I've heard, her parents wanted her to pursue engineering," he said.

A student counsellor with close to ten years of experience, Dr Surbhi Goel claims, it's easy to identify candidates who are not suited for such a gruelling curriculum. She claims coaching institutes admit students despite poor performances in entrance tests and lack of aptitude. She also feels, students who have a family history of violence or come from troubles families are more prone to harming themselves than others.

Even as student suicides cloud Kota's reputation, there are also those who feel they've greatly benefitted from this coaching hub. Arpit Maheshwari said: "I have opted to do something more creative, not just book to book. I love technology". I want to have access to the most advanced technology in the world. I want to make everything in this world technologically advanced".

18-year-old Arpit is from the same school as Kriti. The two had been studying at the same coaching centre and both managed to clear the mains. Unfortunately, he alone will be appearing for the Advance test. "You can't fault the parents for wanting a good life for their child," he said. "IIT ensures a good life but it is only a part of life. The struggle is."

And a good life is what these coaching institutes promise. Standing next to his long white Mercedes, the owner of Vibrant Academy, is a poster boy for students. As they ride out into the night, pushing the pedals on the dirt track, they realise it's going to be a long journey.

Not very far away, at Allen Career Institute, Kota's largest coaching centre, dreams are being sold, but with a disclaimer.

The CEO, while addressing a gathering of close to ten thousand IIT aspirants and their parents, tells them that he can guarantee that only 25 per cent of those who enrol with the coaching institute will qualify.
Dressed in uniforms, carrying identical bags, students are provided with a school-like atmosphere in this coaching institute.
"We have introduced uniforms so children aren't distracted with clothes and what others are wearing. If they only need clothes to cover their bodies, they will become like saints in the pursuit of higher education," said Brajesh Maheshwari, director, Allen's coaching institute.

17-year-old Anshu Surana from Dinajpur in West Bengal, is a student of Class 12. She tells us that she spends about five hours every day at the coaching centre and another four to six hours studying at home. But how does she manage school?
"I somehow manage school, it is not like we have to be there every day."

It took me some time to fully understand how students in Class 11 and 12 were managing hectic coaching schedules and of homework with school hours.

The concept of dummy schools, I realised, is a given in Kota. Coaching institutes either set up dummy schools or tie up with schools that allow students to appear for exams without fulfilling their attendance requirements.
It's a concept based on the belief that school education beyond Class 10 is a waste of time.

Dummy schools are Kota's best kept secret. Out of the approximate 1.5 lakh students who come here every year, two thirds are either in Class 11 or Class 12.
Pulled out of school, away from friends and family, and preparing for some of the toughest entrance exams, these students are exposed to extreme pressure situations.

Student counsellor Dr Surbhi Goel said, "School education is important for children. It provides for all-round development. You study a wide variety of subjects and there's time for fun and games as well. By taking them out and throwing them in an alien environment, you're harming them."

A city once known for its cotton and stone industries, Kota is today thriving on its coaching classes. The increasing influx of students doesn't just mean more business for coaching centres but also for hostel owners and real estate developers who offer studio apartments on short-term basis.

In Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, every home owner has put up rooms on rent with billboards offering fully furnished accommodation at a reasonable price.

Driving through entire colonies of hostels, we arrive at a building that offers houses for mother plus child.
Here we're told hundreds of mothers have moved in with their children who are preparing for engineering and medical entrance exams.

Seeking divine intervention to ensure her son's success, Keertana Mahajan says this is her second stint at Kota. "I was here for 12 months, three years ago, when my elder son was preparing for the test. He managed to crack the IIT entrance and get an admission in Roorkee," she said.

His success encouraged her to take up the challenge again for her second child. This time she's going to be here for two years.
For 20,000 a month, she's managed to get a furnished apartment with a prayer room, washbasin, TV and kitchen intact. "I know I have to live away from my husband and home, but mothers make sacrifices for their children," she said.

As Keertana prepares lunch for her son, Mudit focuses on his IIT dream. He says his brother is his role model. "When my brother cleared the IIT entrance, my god, what a life..." he says.

Unlike Mudit, Akash doesn't have a comfortable home or a mother to go back to in the city. He eats alone at local dhabas after class. He's passionate about cricket, but has no time for pursuing hobbies right now. He hopes his stay in the coaching hub will help him secure a better future.

"I don't like Kota, it's not nice, but what to do. I'm going to finish my course and leave. I'm here for a purpose," said Akash Chaudhary, who is preparing for the MBBS entrance test.

After dinner, the lonely teenager gets on his bicycle and disappears into the dark. There are others who hang around for a bit longer, a luxury they seldom allow themselves.
Racing on with blinkers without a break, it's easy to buckle under pressure. But can you blame the racing track or the goal post for casualties on the way?

Is it fair to say that Kota has killer classrooms? I think not, having said that, it will also be foolish to brush the suicides under the carpet. Statistically, it might seem insignificant.
What parents and teachers perhaps need to realise is that pursuing dreams is important but when it comes to choices...they should ensure that students choose life.

I wrote this piece after spending 48 hours in Kota. The day the documentary was suppose to go on air, another student suicide was reported. Was I wrong in saying that Kota cannot be blamed, I'm not sure.