Today, as I step out of the railway station, huge hoardings of coaching institutes – Allen, Bansal Classes, Resonance, Rao Academy, Career Point, and so on – greet me. They fill the skyline and haunt you for miles till you reach the industrial area, the coaching hub. I can imagine how the stories that the hoardings dish out through pictures of successful candidates and numbers of those who ‘topped’ entrance exams of top institutes impact the minds of both parents and students.
Some 1.5 to 2 lakh students come to Kota chasing their dreams each year, but only a fraction of them make it. While many, like Rupesh Kushwaha of Nanakhedi village in Madhya Pradesh, realise that they are not cut out for the tough regimen of coaching, for most of them it is often too late. Rupesh was one of the victims of the rat race; he ended his life in August, in his third month of coaching. However, locals are furious at the media’s propensity to focus on student suicides – 35 recorded last year and 16 this year so far. They fear such coverage could give the city a bad name, and make students look elsewhere – without solving the problem at all.
Kota, a city of 12 lakh people on the banks of the Chambal river, was once famous for stone and saree – each has a variety named after the city. Today, the floating population of some two lakh students has become the mainstay of the city’s economy. For this reason, one has to understand why everyone, from a hawker to an auto-rickshaw driver, blames the “irresponsible media” for hyping the suicides and defaming the coaching industry.
Gajendra Yadav, president, Kota Hostel Owners Association, confronts me: “Do you people [journalists] have any idea how many people will commit suicide if the coaching institutes are closed?” He claims thousands of residents have borrowed money to the tune of crores from banks for building hostels. “If students don’t come, I can tell you there will be suicides and people will forget the aftermath of JK.”
Yadav, who owns two hostels, is referring to a bleak era in the history of Kota. In the early 1980s, a number of factories including JK Synthetics downed the shutters, leaving thousands jobless. At that time Kota was an industrial town nicknamed the Kanpur of Rajasthan. Besides, JN Marshal and Oriental Power also had their factories here. Gradually, trade union politics and other economic factors started telling upon the output, leading to the bleeding of factories and their closure. In 1983, JK Synthetics laid off 12,000 people who had nowhere to go. In the living memory, some 200 locals had committed suicide in the wake of the JK Synthetics closure in Kota in 1997.
Before this, the city had already ceased to be an exclusive centre of the handloom sarees. Also, traditional paddy crop was being replaced with soyabean. This saw the death of numerous rice mills. Soon, as the soyabean crops failed and poppy stood banned, the economic crisis deepened. Already, due to an irrational revenue policy, traders had lost interest in Kota stone. This left many in penury.
Ironically, Kota’s rise as India’s coaching hub started with this depression. Maybe, that is why the locals refer to the coaching business as ‘Kota coaching industry’.
The story begins with Vinod Kumar Bansal, who was once an employee of JK Synthetics. He along with his family lived in the factory employees’ colony. As he had good mathematics skills, children from the neighbourhood flocked to him for help. One day he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a condition that rapidly weakens one’s muscles and bones. This disease restricted his movement and he could no longer work in the factory. It was time for retrenchments.
Fearing he might lose his job, Bansal started giving maths tuitions at his home. In 1986, one of his students cracked the IIT joint entrance exam (IIT-JEE). Next year, some 100 students had joined his classes and by 1998, Bansal was coaching more than 1,000 students. Soon he built a big building in the city’s industrial area and set up Bansal Classes.
The word spread and Bansal Classes brought Kota on the national stage. Parents eager to see their children enter top professional institutes started flocking to Kota to enroll their wards in Bansal Classes. As more and more students from his classes started making it to the IITs year after year, others took the cue and set up their coaching classes. Allen, Career Point, Resonance and Rao Academy – all have originated from the success of Bansal Classes.
Bansal, 64, moves in a wheelchair. The eight-storey Gaurav Tower on Jhalawar road that houses Bansal Classes has a ramp for the convenience of the founder and others to move around. “Had there been no signs of closure of the JK Synthetics unit, I would not have taken to coaching so seriously,” he says. The hardworking man had unknowingly helped almost the entire city emerge out of the economic depression.
Going down the memory lane, he recalls how his desperate efforts for livelihood spawned a full-scale industry in Kota during 1986-2000. Inspired by his success, one of his neighbours, Rajesh Maheshwari, was the first to start a tuition centre, which is now known as Allen Career Institute. Pramod Maheshwari, who was teaching physics at Bansal Classes, started Career Point. “My physics teacher RK Verma opened Resonance coaching centre. He also poached my faculty and students,” he says. Bansal however adds that he has managed to do well in spite of attritions and growing competition.
In 2000, one of his students topped and 300 others cracked the IIT-JEE. It created a stir. “There was a long queue outside my study centre and I finally selected 18,000 students that session,” he recalls.
Bansal claims all other coaching institutes are reaping the harvest of his hard work. Apparently, a crucial preparatory tool – the ‘daily practice paper’ (DPP) which is given to students in all coaching centres – is Bansal’s invention. “They took away my intellectual work of years that I had put into creating methods and techniques of coaching and are using the same,” he says.
Today, Allen alone has close to one lakh students. Bansal says that Allen’s intake of students is the highest as it also offers coaching for medical entrance tests. The admissions are open to all and there is no entry test. “I don’t believe in the numbers game and the tactics used by others. I don’t use cheap marketing tricks like others do. I know they [other institutes] are going to states like Bihar and UP and luring students with concessional fees. They don’t care about the IQ, inclination and capacity of a student,” Bansal says. “I don’t follow these marketing tools; for me my products are my marketing tools.”
Next, I am at Parag Mess at Mahaveer Nagar. At 8.30 pm, Manoj Sharma and his wife Hema are serving dinner to students. The ambience in the dining space is homely. The venture was started by Manoj’s father Radhey Shyam Sharma. Now in his seventies, Sharma too had lost his job at JK Synthetics. “I had no source of income then,” recalls Sharma, whose family lives in a large house, of which one part is the mess. When he became jobless, Sharma set up a sugarcane juice vend in front of the Kota engineering college. It was a seasonal business and didn’t get him enough to feed his family of three daughters and a son. He had to do odd jobs to make ends meet. At that time, Manoj was studying for B.Com.
As luck would have it, in 1994, Sharma set up a snacks joint in front of Career Point. One day, a student asked him if he could also provide him lunch and soon he was selling home-cooked meals in tiffin boxes to five students. The demand grew and a year later Sharma opened a mess and tiffin service in his small house, and named it Parag Mess. He soon built a new house in Mahaveer Nagar, which today houses a pantry, kitchen and a dining hall. By then, Allen had opened a new branch in the neighbourhood and it helped Sharma get guests for the mess and also students for his five-room hostel.
Dr RC Sahani, who runs a de-addiction centre in Kota, says there is a need for a regulatory authority for the coaching industry of Kota. People like Yadav, however, don’t believe that suicides have a link with the city. “Students come here by choice. The parents [of students who commit suicide] are to be blamed for pressuring their children for scoring higher.” All those whom I spoke to in the city had a similar view: suicide is an act of an individual for which a town should not be held responsible.
I was only able to meet Bansal; owners of other institutes refused to see me. Most of them, I was told, remain incommunicado with the local media. I, however, met their ‘media advisors’ who, in turn conveyed the inability of their bosses to meet me. I somehow got the number of Naveen Maheshwari, director of Allen, and contacted him. He virtually snapped at me and told me curtly that I had broken the protocol by dialling his number. Earlier, while I was trying to speak with students at Allen, a guard rushed and asked me to leave. He told me that CCTV cameras had recorded my ‘escapades’ and the central office had been alerted about me. I wonder what the coaching masters of Kota are trying to be secretive about.
As such, Kota’s coaching industry is pegged at around Rs4,400 crore. Besides opening centres all over the country, institutes have started their schools from sixth standard where they offer a composite course in school curriculum and competitive exams like Olympiads or national talent hunt. Career Point has gone further and opened a university, in addition to the school for standards 1-12. Kota probably represents all that is wrong with the Indian education system.