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Monday, November 20, 2017

IIT’s breaking point - Hindu Businessline

Uneasy silence: Attracting the crème de la crème of engineering students since it was established in 1950, IIT Kharagpur has in recent years witnessed a spate of suicides. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

After five suicides rocked IIT Kharagpur this year, there is much soul-searching among its students and administrators alike on the reasons that are pushing bright and promising youngsters over the brink

According to his friends, Nikhil Bhatia could’ve been saved after he was found lying in a pool of blood minutes after he had jumped from the fourth floor of IIT Kharagpur’s Lal Bahadur Shastri building on October 21 this year. Aside from several broken bones, there was no head injury and he was still alive. The BC Roy Hospital on campus referred the injured final-year mining engineering student to Kolkata’s Westbank hospital, three hours away.

Fellow students allege that ultimately it wasn’t the suicide attempt that killed him, but an inefficient response system starting with a rundown ambulance and other medical equipment, and a medical staff ill-equipped to handle the emergency.

Bhatia, a bright mind and an introvert, had reportedly been showing signs of paranoia since July, upon entering his final year. “He thought people were out to get him. He would imagine that random people were following him. The things he said stopped making sense,” recalls his friend Satyam Jha, a final- year mathematics and computer engineering student. Jha helped set up a counselling session for Bhatia and he was admitted to the BC Roy hospital. But he was discharged a day later when his mother arrived to take him home to Mumbai. When Bhatia returned after a break, it had seemed to Jha as though his friend had finally left his demons behind. So the news of his suicide came as a shock. “He wasn’t the self-harming type,” Jha told BLink over phone.

Bhatia’s suicide is the fifth case this year at IIT Kharagpur, one of the country’s most prestigious engineering colleges. A video made by students and shared on the Facebook page ‘How Many More? — IIT Kharagpur’ lists the other four names — Lokesh Meena in January, Satish Mandava in February, Sreeraj Sana in March and Nidhin N in April.

What pushed these bright minds and others over the brink?

Help is not at hand
In the video, one of Bhatia’s friends, who was in the ambulance transporting the injured student to Westbank hospital, narrates the tragic sequence of events with his face silhouetted for anonymity. “The attendant inside the ambulance who was holding Nikhil’s hand, plugged with an IV, left it to answer a call on his mobile phone. It was then that the needle slipped out of his vein. When we pointed it to the attendant he seemed unconcerned and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re reaching Calcutta in 10 minutes’.”

What followed was a series of misadventures nobody was prepared for. The ambulance took a wrong turn, broke down, and Bhatia’s friends had to flag down a lorry to continue the journey (still without any medication), only to stumble again after the lorry ran out of fuel midway. It took them an extra 35 minutes to complete the journey. Within minutes of arriving at Westbank, Bhatia was pronounced dead. “I stand by everything I said in that video,” the friend told BLink over phone, on condition of anonymity.

“The BC Roy hospital within campus is generally understaffed and ill-equipped. If you’re in a critical state you get referred to a better hospital in Kolkata, and you might not always survive the journey,” says Aradhana Kumar, a fourth-year chemical engineering student and editor of a campus newsletter.

Back in 2009, when another student, Rohit Kumar, lost consciousness after falling during a game of basketball, he was referred to a hospital in Medinipur, 45 minutes away, and died en route. The protests that had erupted on campus turned violent, leading to the resignation of the director Damodar Acharya. The administration had promised to improve conditions at the on-campus hospital, but eight years later little has changed.

Academic pressure cooker
When Amit Sachdeva (name changed), an undergraduate engineering student, approached the college’s counselling centre complaining of sleep deprivation and anxiety, he was immediately asked to reveal if he was homosexual. “The counsellor recommended mild shock therapy to cure me of homosexuality, even after I repeatedly told him that I wasn’t seeking any help for my sexual orientation. I have always been comfortable with my sexuality,” he recalls. When Sachdeva drew the counsellor’s attention to the American Psychiatric Association’s writ against any form of “treatment or corrective therapy” for homosexuality, the latter merely smiled and said, “This is India. It is okay here.”

There are four counsellors and one psychiatrist for the 10,000 students on campus. “The cases are handled so badly that students hesitate to even come forward with their issues in the first place,” Sachdeva says.

There have also been complaints of breaches in confidentiality. “In some cases where students had reached out for help to break free of substance addiction, the counsellors promptly called their parents to name and shame them,” a student said on condition of anonymity.

The campus recently tied up with Your Dost, an online counselling and emotional wellness service, for its students to report distress without having to reveal their identities. But can that be an adequate solution?
“Social media has taken a toll on relationships with the loss of interpersonal connections between individuals,” says Mayank Srivastava. A fourth-year student of mining engineering, he is also a student representative and the vice-president of Technology Students’ Gymkhana, helping organise technology, sports and cultural activities designed to act as stress-busters for the students.

“The pressure of living up to being an IITian is simply too much,” says Kumar, explaining that it is not just academic pressure but also the expectations of family and society at large — your placement, pay package, designation and even your lifestyle become mere displays to draw public envy.

“We try to tell students to not allow a sheet of paper to define their life” says Srivastava. But does the message sell in a system engineered to define you by your grade sheet? 

Addressing the different sources of anxiety for the students, he and his team explain to them that “life doesn’t end here”. “Suppose you don’t get placement, which is a very rare thing, there are still lots of options. The IIT tag itself can bail you out in any situation,” he says, trying to sound convincing.

A few months ago, as part of its efforts to de-stress students, the campus administration had, in consultation with students like Srivastava, decided to turn off the power supply in dorm rooms for a brief period, once a fortnight. This move was meant to coax students to step outdoors, where social activities were planned to give them a chance to interact more with peers, and break away from the isolation of their WiFi-enabled dens.

“But let’s face it, when one of your batchmates dies you don’t want to dance to Bollywood music,” says Kumar, who believes the problem calls for a more serious intervention than just enforced socialising.

At the same time, Srivastava blames the isolated environment of the gated campus for aggravating distress levels among the students, a point that was agreed on by all those this article had reached out to. “When your world shrinks to the size of your campus, which itself is a high-pressured environment, it is really important to make good friends,” agrees Jha, crediting such friendships with the power to help one get through the grind without losing sanity.

Cold silence
A letter purportedly signed by students of IIT-Kharagpur, posted on social media, alleges that during an open session held on October 27 at the college’s Netaji auditorium, the audience was “strongly warned and restricted to ask questions related to the counselling centre and hospital and nothing else”. The letter goes on to say, “It will be the fully orchestrated show of the administration. We wish that the IIT Teachers Association should not leave us alone and stand by us for truth (sic).”
All the college’s professors reached out to for this article declined to comment.

Registrar Pradip Pyne, the only official authorised to speak on the situation, termed the spate of suicides “unfortunate” and said it was “difficult to generalise the exact reason” before quickly adding that the university had taken several corrective measures. Asked to specify these, he requested “several hours to elaborate”. When pressed further, he talked about “the very good counselling mechanism and the wellness programme, which has a centre for happiness that promotes constant interaction and peer-to-peer connection”.

An email addressed to IIT Kharagpur’s Rekhi Centre for Excellence for the Science of Happiness went unanswered.
“We are initiating further steps. We want to do everything to fix the situation,” said Pyne, even as he declined to comment on the administrative lapses, if any, or the state of medical facilities on campus.

A lot of the anger on campus is directed at what the students see as the failure of the administration to improve the situation, but an equal share of that anger is also directed at society at large.

“As a society, we never want to confront mental illness. Perhaps Nikhil and the others could have been saved with more acceptance on the part of the families. It is as much a societal failure as it is of the campus administration,” says Kumar.