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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Kota conundrum - Tribune India

Posted at: Dec 17, 2017, 2:12 AM; 

The rising number of student suicides in Kota, the coaching capital of India, and various IITs and other elite institutions is not a story of failure of these youngsters, but of our system

According to the latest National Health Profile published by the government, one in three suicides in India is committed by those in the age group of 15 to 29 years

Aditi Tandon

It has been two years since Sumer Ram, a promising young student of medical stream and an MBBS hopeful, ended his life at a thriving coaching institute in Kota, the coaching capital of India.

Nineteen-year-old Sumer  had missed the selection for MBBS through the All-India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) by 20 marks in 2015. “My son wanted to improve his score to be able to get an MBBS entry in the 2016 edition of AIPMT. He had been at Kota for coaching for seven months, preparing for the next entrance exam. In December 2015 we got the news that he had committed suicide. It came like a bolt from the blue because everything was going fine. The institute people later told us that he had not attended classes for a few days. When we asked why they didn’t intimate us about our son’s absence, they said they couldn’t possibly track all students in the class all the time,” says a teary-eyed Hazri Ram, the deceased’s father, a resident of Nagaur district in Rajasthan. 

Hazri Ram is not alone in this anguish. Among the first recorded suicides was that of 19-year-old Nidhi Kumari from Jharkhand. Her father Rajendra Kumar is still grappling with the tragedy. She was studying in Kota for her MBBS entrance.

The latest suicide in this Rajasthan city happened as recently as December 7 this year and involved a young boy. Between 2013 and now, more than 56 students have ended their lives in Kota, unable to cope with the high-pressure preparation schedules for Joint Entrance Exam  (JEE) Advanced for entry to IITs and NITs and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for entry to top medical colleges.

The final push
Why are student suicides continuing unabated? Reasons are multiple. “Mainly because of the way the coaching centres and their schedules are structured. Annual expense to get a student coached in any top Kota institute is Rs 2.5 lakh. It’s a lot of money for most families. Returns are never guaranteed. But parents, in the hope of securing the careers of their children, take loans, sell properties and do anything they can to pay up. The pressure of this cost recovery is squarely on the student who is expected to study well and crack the test. A student’s individual potential for any discipline is secondary,” says Arvind Gupta, a Kota local, who has been tracking city-based suicides.

Each coaching class usually has 200 to 250 students with little personal attention being paid to anyone. Sundays are also not free as internal tests are scheduled on Sundays. The marks obtained in these tests form the basis to rank students within the institute. 

“A system of discriminatory teaching is followed in almost all top coaching centres in Kota, which focus on potential high performers who can bag top positions in JEE and NEET. The pressure on slow coping and low performing students is obvious,” says a parent of a student who killed himself. 

Alarmed by these deaths, the Rajasthan administration recently issued guidelines to Kota coaching centres asking them to ensure not more than 60 students in a class, mandating the centres to return the fees in case a student wanted to opt out and ordering them to institutionalise a system of sending SMS alerts to parents in case a student absented from a class for more than few days and without medical grounds. The present practice in Kota is to take yearly fee at the time of admission with no pledge to return the dues in case a student wants to exit.

Violatory practices
But all this is still being practiced in violation of the government guidelines as suicides continue and as does the business of these centres. The city has over 50 centres. Around 1.70 lakh students annually descend on Kota in the hope of making their dream careers. The commercial value of Kota’s flourishing coaching business is estimated at Rs 4,000 crore annually.

Why do students continue to queue up at Kota despite its reputation of a suicide capital? Reasons are clear. 

The mad zeal to crack the competitive engineering and medical entrance exams outweighs all considerations both for parents and students who, sometimes, have little option. 

When Varun Kumar, a Ludhiana boy, committed suicide at Allen coaching centre, Kota, on December 3, 2015, his father Balvir Ram was shocked. All Varun wanted was an edge to get enough marks to enter a government medical college which he had missed a year earlier.

“Coaching centres don’t exist in a vacuum. The ground has been laid by our faulty education system where there is a premium on cracking competitive exams while school education is ignored,” says Rajeev Kumar, a former IIT professor from Kharagpur. 

These Kota students often take admissions in the city’s dummy schools to complete their Class XII as they attend coaching classes on the side. Local administration is now cracking down on these dummy institutions.

A matter of aptitude
There have also been demands to mandate aptitude tests for students seeking admission to Kota centres so that they know about their potential at the beginning. This recommendation is part of the Kota administration’s guidelines to coaching centres but has not been followed strictly. These centres continue to enrol all students whether or not they have the skill and the aptitude to bear the gruelling preparation schedules. Naturally, weaker students fall off the academic track, many ending their lives.

The cycle of suicides doesn’t end here. It persists through the student life in IITs and NITs and various other elite institutions.

Scores of students have committed suicide after entering IITs because while coaching prepared them to crack the entrance, it didn’t prepare them to stand up to IITs’ real challenge of research and innovation. 

Mahtab Ahmed, an IIT Kanpur student, who killed himself some years ago, had scribbled on his hostel wall, “I hate IIT.”

An M. Tech student at IIT Madras, Nithin Reddy, had ended his life after being asked to repeat a course in the final year. Nithin had already landed a job and the repetition  would have meant foregoing the job.

The rat race for elite colleges

Even this year, many suicides have been reported from the elite central technical institutes, including that of IIT Kharagpur’s aerospace engineering student Nidhin M in April. He hanged himself from a ceiling fan. “Let me sleep,” was all he wrote before he killed himself.

Former IIT Kanpur Director Sanjay Dhande, who headed 
a taskforce to recommend measures to prevent suicides on campuses, feels disproportionate attention and focus on IITs and NITs as India’s top engineering institutions has created the pressure on students to get into these colleges.

The Dhande panel had suggested end of single-room occupancy in IITs and to share rooms to encourage bonding. Another suggestion was to reduce the internet speed on campuses so as to wean students off gadgets and allow them time to concentrate on lessons.

Eventually, a system of MiTR (a guidance and counselling unit) was introduced in IITs to help students cope with the stress of institutional rigours. 

The hidden signs
But even counselling services tend to miss signs of stress among students. The counselling wing of IIT Bombay  had failed to recognise a student Srikant Malapulla as a depressive. A regular at the counselling  centre, he had committed suicide.

“There is no single cause or solution for mental health issues that drive people to suicide. The high levels of competition are a major reason of stress which is why on this World Mental Health Day, the WHO had asked all employers to put the mental health of workers on their agenda. This applies to educational institutions also. Frequent demands of high performance, regular grading and the stress of campus placements in technical institutions takes a toll on students. It’s time to address the issue holistically right from reviving the worth of school education to stressing conceptual knowledge rather than test-cracking abilities which coaching centres hone,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, Professor of Psychiatry at AIIMS, New Delhi.

Mental health experts, meanwhile, add that suicides are an emerging epidemic in India. 

Recent data reveals over 1.30 lakh suicides a year, with young being the most affected and males being more vulnerable than women.

“One in three suicides in India is committed by those between 15 and 29 years and two in three between 15 and 44 years. The younger population is more at risk,” says the latest National Health Profile published by the Government. 

It does not analyse the causes behind the trend but presents enough proof for policy makers to consider mental health implications of economic growth, competitive markets, shrinking jobs and disintegrating inter-personal and social ties.