Arshad Shaikh looks at the various aspects of the recurring news about students committing suicide in Kota, Rajasthan – the ‘tuition capital’ of India. The nerve-wracking pressure to succeed and fulfil the aspirations of parents who are sacrificing everything to fund the fees of their children is one of the main reasons behind students preferring death over the prospect of failure. However, there are other reasons like the cutthroat design of our education system that expects students to go through an agni-pariksha if they wish to reach the best colleges for pursuing a career in medicine or engineering. The collective psychology of a nation that equates an individual’s success with his/her pay package and associates academic failure with social stigma is also responsible for these tragic suicides. Students, parents, teachers, training institutes, and our policymakers – all have a role to play if we want to stop this disturbing trend of our adorable children ending their lives whilst struggling to cope with the pressure-cooker atmosphere created by these coaching classes in Kota.  

The year 2022 saw 15 suicides by students in Kota, Rajasthan with December accounting for 4 of those 15. The four who ended their lives this month are Ujwal Kumar (Age 18 from Gaya, Bihar), Ankush Anand (Age 16 from Triveniganj, Supaul district, Bihar), Pranav Verma (Age 17, Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh) and Aniket (Age 16, from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh). All four killed themselves in their hostel rooms without leaving any suicide notes.

According to media reports, Ujwal was studying in Kota along with his sister Khusboo; both preparing for IIT JEE and NEET exams respectively. Ujwal’s parents suspect foul play as they feel their boy did not have any financial constraints nor displayed any exam-related pressure.

Ankush was aspiring to become a doctor. He was from a well-off family and, again according to his family, showed no stress or anxiety when he spoke last to his mother in the morning. Ankush’s uncle has demanded a CBI inquiry, as he cannot understand how two students from the same hostel could hang themselves at the same time.

Pranav was a school topper preparing for the NEET exam. His father revealed that Pranav did not have a smartphone. He was singularly focused on his exam preparation. How did Pranav commit suicide four hours after he spoke cheerfully with his father for nearly 30 minutes is extremely perplexing?

Even as the families suspect something sinister in the private hostels where their wards were residing, the police and administration feel that all these suicides are due to exam stress, love affairs and other reasons. Kota, a city in southeastern Rajasthan on the banks of the Chambal River, has acquired the sobriquet of the “Coaching Capital” of India. In a city of 12 lakh people, the floating student population varies from 2.5 lakhs to 3.5 lakhs.

Ever since Bansal Classes started in 1985, Kota has slowly emerged as the destination of choice for students who wish to prepare for the various national competitive exams like JEE Mains and Advanced (for admission into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) – India’s premier engineering colleges) and the NEET (to get into a medical college).

Known as the ‘Kota Factory’, there are hundreds of coaching institutes that make students work 14-hour study shifts without any weekly off and tests being conducted every day including Sundays. Aiming to prepare young impressionable minds to crack one of the toughest entrance exams for getting 99+ percentile scores, these tuition classes charge fees ranging between `2 to 2.5 lakhs excluding hostel charges that may range from `6000 to `15000 a month, depending upon the location and facilities offered.

The nerve-wracking pressure created by the daily tests, the scores for which are shared with students and their parents – create a pressure-cooker atmosphere that becomes toxic for many who cannot cope with this arduous academic rigour and leads to acute clinical depression and ultimately suicidal thoughts and tendencies.

THE BLAME GAME

The state government’s position is that suicides are taking place due to psychological problems among some students and there is nothing wrong per se in the working of the coaching centres. It is mandatory for every institute to have a psychologist for counselling the students and the government guideline is strictly enforced. According to a minister from Rajasthan, there are some other reasons (non-academic – indirectly hinting at love affair or drug abuse) behind the suicides or it could be pressure from the parents.

Taking suo moto cognizance of the growing number of suicides in Kota, and acknowledging it to be a human rights issue, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notices to the various officials of the government of Rajasthan, saying: “Over the years, Kota has become a hub of private coaching centres. There is a need to formulate a regulatory mechanism by the state in consultation with the Central Government. A detailed report of the incident must be submitted that spells out the steps taken or proposed to be taken by the state regarding the regulatory mechanism to control the private coaching institutes given the large number of reported suicides of students.

“The Secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education is expected to inform about the formulation of the National Action Plan of a proportional increase of the seats in technical education as well as medical education and also to evolve the mechanism to get rid of the rat race of getting admission in the private coaching centres to achieve success in the competitive examination of JEE and NEET.”

THE TOXIC ECOSYSTEM

India’s large student population with an economy that is unable to keep pace with the ambitions of its youth has created a system in which almost a million students try their luck in seeking admission to the 50,000 odd seats in the various IITs and NITs of India.

Similarly, 13.66 lakh students appeared for the NEET exam to get a seat in the 90,000 odd available in the various government and private medical colleges. In the case of UPSC, 11 lakh students are vying for thousand-odd seats. With the global decline in funding and career opening for humanities, education in STEM (Science, Math, Engineering, and Medicine) is on an upsurge.

There is a stark mismatch between the number of aspirants and the available opportunities in higher education and high-paying jobs leading to students (with parental support) engaging in an ultimate win-or-perish mindset that is thoroughly exploited by the coaching centres that promise the ultimate academic nirvana by splashing their success stories through clever advertisement blitzkriegs.

The market revenue of India’s tuition industry is around `58,088 crore and is expected to cross `1,33,995 crore by 2028. It is estimated that 7.1 crores are going to tuition in India. It is seen as the only way to beat the competition and ascend into a higher economic class.

Individual success is measured in terms of the size of the pay package and the brand label of the employer. Boys and girls who are still in adolescence and learning to cope with the various changes in their bodies and thoughts are subjected to backbreaking regimens and superhuman expectations that ultimately lead to worst-case scenario.

Both the JEE and NEET exams have a negative marking system. It is time we listened to what educationist Sir Ken Robinson had to say, “We stigmatise mistakes. And we’re now running national educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make and the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” We should be asking our children the question – “How are you smart” and not – “how smart are you?”

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