By Abhishek Jha:
Anyone who has studied in a coaching institute in Kota will tell you, the classroom is more of a factory. A hundred or more – unless you are the creamiest of the several thousand and are being constantly monitored – students crammed on metal benches are addressed by a teacher and then left to toil on their own for the rest of the day. Your doubts have to be extraordinary or can be laughed upon, sometimes discarded with disdain even by the teacher. Your seating arrangement, to avoid hassles, is usually according to rank – one poor rank and you are either in a lower batch or on the back benches. A rather explicit preference in attention to those who score well makes the pressure of performance explicit within days of your arrival, which is soon after your 10th standard board exams.
The institute that produces the best-ranked students in the final exam draws a larger crowd next year and that all of this is not unusual is already internalised by students. Having experienced this first hand, it is not surprising for me to see reports of a spike in suicides by students in the city. However, having come out of the cocoon of that world, I am surprised that this almost exploitative regimen hasn’t been addressed yet.
It is not through media reports alone that our politicians and administrators come to know of suicides by students. In fact, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) counts the number of suicides due to “Failure in Examination” every year. This cause of suicide and the number of deaths resulting from it are significant enough for NCRB to not relegate it to “Other Causes”. Institutes, politicians, administrators vow regularly to end this menace. Yet the problem remains unsolved. In Kota, 24 students committed suicide last year alone and two coaching institute students again committed suicide this January, according to reports.
Between 2012 and 2014, a total of 22,319 suicides by students were recorded by NCRB (the numbers each year varying from 6000 to 8000), of which the students who committed suicide particularly due to “Failure in Examination” were 7,120. There can be little doubt then that the pressure on those who prepare for competitive exams takes its toll and needs to be addressed.
Those preparing for admission to what are considered, marketed, and eyed as the premier institutes of the country, this pressure is not only of being able to pursue a passion or career but has also an emotional undertone of honour and prestige. Every rise and drop in scores or rank is scrutinised by your peers and your parents and sometimes even distant relatives who have hopes pinned on you to guide their children. For some children, this process begins as early as the beginning of secondary school for which separate coaching classes run.
This was also acknowledged by a Task Force constituted by the MHRD to look into and prevent suicides in all central government-funded technical institutions which submitted its report in 2012. The report observes, in the context of coaching and tuitions, that the “focus is no longer on engineering as a career choice but on ‘’preparing for IIT'” and identifies “social isolation, poor coping skills to face failure and the inability to share problems” as emerging behavioural patterns.
Coaching institutes, however, continue to flourish due to the vast difference between state-run or even private school curriculum and teaching and the admission tests, which those heading these technical colleges say have to be tough due to the vast number of applicants. After the spike in the number of student suicides in Kota last year (from 11 in 2014 to 24 in 2015), the district collector is reported to have issued an advisory to coaching institutes to tone down their advertisements. Coaching institutes too came together to start a counselling helpline. But as further reports showed, this helpline too is overburdened, with only two doctors, three stress counsellors, and 10 academic counsellors for over a lakh students studying in the city.
The reason forcing students to commit suicide are manifold, as the report of the Task Force also identified. The incessant call to merit, performance, ranks and scores that plague our education system is something that our society itself should abandon if it is not to make machines out of the labour force of technocrats that it boasts of. The stigma associated with mental health issues and internalised by young people need to be addressed too.
The government of Rajasthan seems to have taken cognizance of the crises in Kota and there have been reports of implementing regulations for coaching institutes late last year. But these regulations, safety nets, psychological help should already be existing anywhere in the country, especially for young people who form the bulk of those committing suicides. For the “coaching gurus”, parents and the administration of Kota, the huge rise in suicides should, at least, be a wake-up call.