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Opinion: Fortifying Minds, Not Rooms – Addressing Kota Student Suicides

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Rajasthan’s Kota – a sleepy town with a high success rate in coaching students to qualify for IITs and medical colleges. Over the past few years, that record has been clobbered by students’ deaths by suicide. There have been 27 just this year.

Last year, 15 young lives were lost. In the past too, many ended their lives, crushed by the intensive curriculum and workload, ruthless competition, and unrealistic expectations from family and society. There are four stakeholders in the Kota ecosystem – parents, the government, coaching centres, and the hostel owners. For the coaching centres and hostel owners, money is the driver. Coaching centres celebrate the handful of toppers and the so-called “losers” are cast aside. The government has allowed the crisis to spiral by not taking action. The parents are the biggest losers – their money and their child, both gone forever.

“Our aspirations are central to us but it is unfair to transfer them to youngsters who have a life of their own to lead. Kota is a market where the desire of the child may not be given importance, it is the desire of the community of the society which sets a benchmark for careers,” says Indira Roy Mandal, a psychologist.

Over three lakh students come to Kota annually to prepare for competitive exams such as the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges. On average, a student ends up paying up to Rs 2.5 lakh per year for coaching, lodging and food; the institutes don’t offer boarding facilities.

So, what is the Kota dream that is so elusive and coveted?

The coaching business of Kota has a market size of about Rs 5,000 crore. This is huge money extracted from students of middle and lower-middle class families from small towns and villages, where parents stake everything on their children’s future. Even admission into a coaching centre in Kota is considered a big step towards their dream. After all, even joining a coaching institute in Kota has an entrance exam. Only the high scorers are selected, so that the institutes can boast of a high success rate. The class involve regular tests and maximum attendance is mandatory.

“Parents’ expectations from children who do not aspire to engineering or medical studies are unrealistic and need to be toned down. Once a child reaches Kota, he or she is alone and detached, with neither frequent access to discuss concerns with parents nor the guts to convey that they are finding it difficult to cope. That is where the thought of self-harm crops up,” says Shashi Shekhar, JEE chemistry faculty at Physicswallah, Delhi-NCR, who also taught at Kota for two years.

Students are dissuaded by the coaching centres from writing or preparing for their Class 12 board exams and are urged to concentrate on their IIT or medical entrance test. Since Class 12 marks and the scores are qualifying for writing the entrance tests, students are admitted in dummy schools with which the coaching institutes have a tie-up. Attendance is not compulsory in the schools. Aping this model, other coaching institutes in India are also making a mockery of CBSE and state board Class 12 exams. The disdain for syllabus, teaching and curriculum, which should ideally be the foundation for the entrance exams, begs questions. Is there a nexus between coaching institutes and those responsible for finalising the syllabus of medical and engineering entrance tests? Why is the syllabus covered in Class 11,12 not enough to clear these exams? Despite the New Education Policy 2020, why has no effort been made by either the CBSE or the Human Resource Ministry to redesign the curriculum to align it with NEET or IITJEE syllabus? Such steps would definitely kill the mushrooming coaching business across the country and there are vested interests to protect.

Dinesh Sharma, the head of the psychology department at Government Nursing College in Kota, has a doctorate in suicide cases at Kota. He has counselled over 400 students taking coaching for engineering and medical entrance exams. “Parents nurture kids till they are 14 years old and suddenly at 15, they are despatched to Kota and left to fend for themselves. Raised in a protective environment, the children don’t know how to manage the pressures of study and living. Many of them stay alone and do not have even friends to support them emotionally. Parents too advise them to only study and not waste time on friends. Academic and family pressure, combined with loneliness, breed depression. When communication with family breaks down, it leads to suicide,” Dr Sharma says.

“Teachers in Kota manage hundreds of students and are short of time. Even they fail to notice signs of distress in children. Positive youth development initiatives, communication channels through helpline and mentors, and continued care and empathy from family can go a long way in preventing these tragedies.”

Troubled by a record number of suicides that caught the attention of the entire nation, the local administration recently took steps like installing an anti-hanging device in fans; anti-suicide nets and extended slabs balconies and lobbies in hostels. Coaching institutes were asked to not take any exam for two months.

“The environment at Kota is stifling, competitive and devoid of any activities. It is not so much the education that is causing the harm but the manner in which it is imparted. The fiercely competitive environment makes students feel inferior and helpless. It’s okay to be mediocre is not accepted,” says Ms Mandal.

“The focus should be on the child – their likes and dislikes. Listen to them, talk to them, listen to their cry for help and be by their side. A life well lived is more important than a stressful career,” she adds.

Sadly, the authorities have tried to make superficial fixes instead of tackling the most important one – psychological counselling.

Not just the hostels, young minds must be made suicide proof in Kota and at other competitive set ups in India.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.