Ten years ago, I took a glass of water, poured a generous quantity of Baygon spray into it, covered it up with cellophane and hid it in a corner of my room — I was expecting the results of my Class XII exams. I passed my exams with flying colours and, in fact, had forgotten all about that ‘concoction’ I had made until my mother found it in my room a few months later and gave me a shelling for leaving glasses full of water around the house.
What could have happened is immaterial.
The point I am trying to make here is that academic pressure is very real and affects us more than we'd like to admit. On Thursday, a day after the results of JEE were announced, a 17-year-old in Jaipur killed herself — the police said that she wanted to pursue a BSc degree in astrophysics. What’s worrying is that the police said that it was “strange” that she killed herself over that because it seemed to him that "one can also become an astrophysicist after graduating from an IIT.” What Harshit Bharati (who is investigating the case) and perhaps countless parents and peers who have heard or read about the girl’s demise are unable to understand is the mental anguish of a child who probably does not want to go to IIT at all.
In a six-month study conducted on undergraduate students from cities such as Chennai and Delhi, researcher Arti Sarma found that a total of 14.5 percent endorsed suicidal ideation and 12.3 percent had admitted to having deliberately hurt/kill themselves.
These figures are grim, yet quite telling in light of the burgeoning suicide rate among students. In Kota, the engineering prep Mecca, the NCRB 2014 report marks an unprecedented 61 percent rise in suicides related to failure in competitive examinations. Out of the 100 suicide deaths in Kota in 2014, 45 such suicides were committed by students owing to failure in examinations.
Parental pressure and the Indian spirit of competition
Parental pressure is social pressure and quite simply put, stress. Where does this stem from? An individual perceives certain expectations of oneself from the environment. When an individual feels unable to deliver on those expectations — whether perceived or real, the result is stress.
Coaching centres in Kota enroll close to 1.5 lakh students every year, despite the rise in the number of suicides. Sarma explains through her research that the culture of education in India is "fiercely competitive" because of the "density of India's population set against limited availability of resources including jobs, seats at prestigious colleges, and opportunities to work abroad".
Ravi Kumar makes a pertinent observation in Neoliberalism, Education and the Politics of Capital: Searching Possibilities of Resistance, that “competition has been made guiding ethics of everyday life” — so it becomes imperative that the Indian kid should get into the best colleges, best jobs and make the best money.
Former IITian and now photographer-documentary filmmaker, Amrit Vatsa says that most people go to IIT not to join it on the noble pursuit of knowledge, but because the MBBS and engineering programmes are the easiest ways to make big bucks — perhaps the final dagger of neoliberalism, causing an individual with interests to become an individual with capital. “We Indians want to start making more money as quickly as possible. So, we want to do engineering. And because IITs are known as the best colleges, we all want to go there. It is not linked to ‘learning engineering’, it is all about making money,” he adds.
"You are making me sad," says Vatsa in the middle of our conversation. I ask him why. "It's all about the parents really, there are parents who have seen the world better and there are parents who have not. If only more parents could be educated about the various things their children could do, and become great in life, there would a broader set of talents in India. I went to IIT because I could, that feeling of 'not everyone can get into it' is a good enough egoistic reason. But also, I could never muster the courage to tell my dad I wanted to learn English literature. It sounds silly, but well, I never spoke to my family about what I wanted to learn. And my family did not want to give up on my talent of getting high marks in written exams. It took me so much time to finally give up on that 'talent' of mine," he tells me.
In coaching centres, there is no room for mediocrity
Coaching institutes too have only one priority — securing ranks. How that is achieved is not considered problematic by many. These institutes focus on getting “their students to secure better ranks than their competitors...they do not care about all-round development. They would love you to spend every single second that you have to focus on the specific goal of writing an exam after two years. It’s tragic. And you will get many otherwise mediocre students getting into IIT simply because they gave up everything in their life in their crucial growing phase,” laments Vatsa.
Nimit Jain, former IIT-ian, grew up in Kota and attended the coaching centres. He says that coaching centres only focus on the "top performing" students and these special few are given better treatment and the best teachers. The underperforming students get sidelined. "There are 200-250 students cramped together in one class," he says. For an adolescent coping with competition and dealing with expectations of parents who spend close to Rs 4 lakh a year on them is tough, adding to that, they do perhaps also yearn to be what they are: kids.
Local authorities have taken cognisance of the high suicide rates and have issued a set of guidelines, which could perhaps control the situation at hand. According to Rajasthan Patrika, the coaching centres are now not allowed to enroll more than 100 students in one batch, rotation of seats and best faculty for all students has been made mandatory. In addition to these, group counselling of parents and students, refund policies and a focus on outdoor activities, yoga etc is being encouraged. However, Jain feels that there might be a gap in solution and its actual implementation — "None of the industry stakeholders have shown any commitments regarding these policies in public. It is neither reflected in their advertising nor there is any news in media about how they are going to implement the guidelines," he says.
The issue of student suicides is not just about better coaching centres, but about how we define education and teach it's significance to our children. Is good education a top-paying job or is it an understanding of the world around us? We must find better answers as to why a degree in Astrophysics is not as great as a degree in Business or Engineering — how are we measuring the worth of pursuing a certain knowledge? If it is by how much monetary returns that pursuit brings us, then we are all truly uneducated savages.