Tharoor Line | Lessons from Kota suicides

Representational image: Shutterstock/Abhishek Sah Photography

The deaths by suicide last week of three students in the Rajasthani town of Kota, famous (or notorious) for its profusion of coaching institutes that churn out successful candidates for the IITs and UPSC exams, reminds us once again of all that is wrong with our current examination culture. Theirs made a total of 14 student suicides in Kota this year alone.

In 2016, a 17-year-old girl who jumped to her death left a four-page suicide note, describing the pressure she had been under at one of Kota’s famous “coaching institutes” whose sole purpose is to prepare high-schoolers for the IIT-JEE engineering examinations.

She pleaded that the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry shut down the coaching institutes, which subjected their students to unbearable stress and depression. Hers was, reportedly, the ninth suicide by a Kota student that year, and the 56th in the previous five -- every one of them a student of one of the coaching institutes that have become Kota’s most famous cottage industry. After a Covid-induced hiatus, the coaching, the related pressures, and the inevitable suicides, appear to have resumed again, as 14 deaths this year confirm.

The 2016 deaths prompted the city’s then District Collector, Ravi Kumar Surpur, to write an emotional letter to parents pleading with them not to seek to realize their own dreams through subjecting their children to such stress. The widespread prevalence of anxiety-induced depression among the Kota students even prompted an administrative inquiry, but it did not result in any remedial action. There are some 1.75 lakh students in Kota today, whose parents are paying some 1.4 lakh rupees each a year for their eight hours a day of coaching, plus another 1.2 lakh for food and accommodation. They want their money’s worth.

In a culture where educational achievement is seen as a passport to social and economic advancement, Indian parents have long demanded that their children excel in exam results.

Shashi Tharoor

The reasoning is simple: in a culture where educational achievement is seen as a passport to social and economic advancement, Indian parents have long demanded that their children excel in exam results. Pushed into subjects they detest and driven by an insatiable quest for ever-higher marks in examinations where only 2% make the grade (over 500,000 take the IIT-JEE each year, of whom only 10,000 score high enough to be admissible to an IIT), many more students crack under the strain than rebel or drop out.

Engineering and medicine remain the subjects of choice for middle-class Indian parents. Our country graduates half a million engineers every year, some 80% of whom end up in jobs that do not require an engineering degree. Still, in a throwback to the mid-20th century, when engineering was seen as the passport to modernity, parents keep pressing their children to study it. Those who do not make it to the IITs join institutions of varying degrees of quality, many of which do not equip their graduates to work in 21st century industry.

But at least there are enough engineering colleges in India to cater to the insatiable demand. Medicine is a frustratingly crowded field, since it is run by an opaque and self-serving cabal under the Medical Council of India (MCI), which has ruthlessly prevented the supply of available medical college seats from keeping pace with the demands of India’s growing population. Medical colleges have to be recognized by the MCI, which has seen fit to permit only 381 to exist, to teach students and to offer degrees. There are, as a result, so few college seats for medical students – 63,800 in the whole of India, a country of 1.4 billion people – that aspiring doctors are routinely thwarted. Less than 1% of aspirants make it to one of the medical colleges.

Students participate in a yoga session, in Kota. From Yoga sessions and Zumba classes to 24X7 helpline, and mental wellness workshops to a dedicated team of counsellors on campus, the coaching institutes in Kota say they take multiple measures to help students get through the stress and anxiety of students preparing for competitive exams. Photo: PTI Photo/Gunjan Sharma

Several more (whose parents can afford it, or manage to take loans) study medicine abroad, and many do not return, depriving the country of their much-needed expertise. Some choose obscure colleges in countries like Georgia, Ukraine or China and then discover, when they seek to practice at home, that the MCI does not recognize their degrees and disallows them from pursuing their profession in India. (It is no accident that when war broke out in Ukraine last February, India needed to evacuate 20,000 medical students from that country.) Many bright students who narrowly fail to make the cut, but whose families cannot afford to send them abroad, drop out of medicine altogether. India ought to be graduating four or five times as many doctors every year as it does, but the current restrictive approach deprives poor Indians of adequate health care – and adds to the huge pressure on students to excel in competitive examinations to enter medical colleges.

It is in such a context -- of a large population competing for scarce seats in coveted professional colleges – that “coaching institutes” like the ones in Kota thrive. When tough examinations are the only means of overcoming the odds, preparing to ace the examinations becomes the be-all and end-all of an Indian child’s schooling. Parents compel their children to sacrifice their own interests on the altar of exam preparation. The fourteen pyres lit in Kota this year are a sad testimony to how tragically wrong our country’s drive for illusory examination success can go.

The FIFA World Cup logo pictured on the Corniche Promenade. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Well done Qatar!

The World Cup is over, after a magnificent final that fully lived up to the expectations of fans. We all know who won on the field, but there was another victor off it – the hosts, Qatar. What had seemed a likely public relations disaster after the heightened scrutiny of the country’s human rights record, its treatment of migrant workers and its denial of rights to LGBTQI+ people, turned out during the tournament to be a huge success. Qatar’s supremely efficient organization of the event, its spare-no-expense hospitality (including sophisticated cooling ducts that blew cold air into the hot open-air stadiums) and its gracious showcasing of its museums and Islamic culture, all scored high with visiting public and media. Above all came the realisation that for the first time, tens of thousands of Asians and Africans were able to witness a World Cup first-hand who would never have got a visa had the tournament been held in Europe or North America. Qatar, it was said, hosted what was really a “World” Cup. Shabash!

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