KOTA, RAJASTHAN: In Kota, everyone has a theory about Kriti Tripathi. On 28th April, the 17-year-old IIT aspirant jumped to her death from the top of a five-storey building. Just the day before, she had cleared the first stage of the IIT entrance exam. Tripathi is only one of the seven students in Kota to have ended their lives so far this year, but her story was different from most others: She wasn't led to suicide because of failure or the fear of it. It is this aberration that has upset the internal logic of the Kota universe.
"Sorry for being weak, and not showing courage, but I am tired now, no strength left," Tripathi wrote in a five-page suicide letter that exposes the emotional cost at which the Indian middle class chases its biggest status symbol--a seat at one of the uber-prestigious engineering colleges called the Indian Institute of Technology.
The Indian Institutes of Technology were conceived as a post-independence nation-building project, "representing India's urges, India's future in the making", in the words of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1956. Over the following 60 years, the institutes went from acting as the generator of an emerging India's technological capital to becoming a force of social distinction for its globalized middle classes. The harder it became to get into an IIT—over a million students compete for the top 5,000 seats today--the shinier a prospective future became. The IIT brand is furthered every day by its habitually overachieving alumni. The Indian-origin CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, is an IITian, so is billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, among a galaxy of other global marquee names. In fact when Satya Nadella became the CEO at Microsoft, it was considered remarkable that he was not from an IIT.
Naturally, a sizeable prep industry has taken deep roots.
Coaching for the two-part entrance exam to the sixteen functioning IITs—which test quantitative aptitude of high school graduates in Physics, Chemistry and Math—is today a multi-million-dollar industry. Its nerve centre is Kota, a small town in Rajasthan where some 150,000 students are enrolled in a cluster of coaching institutes any time of the year. The town's hyper competitive coaching institutes have earned a reputation for helping students "crack" the IIT entrance. Thousands have made it since the business picked up in the early 2000s.
But it can also be deadly. In the past five years, 57 students have committed suicide.
Students in a Kota coaching institute.
I don't even have to arrive in Kota to hear the first theory about Kriti Tripathi. It comes from the girl sitting next to me on the state transport bus leaving Jaipur, as we settle in for a five-hour ride through sun-scorched badlands. Like Tripathi, Shruti Bhatt is 17, and came to Kota two years ago. Both were among the 1,54,032 students (of 12.07 lakh) who scored enough in the JEE (Mains) exams on 4 April to try the next level, JEE (Advanced), scheduled for 21 May.
So, what does she think of the suicide?
"It has to be the marks. See, she got 144 in Mains, and it's not a bad number, but it's not a very good number, either. It's only 44 marks above the cutoff of 100. In Advanced you have to compete with two lakh students for 20,000 seats, so the pressure is insane."
It's that stress she's currently facing. There are only ten days left for the Advanced part and, at 125, her Mains score is well below Tripathi's. At her coaching institute, Resonance, she's been stuck in an "average" batch, A6 (in an order descending from A1 to A8, leaving aside the 20 students at the very top, the so-called IPs, or Illuminated Promoters), since she first came to Kota. Until the day of the exam, therefore, she is going to put in ten hours of study time every day.
The harder it became to get into an IIT—over a million students compete for the top 5,000 seats today-- the future an admission guaranteed became shinier.
"JEE Advanced—it's a matter of respect," she says fiercely.
It's also a matter of return on investment. This is what her parents, both teachers at a local college in Udaipur, have spent over the basics of the Kota setup for two years: coaching institute= ₹2,13,000; hostel= ₹3,36,000; dummy school = ₹60,000. Total= ₹6,09,000 (or $10,150). (Students who come to Kota typically enrol in a dummy school here--they don't attend it, but these shell outfits help ensure the paper work required to progress through the school system till class 12, which you need to clear to be able to take the IIT entrance. There are hundreds of such schools in this town.)
I ask Bhatt if she's worried about how they would feel if she doesn't make it to an IIT. "Of course. They don't say anything to me, but no matter how parents behave on the outside, none of them are ever cool with their children not making it."
I ask her what typically happens after students hear of a suicide. "No one talks about it, except maybe for a few words exchanged at the hostel reception while going through the front page of the newspaper." There is a lot on their plate already. When the bus stutters into its slot at the Kota bus stand later that day, Bhatt rushes off even before I can haul my luggage off the overhead rack.
I wonder if there could possibly be anyone busier than her in Kota at this point, until I meet the owner of her coaching institute, Resonance Eduventures. RK Verma is fussing with an Excel sheet full of numbers in the home-office in his high-security mansion. Verma's is one of the top five institutes in Kota that corner the city's $45 million coaching industry. Like the rest of city's coaching millionaires, Verma has built his empire by filling in the gap between the varying—and largely subjective—mode of science education taught in secondary schools and the logic-based, problem-solving format of the IIT-JEE paper. It's the reason a good many of the nearly 80,000 students who arrive in Kota every year do so while they are in their seventh or eighth grade in school.
If a student comes to Kota in class seven, at the age of 12 or 13, she will spend five years in this town, never attending regular schools with swings and playgrounds, negotiating maths and physics for the world's most competitive examination, in pursuit of a future she can't relate with. Parents can end up spending ₹15-20 lakh over five or six years. Many take loans. Children hear often about the struggle of repayments.
A cow standing in front of a cram school billboard eats the leaves of roasted ears of corn left by students outside a school in Kota, India.
The first time Verma heard of the IITs, he was an 11th standard student at a government school. "I used to cycle ten kilometres there every day from my village in Kota district, where my father worked as a stone-cutter. One day a man from Delhi shows up at our school and starts talking about the IIT. It's a magical thing, he told us. If you cracked it, your life could get much bigger--you will travel in airplanes and will be surrounded by assistants. His words stuck with me."
Over the next two years, Verma solved every JEE question of the previous 15 years. In 1990, he cleared the examination easily. But, after graduating from IIT-Madras, he couldn't crack the exams for the Indian Administrative Service, and returned to take tuitions in Kota. For someone who remains proud of the fact that he "took no guidance to crack the IIT", Verma is today a leading light of India's IIT-JEE economy. In the year 2015-16, his company, Resonance, took in 50,000 students in 30 branches nationwide. His 800 teachers include 100 IITians, paid anywhere between ₹20 lakh to ₹1 crore a year.
"So when the kids come to Kota, those who got 90 percent in 10th board get 20 percent in our tests. Bachche se sehen nahin hota hai (the child cannot tolerate it)."
I ask him if he's heard of Kriti Tripathi. "See I'm not good with names," he says, "but if you mean one of the students who have committed suicide, then you have to understand that it's totally wrong to blame the coaching institutes. There are so many reasons. Or sometimes you can keep guessing. Just one month back, we admitted a girl and in three weeks, she had killed herself. This was before she had been put through a single test, so you can't say it's because of low numbers."
The problem, he tells me, jabbing at his keyboard, begins at schools. "Bachchon ko schools mein phaltu mein, phokat mein numbers de dete hain... (In Indian schools, children get good grades without making any effort) One lakh kids got 10 CGPA all over India in last year's 10th boards. Parents will then tell you 'ki mera bacha toh bahut intelligent hai (my child is very intelligent)'. But it's another thing altogether to crack IIT. So when the kids come to Kota, those who got 90 percent in 10th board get 20 percent in our tests. Bachche se sehen nahin hota hai (the child cannot tolerate it)" Verma also has a theory on why the children can't tolerate what he sees as a reality check. "Pampering itni ho gayi hai bachhon ki. Pehle schools mein pitai ho jaati thi. Ghar pe kabhi mummy peet deti thi, kabhi papa peet dete the. Aadmi ko hardship sehne ki training milti rehti thi chhote chhote madhyam se (They are so pampered these days. Earlier, they were beaten up in school from time to time or at home. Their capacity for tolerance kept building up bit by bit)"
Rakesh Sharma has definitely heard of Kriti Tripathi. As the general manager of Vibrant Classes, where she was enrolled for two years, he's frequently had to explain what he thinks of her suicide in the previous two weeks. "The first thing is that she didn't take the step because of study pressure, because she was very good at studies. She was a good performer here at Vibrant. Secondly, why would anyone who got good marks in JEE Mains end their life before the final?"
Flyers handed out to students coming out of cram schools advertising for competing schools lie on the road in Kota, India.
I remind him of the suicide letter in which Tripathi made it clear that no matter how good or bad she may have been, the JEE was certainly not something she wanted to do. "Vibrant didn't go to her house and force her to come here," Sharma shoots back. "Why do people look at coaching institutes every time someone commits suicide in Kota when there are so many other things that drive them to it? -- parents' expectations, peer pressure, love affairs."
Sharma doesn't mention the coaching institutes' notorious survival-of-the-fittest aligning of students on the basis of performance in internal tests. Every big institute in Kota has an average of eight "batches", in descending order from 1 to 8, of a hundred or so students each across four or five main groups formed on the basis of time of admission, such as A to D. The treatment you get at a coaching institute, from the quality of teachers to the level of attention, depends on your position on this ladder. And although four or five "reshuffles" take place over a year, very little movement happens.
I ask him if it wouldn't be easier on students to not have to see each other as fellow contestants on a two-year-long Hunger Games-style reality game show while they are dealing with all the pressure. "If you are talking about batch segregation, it is for the students' benefit only... A student who is in at level 8 at the beginning could very well jump to level 2 at the end. IIT-JEE is not a selection exam, but an elimination exam. Only those who are perfect get to IIT."
The biggest issue facing students in Kota, Sharma then astutely reminded me, wasn't parents or peers or breakups, but their inability to manage their time. "Most students go to sleep at 12 at night and wake up at 10 in the morning. By the time they finish with their morning routine—bath, breakfast, etc—it's 11:30. If they sit down to work then, they have only an hour before they have to get ready and start for the institute for their class at 1 p.m. The biggest problem we have in Kota is poor time management. If the students do what they are supposed to--sleep at 11 at night, wake up at 6 in the morning, and devote the time before and after the classes to studying on their own—then we wouldn't face so many issues."
The call centre looks like something erected in a state of emergency: a cramped pre-fab enclosure hunched in the belly of a building large enough to be mistaken for a whole university.
At Allen Career Institute, they are done with the guessing game. The biggest player in the local coaching market has tired of taking the blame for Kota's suicides. In November 2015, after the city registered its 30th student suicide of the year, the institute set up a distress call centre for its 68,000 students, started morning yoga and meditation classes, hired a team of psychological counsellors to hear out the "advanced cases" and a couple of psychiatrists to take over the truly messed-up.
The call centre looks like something erected in a state of emergency: a cramped pre-fab enclosure hunched in the belly of a building large enough to be mistaken for a whole university. All I could hear in it was Kota jargon: booster-1 course, pre-nurture foundation fees, BITSAT workshop, Allen Champ programme. Only 40 of the 2,500 calls the centre gets from students every day are about personal issues, explained Pushpendra Rathod, one of the counsellors taking calls. "The rest are all academic queries." The last personal call he received was two days ago, from a student feeling homesick.
Things look way more intense in the wing housing the professional counsellors, which was probably a parking basement until recently. In one cubicle, a girl is sobbing into her handkerchief as a counsellor nods with empathy across the table. In the cubicle next to it, another counsellor is resting between student visits. Yashmeen Sahoo used to be a yoga and meditation specialist at Patanjali headquarters in Rishikesh. Most of her work at Allen involves working with a software program, however. "It has a database of each of the students' emotional states. Every teacher is assigned 100 students and is supposed to talk to at least one every day on a one-on-one basis and enter his feedback into the database, which is available to us, the institute and the parents to monitor. And if we see something odd, then someone from the call centre phones the student and suggests him or her to come and see one of us here."
A coaching class in progress at Kota, Rajasthan.
"It can be anything," explains Rashi Mehta, who joins us from the next cubicle, after she has handled the weeping girl. "Her problem was that she felt every time she was in class, the room seemed to close in on her. She'd never been amongst so many strangers before. She also really missed listening to music; she is into classical music, particularly Kalyan raga. So, I told her to listen to it for a bit between assignments."
I ask Sahoo, then, what she thinks of a "case" like Kriti Tripathi's. "I just don't understand it. When you are so good at studies, how can you throw it away? She had everything. Her mother herself was staying with her in the P.G, attending to her every need. In some cases, you can never know why a student took this step."
Making my way out of the building, I run into a family from Gangapur, a three-hour train ride away. The parents want their 15-year-old daughter admitted into Allen for a pre-med programme. "It's her wish. And we will support her in whatever she wants to do," says the father, who has an optician's shop back home. They have been sitting in the lobby for a few hours, waiting to negotiate fees. "We thought it was 70,000 rupees," says the mother, "but this year they have raised it to 89,000, which is a lot." If they get a discount here, she tells me, they can afford to leave the daughter in one of the hostels run by Allen that cost 15,000 rupees a month for a room. ("extra for AC"). If not, she'd have to do with any of the mid-budget (6000-12000 rupees a month) accommodations for female students lining the streets in this part of Kota. Sometimes even money can't guarantee admission into the hostels run by top institutes, however; only those who apply as many as four years before their arrival in Kota get in.
"Unn bacchon ki dimagi haalat theek nahin hoti. (It's only the mentally disturbed children who do that)".
I ask the parents if they have been following the news of student suicides in Kota and if they are worried. "No," the mother says after a few moments of thoughtful silence, "Unn bacchon ki dimagi haalat theek nahin hoti. (It's only the mentally disturbed children who do that)".
"Who is your favorite hero???
Think...Think...Think... (Come on... no fancy names)
You are your favorite Hero (Girls, Pl don't frown...Hero can be both male and female)
Yes dear friend ... You are your favorite Hero...How can your movie be entertaining without Hero... (You)...So don't allow this Hero to fade away...He has to be there...He has to win over himself...
With great power comes great responsibility (Spiderman)...
But for this you have to be smiling and happy...Come what...What the Hell ☺ ☺
Happy New Year...Happy New You.......
In his 12 months as district magistrate of Kota, Ravi Kumar Surpur has written three letters to three different groups of people integral to the city's coaching business--institute owners, students and parents. They have been written in response to "20-24 suicide letters" from students he's read over the same time, including the five-page note left by Kriti Tripathi in which lays bare her complete distaste for the IIT rat race, emotional manipulation by her parents, the need to shut down coaching institutes ("they suck"), and the "maddening hatred in her heart" for herself.
If he's playful in his letter to children, Surpur tries for a balance between sympathy and reproof in addressing the parents ("Are we interested in making the child realise 'Your Dreams' at any cost or should it be like creating such situations that the child realizes His/Her Dreams?") and goes point-blank official in his notice to the owners, ordering them to make a number of changes to their system "with immediate effect", from refunding fees to kids who change their minds to organizing "fun days".
A student at a hostel in Kota.
He's fighting administrative fire on the day I visit him in Kota's sprawling Collectorate; his white board is scribbled over with the district's immediate concerns—pre-monsoon preparations, seasonal disasters, price management. But he can't think of anything more important than the situation with the students in Kota that he's previously called the "tip of the iceberg." "You should have seen the mood in the city last December, just before New Year's. A student had committed suicide and my first thought was to order the institutes to declare a compulsory holiday on 1st January to give the students a breather, but then I reminded myself that only a small proportion of children, those from the state, will be able to go home to celebrate, but the rest will just be here and brood. So I asked the institutes to put up giant canvases in the premises and let the kids come over and paint. And oh they painted like anything! I also asked the radio city FM to take song requests from the students on the day."
Surpur's made it his personal mission since to bring down the IIT-JEE heat in Kota, whether it's asking the students to get up early and appreciate the sunrise or informing the parents of the new avenues of opportunity ("Art, Entertainment, Sports, Literature, Journalism, Event Management.") On the very day that I saw him, he was drafting a multi-page, multiple-choice questionnaire inquiring into the student experience in Kota that he wants massively distributed and anonymously answered. I ask him why he spends so much of his time finding the elusive solution to the suicides: "Even if one single child doesn't commit suicide because of this, it's worthwhile."
"If 1.5 lakh people are living in one place, there will be one suicide every month. It's the state's average or the national average."
The view of student suicides is a little more complicated at the office of the Superintendent of Police of the Kota district. "If 1.5 lakh people are living in one place, there will be one suicide every month. It's the state's average or the national average. If think of the 1.5 lakh students in Kota in that way, then the rate of suicide would be considered normal for a year, but of course it's not so simple a story," says Sawai Singh Godara, who cuts an imposing figure with his medals and moustache. "Kids who come from villages, from a lower middle class background, they are able to adjust. But those who come from upper class families, who have been maintained like a flower by their own parents, they don't know how to deal with the routine here. Khana suit nahin hota, pet kharab ho jata hai, ulcer ho jata hai, so they get depressed (The food doesn't suit them, their stomachs get upset, sometimes it leads to ulcer...)"
India's annual suicide rate (number of suicides a year in a population of 100,000) was 10.6. But this view camouflages the horror of the Kota story. A vast majority of those who commit suicides (more than 69% in 2014), are low-income. Suicide rates are also very high at the lower end of the education level spectrum. When applied to a population of well-off teenagers with higher secondary education, Kota deaths are off the charts.
There are several other reasons, of course, for their depression, Godara points out: "Social status. Parents are calling their children here, telling them this person or that person's kid in the neighborhood cleared IIT. They remind their children of the Fixed Deposits they have broken, the Provident Fund loans they have taken. The institutes themselves have a role to play; until we enforced it a few months ago, there was no exit policy for those children who wanted to leave. 10 to 15 percent of it is because of love affairs—breakups, cheating."
I asked him what he thought of the case of Kriti Tripathi. It made him turn to an assistant on his left and ask him how much the girl scored in Mains. "See, 144 is not a very good rank," Godara swung around to face me armed with his theory. "People score as high as 300. She must be disappointed."
"Hamare system se chalein, toh Kota mein koi suicide hi na kare."
(If things go by our system, no one would ever commit suicide in Kota)
Kamal Jain is the head of the biggest organized setup offering out-of-station parents paid-for "local guardians". For a monthly fee of ₹300, this is the what Jain and his team at Local Guardian and Consultant, "a complete solution for liable and organize care of your child", provide: "room arrangement, mess arrangement for balanced food, vehicle arrangement, commodity requirement, doctor arrangement, mobile top-ups, special protection of female students, travel ticket booking, discussion of personal problems, and career counselling".
Jain was originally a businessman who dealt in chemicals. "I used to travel a lot on the train, in 2nd AC and 3rd AC, for my work. And I would meet parents all the time who, the moment they heard I was from Kota, would start complaining about how greedy everyone is in Kota."
For the average amount of money a family was investing in Kota, Jain realized no one had thought of a business opportunity around making things smoother for them.
"In Jaipur, the business of Sitapur Stones is worth ₹300-400 crore rupees but there are dozens of professional companies which organize it. Kota's coaching business is worth ₹1,500-1,800 crore, but there was no one to organize it. So one day in 2008, I put myself to the task, starting with a survey of the condition in the hostels, from the number of geysers to the quality of food."
In 2008, he rented an office in the middle of the area hosting the largest number of students and put up a board announcing his "unique concept of service, for the first time in India".
"We promised to help kids focus on studies without any outside disturbance. I developed a computerised system where every student whose parent registered him or her with us, Local Guardian, got a 4-digit registration number. This is how it works: Someone has woken up at 10 am and needs to solve a set of calculus sums before a class that starts at 11 am. He realizes he is out of toothpaste. Now if he is to climb down four flights of steps to the street, walk to a grocery store, buy a toothpaste and go back four flights, he will waste at least 15-20 minutes, and will not be able to finish the assignment. If he is subscribed with us, though, all he has to do is SMS, 'LG NO 3750 need toothpaste.'"
Most students who come to Kota for IIT-JEE stay for at least two years and many claim to study six hours a day on an average, other than the six hours they spend over three classes of two-hour duration each. Sundays are mandated a compulsory off by the city administration, but the institutes are known to slip in an occasion test every once in a while. Whatever free time the students have left during the day, they spend it on escaping their reality. Some of them watch movies in multiplexes, others listen to songs on their phones, and almost all buy slots at the nearest cyber cafe to play video games they can pick from collections boasting every genre of the form.
Most students who come to Kota for IIT-JEE stay for at least two years and many claim to study six hours a day on an average, other than the six hours they spend over three classes of two-hour duration each.
Jain and his executives didn't just guarantee the maximizing of their wards' study time, they even had plans for minimizing that of the non-wards. "Once they meet their target for their day, whether it's polishing up on Newton's Law, or finishing the DPP sheet, we encouraged them to go to the next room and ask their friends to go to the mall or the movies with them. Because if everyone studies to the same extent, then the competition will just go up."
Almost everyone I meet in Kota has a strong view on why the children are killing themselves and how to stop the trend. Often this comes after they have tried to make a business deal with you. A hostel agent who took me to a corner inside Allen's campus and proposed a good rate for a hostel for my imaginary "ward" had, for example, the perfect solution to save him or her from depression.
"You have to make sure their mind is never diverted. At this hostel there is no chance of that. Bachche aaj kal ghoome-phirne mein apna time waste karte hain, groups bana ke 3-4 ghante movies dekhte hain. (The kids these days waste their time loitering around, or watching movies in groups of 3 or 4). We don't let any groups form. After 10 pm no child can leave the hostel, after 11 they can't go from one room to another, no friend however close can ever enter the building. If the kids follow this system, all they can do with their time is study. Agar proper schedule pe study karte rehenge toh depression kahe ko paida hoga (If they study according to proper schedule, why will they fall into depression)?"
Later, the manager of the said hostel elaborates: "We try in fact to see to it that the children who live with us do not make any friends, taaki ghoomne phirne mein, awara-gardi mein waqt zaya na ho (so that no time is wasted in wandering around). No laptops are allowed either. These are the things that put children on the wrong track... Hamari controlling aisi rahti hai ki bachcha depression mein aa hi nahin sakta (our control on them is so complete that there is no chance of them encountering depression)."
At some point during my three days in Kota, after an autorickshaw driver has offered me a special deal—600 rupees a month for carrying me back and forth between my hostel and coaching institute—and tut-tuted at me for not being of any use to him, he proceeds to tell me what the whole fuss is about: "I don't know how exactly to put it to you, but you can understand things that go on between these children at this age. Bas woh hi hai (that's it)"
And as I pause in the middle of a day running around Kota to buy an extra set of notebooks, the man at the second hand bookshop offers me the tersest take on the situation in Kota: "Bachche pagal hain (The kids are insane)."
On my last evening in Kota, taking a shared autorickshaw back to my hotel, I meet someone who shows no desire to talk to me. He's a student, I can tell, from the loaded bag of study material he's carrying around. I try Kota-speak.
"How many years in Kota?"
"Oh, I actually only took admission last week, and I am going back home day after."
Nitin Kumar is going to leave Kota within a week of his arrival because he is "frustrated." "Life is a struggle in Kota. Nothing is easy. Except the admission. The weather is too hot, the hostel mess gives us no breakfast, there is no time to have lunch, I can't understand anything in class, and I have no one to talk to."
So, on Kumar's fourth night in Kota, he phoned his parents in Muzaffarpur in Bihar and told them he can't do it. "I am not the kind of person who can keep lying to them, telling them on the phone every day that studies are going well, like most of the kids here."
Kumar doesn't see himself as an IIT-type guy. "I could do with a theoretical kind of education. Like geography. Or a B.Sc. In Maths. My parents had permitted me to do it, but family friends said 'no, send him to prepare for engineering'. Going back means I am wasting a lot of their money." He added: "They will feel sad, but they will not say anything. We are economically not that well-off—my father runs a general store back home--but they have always spent on my education, perhaps because they expect I will do something for them at the end."
But what is it that he wants to do, I asked him, now that he was in the mood to talk. "Never thought about that," he said, eyes to the floor, "I have never felt that free."
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