A 17-YEAR-OLD boy calls the helpline saying he cannot sleep, he sees “snakes jumping out” of his biology textbook, “animals attacking” him in his nightmares. Another calls barely minutes later only to break down on the phone.
It’s 11 am, six hours since this line went active, and 26 calls have already been logged. Over the day, an estimated 100 will come, all telling the same story: the students in Kota’s coaching factory are cracking.
Amid this deluge, this helpline set up by an umbrella body of over 40 institutes is little more than a straw to clutch for the 1.5 lakh students undergoing coaching for medical and engineering entrance exams in Kota.
With just three stress counsellors, 10 academic counsellors and two doctors, it’s a tiny safety net that eluded the 11 students who killed themselves in 2014. And the 24 so far this year, according to police records — 17 were students of Allen Career Institute, where this helpline is based.
The Indian Express monitored several calls to piece together the nature of stress and the complaints coming in, mostly from students linked to the top five institutes — Allen, Resonance, Bansal, Vibrant and Career Point. And the disturbing picture that emerged was this:
Pressure: The sole focus at the institutes is on academics, with relentless pressure to perform and hardly any outlet for extra-curricular activities that will allow students to unwind.
Shame: There is a visible sense of stigma attached to failure. Students with lesser ranks are made to sit on back benches, with allegations of preferential treatment from faculty for toppers.
Guilt: Students who do not get adequate marks despite trying their best are burdened by a sense of guilt for not living up to the expectations of parents and teachers.
Trauma: Many students find the curriculum extremely tough, with too many text books, too many tests and no holidays. One week for Diwali is the only break students get in the entire year, with tests conducted even on Sundays. So much is crammed into a day that if students miss even one class they slip behind.
“I am under a lot of pressure, I am preparing for both my Class 12 exams and AIPMT, I don’t know what to concentrate on,” said 17-year-old Sawan Kumar from Araria in Bihar, who joined a pre-medical coaching course here in 2014.
With less than six months to go for both the exams, Sawan said: “I wake up at 9 am and after freshening up and doing my pooja in an hour, I study straight till 1.30 pm. I attend classes at Allen Coaching Institute from 2pm to 8pm and then after having dinner, study from 9pm to 3am. But I feel nothing is enough.”
In Sawan’s 10X10 ft room at the Aashirwad hostel, the walls are full of posters with inspirational messages, along with this sign on the door: “Do not disturb during late night studies”. “The messages keep me focussed on my goal,” he said.
‘I couldn’t face my friends’
Sawan’s father owns a chemist shop and, “since he couldn’t become a doctor”, wants his three children, Sawan being the eldest, to join the profession. “My younger sister will come to Kota next year. I cannot prepare with her, that would be very shameful,” said Sawan.
It’s this fear of “shame” that pushes Sawan from one class to another, one test to the next. “In the third week of joining the centre, there is a test, the results of which determine what batch you will join. I did not manage to get into the toppers batch. I couldn’t face my friends after that,” he said.”There are tests on most Sundays, the results of which are put up on a board outside the institute. Sometimes on these result days I bunk classes, those students who score high often make fun of the poor scorers,” he added.
Even in the same section, said Sawan, there are “Special Rank Groups or SRGs”, which includes toppers of the class. “These students sit in the front rows and get special attention from the faculty. It’s killing for people like me who sit in the back,” he said.
For 17-year-old Aman Asati, who hails from Damoh district in Madhya Pradesh, it is the sheer number of students that he finds “overwhelming”. “There are lakhs of students here all competing for the same number of seats. And this is just in Kota, the all-India competition is scary,” said Aman, who is in the second year of his pre-medical preparation.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
At the Kota government medical college, Dr Bharat Singh Shekhawat, professor of psychiatry, says he handles at least six-seven cases of depression and stress among students every day.
“Most of them have stepped out of home for the first time and here they are all expected to fit into a certain mould, which is very stressful. Just the amount of rules and regulations can take a toll,” said Dr Shekhawat.
“The issue of suicides is the tip of the iceberg, factors like cultural divides can take a toll on the minds of the students. They open the newspaper and see faces of toppers splashed all across, this pushes them into a shell further. It all adds up and everyone just overlooks it,” he said.
When contacted, top officials from two of the top five institutes in Kota blamed parents for forcing their children to carry the burden of their expectations.
“Parents should also do the screening. If a student is weak in school, how is he going to deal with the gruelling session in Kota?” said Pramod Bansal, CEO, Bansal classes.
“Suicides are committed by emotionally weak students. When students don’t perform up to expectations of their parents and teachers, there is guilt. Suicides have more to do with guilt than pressure,” said Pramod Maheshwari, director, Career Point.
Back at Aashirwad hostel, a small group of friends have gathered after dinner for a “10-minute break” before they begin their “night studies”.
Mention the rising number of suicides and the group gets nervous. “You can’t deny that the academic pressures are immense, and not everyone can deal with the demanding schedule in Kota,” said Aryan Verma, 18, a medical aspirant from Supaul in Bihar.
The others agreed. “It is not enough to just be hard-working, the students break down often. It is the survival of the fittest,” said another student.
As the clock ticked past 9, the students began to disperse. “I wish we had just a little more time to indulge in some extra-curricular activity, maybe a 15-minute walk for some fresh air, but even that makes me guilty,” said Sawan.