There are no trained counsellors on campus, and it’s largely left to “overburdened” teachers to look after the welfare of students. And yet, it’s the teachers and staff who have ended up facing the flak for the 49 student suicides reported over the last five years from Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs).
An investigation by The Indian Express has revealed that in at least 32 of the 49 suicides reported from 2013 to 2017, disciplinary action — censure, increment cut, suspension and transfer — was initiated against either the school principal or teachers or both.
Of the 32 cases in which disciplinary action was taken, only 10 could be directly attributed to the actions of employees who were punished, according to data obtained by The Indian Express under the RTI Act and verified separately with vidyalayas from where the suicides were reported.
The Indian Express reported Monday that the reasons behind the suicides in JNVs range from family problems, unrequited love, depression, homesickness, academic pressure, humiliation by teachers and fights between friends.
However, the onus of spotting behavioural changes, suicidal tendencies and depression in a student is on the school principal and the House Master (HM) at these institutions run by the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS), an autonomous body under the HRD Ministry tasked with running all 635 JNVs.
Such an approach fixes the blame and not the problem, say JNV principals, who spoke to The Indian Express on the condition of anonymity.
“The Samiti’s instinctive reaction to a suicide is to act against the House Master and principal, even if they are not responsible for it. Principals are already under a lot of pressure to deliver good board results and teachers are overburdened with non-academic work. To expect us to also know what’s going on in every child’s mind is unreasonable,” said the principal of a JNV in north India that witnessed a suicide in 2017.
An HM is a school teacher tasked with leading a ‘House’ that consists of a group of students. There are usually eight Houses for boys and two for girls in a JNV. The HM is suppose to be “a parent, guide, philosopher and friend” to each member of the House.
According to an 11-page circular issued by the Samiti in 2016 — when suicide figures hit double digits (12) for the first time — the HM and AHM (Assistant House Master) are supposed to interact with students regularly to assess their emotional well-being, gauge their family history through informal chats and involve the school principal if they notice behavioural changes.
Counselling sessions can be arranged “on need basis” for a student with suicidal tendencies, the circular states. It warns of stern action, stating that “any negligence/ indifference/ laziness in terms of the implementation of these guidelines will be viewed seriously and the responsibility will be fixed on the employee concerned”.
However, an evaluation of the Navodaya system by Niti Aayog, released in March 2015, shows that JNV teachers are already overworked and overstressed. The study, which covered 112 teachers in 56 schools across 16 states, states that teachers are overworked because of “house mastership and mess management” responsibilities, which “severely eats into the teaching time”.
Dr Rajesh Sagar, a psychiatrist with AIIMS-Delhi, says asking teachers to look for early signs of suicidal tendencies in students is not an effective preventive measure. “Unless you are trained to spot subtle changes in behaviour, a teacher who is already pressed for time may not be able to see it,” he said.
According to Samiti sources, roughly 200 JNV teachers, or less than 2 per cent, of the total strength of 16,000, have completed the NCERT’s PG diploma course in clinical counselling over the last 15 years.
Defending the disciplinary action taken against employees in case of suicides, NVS Commissioner Bishwajit Kumar Singh told The Indian Express: “We are not victimising anyone. Action has been taken only in those cases where a systemic failure or error was noticed after an inquiry.”
In the last one year, the Samiti has tried recruiting wardens for boys’ hostels since it was noticed that a majority of the suicides were by boys. Also, it recently submitted a proposal to the HRD Ministry to have two full-time counsellors in each school — while that is being discussed, another eight suicides have been reported so far this year.