Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs), the Centre’s pace-setting boarding schools, face a serious challenge. An investigation by this paper has revealed that 49 students have committed suicide in the past five years. Half of those who took their own lives were from Dalit and tribal families, raising serious questions over the milieu in these schools, which were envisaged as institutions providing “talented rural children” with “quality education comparable to the best in a residential school system”.
Set up in 1986, the JNVs have earned a reputation for excelling in board examinations. Since 2012, these schools have consistently recorded a pass percentage of over 99 per cent in Class 10 and over 95 per cent in Class 12, which is far better than the CBSE’s national average. But the incidents of suicide witnessed in these residential schools since 2013 have cast a shadow. In 2015, the deaths caught the attention of the National Human Rights Commission. It asked the Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) — the autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) that runs the Navodaya schools — to take immediate remedial measures. In response, the Samiti issued a circular to the management of individual JNVs that seemed to recognise the gravity of the problem. It acknowledged that “students from varied backgrounds” take time to adjust to the residential culture of the schools and identified “home-sickness, depression, adolescence-related issues and the failure to meet parents’ expectations” as the major causes for the suicides. Significantly, the circular also recognised the importance of “proper counselling”. “Counselling sessions must be conducted on the spot when unusual behaviour, depression or insult feelings are observed in any student,” it stressed.
The Samiti’s instructions remain largely on paper. Navodaya campuses do not have trained counsellors and the onus of looking after the emotional well-being of the students is on the school principal and the house master. In at least 32 of the 49 suicides, disciplinary action was initiated against either the school principal or teachers. But these are knee-jerk reactions. Already saddled with non-teaching responsibilities — mess management, for example — a teacher with no professional training in spotting subtle changes in behaviour is unlikely to notice suicidal tendencies in a student. And, according to the NVS records, less than 2 per cent of the Navodaya teachers have completed the NCERT’s course in clinical counselling in the past 15 years. The NVS has requested the HRD ministry to sanction two counsellors for every Navodaya school. The ministry must accede to this request urgently.