On an early Wednesday evening, a group of about 30 people, mostly women, sing bhajans at the Radha-Krishna temple in the Talwandi area of Kota, Rajasthan. Two walls of the temple are covered with handwritten wishes and messages. Most of them are from the lakhs of aspirants who throng the coaching centres of Kota every year with the hope of getting admission into India’s best engineering and medical colleges.
One message reads, “Sorry, Mom and Dad for not being the best kid of yours. But I’m trying hard. God, help me become a good doctor.”
Some of the messages are high up on the walls. The students must have stood on tall tables or climbed on shoulders to write them. A caretaker says at least 500 students visit the temple daily.
Among the devotees is Prince Kumar, 19, an aspirant of the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (Undergraduate) or NEET-UG at the Allen Career Institute in Kota. NEET-UG is the nationwide test held for admission to MBBS and BDS degree courses. Prince, who hails from Nalanda in Bihar, fell short of 13 marks in securing a seat in a government medical college.
“I did not have the courage to tell my parents about the result. Selection ke bina ghar jana sahi nahi hai (It’s not right to go back home without getting selected),” he says.
Prince says he has not been able to focus on his studies since the results were published on June 13. He says, “I came to this temple to find the answer to a question: Should I start from scratch or just pack up and go home?”
A spate of deaths
Kota, home to nearly 100 coaching institutes, which prepare students for NEET and the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), a national-level exam conducted for admission into engineering colleges, is seen as a city for the hopeful. It hosts more than 2 lakh JEE and NEET-UG aspirants at present, according to district administration officials. Most of the students arrive from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities and villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and, increasingly, Gujarat. Many parents take hefty education loans to send their children to Kota, in the expectation that they will study hard and secure a bright future for themselves.
However, Kota has been facing a grim reality of late. This year, the police say 23 aspirants have killed themselves, with six deaths recorded in August alone. This is the highest number since 2013, when 26 aspirants took their lives. The figure stood at 15 in 2022. According to data from the Kota Police, 118 aspirants have taken their lives between 2014 and 2023. Prince says he has just returned from a student-mentor session at his institute amid the rising numbers of students dying by suicide.
The alarming data have woken up the authorities. Late last month, the Rajasthan government formed a high-level committee to suggest preventive measures. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot held a dialogue with Kota’s coaching centre operators in Jaipur on August 18. The Kota district administration also ordered a halt on conducting tests and exams at the coaching centres for two months. Superintendent of Police (City) Sharad Choudhary told The Hindu that the local police have sent a proposal to the government to set up a student police station in the city. The Kota Police have also formed a ‘student cell’ headed by Assistant Superintendent of Police Thakur Chandrasheel Kumar to visit hostels, messes, coaching centres, and other points where students congregate, to help distressed aspirants.
Nitin Vijay, founder of the Motion Education coaching centre, with the slightly bizarre tagline ‘Motion hai to bharosa hai (Where there’s motion, there’s faith)’, says if the dream of securing a top rank can attract lakhs of students to the city, disturbing news can equally repel them. “Kota cannot take these suicides lightly,” he says.
‘No friendship, only competition’
Neighbourhoods such as Kunadi-Landmark City, Vigyaan Nagar, Mahavir Nagar, Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, Jawahar Nagar, Indraprastha Industrial Area, and Talwandi are generally packed with students at any time of the day. In the evening, the hundreds of food joints and tiffin centres that have come up over the years are chock-a-block with students. Hoardings featuring bright-eyed children advertise various coaching centres. Students of different institutes can be distinguished by their uniforms, merchandised T-shirts, bags, ID cards, and even umbrellas. Grey and green are most predominant. They represent Allen, the largest coaching centre with 1.25 lakh students enrolled across 23 campuses in Kota.
At Lokhith Residency, which accommodates about 400 girls and 250 boys, Jyoti Yadav, 17, a NEET-UG aspirant at Allen, studies for at least 16 hours a day. She sleeps for only 4-5 hours. “This is my second year in Kota and my only focus is on getting selected at AIIMS, Delhi,” she says.
Jyoti admits she has no close friends in hostel or in class. She has not been around Rajasthan’s third-largest city known for its history, or even the mall nearby. “All of these are distractions,” she says. “I have missed many family functions because one of my teachers scolded a classmate for going home for her sister’s wedding.”
Jyoti ‘winds down’ by studying. She says, “On Sundays, I study even more.” She does not believe students can take their lives because they may feel overwhelmed.
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But in this city, which bears the disproportionate weight of aspiration, focus has given way to fear. Students worry that the limelight on suicides is hampering their studies, while parents are concerned that these deaths may disturb their children. Hostel wardens and owners fret that parents might call their children back home, and coaching centre owners fear they may see poor results and reduced admissions.
At his room on the third floor of Silver Spoon Boys Hostel in Indraprastha Industrial Area, Raikhik Saha, 18, a NEET aspirant from West Bengal’s Cooch Behar, sits with his father Sujit Saha, who is visiting him. Raikhik, who earlier took classes at a local institute back home, says Kota’s “atmosphere” is better to prepare for competitive exams. “Seeing so many people do better than you pushes you to work harder,” he says. “But the same atmosphere can also put you under a lot of stress. Students who want to study don’t even have half an hour to relax. There is no friendship in Kota, only competition.”
Sujit, a primary school teacher, folds his hands and hugs Raikhik as the conversation moves to the recent spate of suicides. “Please don’t talk about these things. I don’t want to visualise it,” he says in Bengali as his eyes brim with tears.
At another hostel, Stanzin Lhmao and Sonam Chuskit, both 18 and from Ladakh, have come to Kota after preparing for JEE at Bengaluru’s Narayana Coaching Center for two years. They say their parents are worried about the deaths.
The warden of Silver Spoon Boys Hostel, Rupa Barui, came to Kota to live with her son in 2019 when he was preparing for JEE. “My son got admission in a good college,” she says. “But I chose to stay back when the hostel owner offered me the job.” Barui has now enrolled her daughter, a student of Class VII, at a coaching centre. Like Barui, several parents have now moved to Kota so that their children “don’t get distracted”.
Barui says the disturbing news of deaths has left many parents worried. “If a student misses one call from home, the parents immediately call me many times to check on the child,” she says.
The business model
In Kota, there are foundation, running, and dropper batches. In foundation batches, institutes prepare children from as early as Class VII for competitive exams. Running batches are for students of Classes XI and XII and dropper batches are for those who have finished schooling.
While most students have two cards — one for identity and one for attendance — there is a select set of students at all the coaching centres who have three. The third card gives them access to extra facilities such as unlimited library time, laboratories, classes by the best teachers, and great scholarships. This set is called the ‘Star Batch’. Institutes believe that these students have the best chance of securing top ranks.
Pinaki Nandi, who has taken a break from his job in West Bengal to stay in Kota with his daughter, alleges that all the institutes only focus on the Star Batch’ students. “There is little focus on average students. That is why after one year, my daughter left Allen. She is taking classes from a local teacher,” he says.
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A senior police officer in Kota explains that this is the business model for institutes. “If an institute has 100 ‘Star Batch’ students, it knows that it can attract thousands more if and when their faces appear on hoardings with ranks,” he says. “In reality, most of these students can crack these exams without the institutes. That is why many institutes pay these students to enroll with them and even provide them accommodation.”
A hostel owner says, “Some institutes even control their lives. They barely let the children meet their parents until exams are over.”
About 10 students sit in queue outside the psychology counsellor’s room at Allen’s campus, Sabal. To tackle the rising cases of depression, most institutes in Kota have, over the years, hired counsellors. Allen told The Hindu that every day, it receives more than 100 calls from students on its helpline for mental health a day. The company that was founded in 1988 in the initial boom, has one mental health professional for every 2,016 students.
Police officers and mental health experts say students are struggling to cope with the vast syllabus, parental pressure, and competition apart from dealing with the regular growing pains of the teen years. Dr. M. L. Agrawal, a psychiatrist based here, says, “Most students come to Kota around the age of 16. While some come with their own dreams, many are also sent by their parents who want them to fulfil their expectations. And they feel lost in the crowd.”
In the Landmark City area, Anusha, 17, a NEET-UG aspirant, says she wants to become a wildlife photographer. “But I am here because my parents want me to study medicine,” she rues.
Dr. Agrawal says many children who stood first in class in school sometimes score poorly in their first test in Kota. “Then, things take a stressful turn. I have got students whose parents have told them not to come home without getting selected. This makes the child feel guilty. Parents keep reminding their children how much money has been spent on their education.”
He equally blames coaching centres. “The syllabus is taught so fast that the students can’t afford to get ‘distracted’ by relationships, their family, or even their health,” he says.
Dr. Agrawal runs an NGO, Hope Society, to help distressed students. He says people fail to identify signs of poor mental health. “Everybody will have to be attentive. If a child is skipping meals, classes, or hostel activities, we need to engage with them,” he says. The coaching institutes are “not serious about this problem” and their counsellors are “not qualified enough,” he says.
He also opposes ‘Dummy Schools’ where schoolgoing aspirants are enrolled only so that they can write their board exams. These students don’t attend school, though; they attend coaching classes instead.
Sameer Bansal is the managing director of Bansal Classes. His father, Vinod Kumar Bansal, is credited to have started the coaching ‘industry’ in Kota after several children he tutored secured admission in prestigious institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). Sameer also advocates for a balance between school life and exam preparation. “I agree that NEET and JEE require rigorous preparation. But we should have an arrangement where a student gets to attend school at least 2-3 days a week,” he says.
Vijay believes that studying a lot does not guarantee selection. “It is a mix of right working hours and strategy,” he says. He feels that teachers in Kota have not helped students strategise better. Vijay also admits that rivalry among institutes has led them to take extreme measures which have burdened the students.
Bansal advocates the reintroduction of the screening test before admission in coaching institutes, to reduce the number of students and improve the quality of education. “If a child fails the test and has consistently scored poorly in school, it is probably better to counsel them to opt for an alternate career option,” he says.
Vijay, however, bats for a more lenient approach. “I failed the test of Bansal Classes in 2000. I studied elsewhere and made it to IIT. We can take an IQ or psychometric test to check the child’s ability, but we cannot ask a student from a metro and another one from a village in Bihar to take the same test. That is not equity,” he argues.
Multiple teachers and students oppose the district administration’s decision to halt the regular tests. Gazala Amrin, 18, from Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh, says she came to Kota to write these exams. “This gap will only increase the pressure on us as we won’t be able to practise the syllabus covered so far,” says Gazala.
Her friends concur. “We came to Kota because of the challenges it poses,” they say.
Meanwhile, on the Chambal waterfront, teens take a turn — at least the few who are willing to breathe in the wonder of their youth.
(With inputs from Mohammed Iqbal)
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