In the Talwandi area of Kota stands the Radha Krishna temple, which is frequented by students, not only to seek blessings before their exams but to express their innermost feelings. Scribbled on the ‘walls of wishes’ inside the temple are sentences like ‘Please fulfil my father’s wish, make me the first doctor of my family’ or ‘I hope not to disappoint my parents this time’.
The temple administration allows these students to scribble. They simply re-paint the walls after a few months so that more students can use them to express their fears, anger, frustration, disappointment, dejection, stress or mental pressure. The cycle continues. Just like the cycle of lakhs of aspiring doctors and engineers arriving in Kota, year after year, and some of these young students succumbing to the unimaginable pressure and dying by suicide, year after year—18 deaths in 2019, 20 in 2018, seven in 2017, 17 in 2016, 18 in 2015. In 2023, there have already been 23 deaths by suicide.
The competition is killing. Hundreds of billboards jostling for space on the streets of Kota is proof. The aim of the coaching centres spread across the city is to sell to lakhs of students aiming for medical and IIT seats an unrealistic dream—that they can crack NEET and JEE. These dreams often turn into nightmares once the gruelling sessions begin.
The colour of t-shirts distinguishes one student from the other and the names of coaching centres imprinted on them can’t be missed. From 7 AM, the streets are abuzz with students rushing for their classes. They get back to their hostels and temporary accommodations by evening, after which they dedicate the next 5-6 hours to self-study. The walls in the rooms are filled with notes, important formulas, theorems or the periodic table, constantly reminding them that cracking these entrance exams is the only thing that should matter to them while they are in Kota. Images of gods and goddesses and motivational quotes probably give them the strength to deal with the pressure.
The tightly packed courses attract students as young as 14 and 15. They leave their homes and families behind and come to Kota. While for some, it’s a matter of a year or so, for the rest, it’s several years of attempts and breaks ... and breakdowns. On August 28, the deaths by suicide of two students, 17 and 18, in less than four hours exposed the underbelly of the ‘Kota factory’.
The schedule of these students is so packed that they don’t have the time to make friends or have real conversations. Loneliness is their constant companion.
Shruti and Sneha (names changed), both 16, hail from the same village in Nagpur. Both NEET aspirants, they moved to Kota in April. Belonging to the families of farmers, they wish to make their parents proud. “Our families often discussed how respectable it is to be a doctor,” they say.
Life before Kota was more balanced. It wasn’t confined to studies. Sneha would spend quality time with her parents and friends, and also had enough time to do embroidery, something that she loved. She would spend her Sundays sewing clothes using colourful threads. Now, life is confined mostly to the four walls of coaching centres. Sundays are spent revising and re-revising.
She lives in a hostel in the Indraprasth Industrial Area, where the rent ranges from Rs 13,000-20,000 a month. They say that they miss their school life a lot and are still adjusting to the Kota life. While talking about her friends back home, Shruti says: “At times, I experience a particular feeling that I am not able to share with anyone. I feel very stuck. The feeling lasts for a few minutes and it takes over my mind and body.”
After the recent deaths, the police have set up a dedicated 13-member ‘student cell’ that aims to meet students and detect early signs of depression. The cell, comprising police personnel, is tasked with visiting different hostels and urging students to reach out to them in case they feel stressed out. These “friends” of students are now doubling up as counsellors. But how comfortable would the students be?
“Whether they arrive in uniform or plain clothes, I won’t be able to open up to them. I would feel more comfortable if a therapist or counsellor is accompanying them. Have they trained to deal with mental health issues?” asks a student, 19. He hails from Shahabad in Madhya Pradesh and has been in Kota for the past 1.5 years, taking his second attempt at NEET.
The team works all week long and visits seven to eight premises a day. Overburdened with the additional task of having to ‘counsel’ students, Sonal Sharma, Assistant Sub-Inspector, says: “While we reach out to students to help them, we have nowhere to go when we need a break. This is having a negative impact on our own children.”
Sharma says those who are identified with symptoms of depression are referred to Dr Surbhi Goyal, a doctor turned psychotherapist, who works closely with the team. She says that the mental health condition of students is intertwined with several factors that trickle down primarily to their socio-economic backgrounds.
At times, parents, knowingly or unknowingly, put undue pressure on children, pushing some of them to take extreme steps, feels Thakur Chandrahseel, Additional SP, Kota. He shares that out of the average 2.5 lakh students who come to Kota each year, most are from lower middle-class backgrounds. The parents spend about Rs 1.5 lakh per year to meet the coaching expenses. “When these students arrive, they bring with them the additional burden of the financial crisis because some parents are forced to go the extra mile, like mortgaging or selling land. These students live with constant guilt and pressure to meet expectations,” he says. When some of these students fail to secure the required marks, the families push them to give a second attempt, forcing them to stick to the Kota life.
Hence, most students feel stuck. “Life in Kota disconnects you from the world outside,” says Goyal, who has been working with students for the past 20 years. “Children, who are supposed to be under the care of their parents, who have not yet attained a certain level of development of the mind, who are too young to even understand what they want, are uprooted and placed in a highly competitive space,” she says.
When she started her career here as a medical practitioner about two decades ago, she approached one of the reputed coaching centres and said she wanted to focus on the mental health of the children. They dismissed her.
Now, after a spate of suicides, mental health is a part of the narrative. In December 2022, the Rajasthan government proposed a draft law which said that all private coaching centres must have counselling cells. Institutions claim they now have ‘wellness centres’. Also, the big players, who have admitted more than a lakh students, claim they have 60-70 counsellors. However, there is no data to substantiate these claims. While faculty members allege that “counsellors must be willing to come out of their cabins to interact more”, counsellors believe it’s not that easy to have students open up, especially those who have sunk into depression.
It is challenging to understand what these children go through. “We do not know whether the child is suffering from any post-traumatic disorder, what financial burden the child is carrying, we have no idea about their upbringing or if they have any undiagnosed mental health issues. There is no screening and assessment method, but the child is expected to deal with the stress,” says Goyal.
Amit Kumar (name changed), 17, from Siwan, Bihar, who is preparing for JEE, says: “We don’t get a lot of time for anything else. We talk to our parents when we feel overburdened.”
Emphasising the need to build a support system through friends and other extracurricular activities, which seem to be missing in Kota, Goyal says it creates a deficit of the “happy hormones” in the body that automatically pulls down a student who is already stressed.
“Research shows you cannot learn alone and having people around enriches your social and academic environment. But what is happening in Kota is contradictory to how an education environment should be,” says Anita Rampal, former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University, and the chairperson of the NCERT Textbook Development Committees.
For many students, coming to terms with mental health issues or dealing with them are alien concepts. Most belong to families of farmers and hail from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, where they admit the education system does not do justice to their dreams and aspirations. And then there is peer pressure.
Amit Yadav (name changed), 19, who is from UP’s Gorakhpur, has only seen his father toiling in the fields. His brother came to Kota, he followed. Sachin, 18, also from Gorakhpur, found out about the JEE only after he was made to write the entrance exam after his 12th board. They have no idea how their parents have arranged for funds.
The chronic obsession with medical, engineering, or the act of reducing education into the market-driven mythologies of ‘placements and salary packages’ has corrupted the vision of the anxiety-ridden and insecure middle-class in search of upward social mobility, says Avijit Pathak, former professor of sociology, JNU. “No wonder, we are destroying young minds; we are killing great possibilities. Possibly, one who could have become a good historian or a sensitive cultural anthropologist is forced to believe that nothing matters more in life than the technical strategy provided by coaching centre ‘gurus’ and their ‘knowledge capsules’ needed for cracking all sorts of life-negating standardised tests,” he adds.
In confronting the Kota conundrum, one also faces the challenges of business motives impacting the education of children. Pramod Maheshwari, one of the pioneering and oldest educators and entrepreneurs, believes that a lack of assessment and entrance examinations is where one takes the wrong turn. Most institutions in Kota do not conduct entrance exams and admit thousands of students every year.
“When everyone is admitted, without any screening, the competition goes up. By mid-session, even when tutors realise that a chunk of these students are not able to cope with what the course demands, they don’t send them back because there is an inflow of money. They are given false hope and motivation,” he says.
These students, who are ensnared into the trap of ‘motivational talks’, are often as young as 15 and 16. They enrol themselves in ‘dummy schools’ in their respective states and come to Kota. The 16-year-old student who died by suicide recently was living in Kota since 2021. “This is outright a criminal act. Institutions here, which are admitting such young students, without a screening are admitting a crime,” Maheshwari believes.
Rampal feels these children should not be anywhere in the killing fields of this competitive space. “If you look at the RTE Act (Section 3(1)), the fundamental Right to Education requires a child between six and 14 years to be in a neighbourhood school for good quality elementary education. The fundamental right gets violated if young children are being put through a competitive environment severely cut off from the nurturing local school environment,” she says.
She feels some kind of assessment is necessary. “Who and how does a child end up in Kota? Besides, ensnaring to admit a young child here, far from the care and support of home and friends, can be grossly exploitative, by the pressures of a sinister market,” she adds.
“The more acutely competitive or selective an exam is the more it tests the social advantage of a student and not what she understands and learns”—this is why Rampal says the effectiveness of such highly competitive exams needs to be examined.
A system that has grown to focus on the ‘end’ (goal) without understanding the ‘means’ also sheds light on the MCQ-centric format, which gratifies a process of instant elimination. “The MCQ-centric standardised tests are a conspiracy against life-affirming/meaningful education, the spirit of critical pedagogy, and self-reflexivity. It destroys analytical/argumentative thoughts; it kills subjective/qualitative articulations; it simplifies an otherwise nuanced, complex reality,” says Pathak.
This ‘Kota factory’ will keep on churning. Every year, trains full of students will end up in Kota. The only positive that has emerged in recent years is that people are at least talking about the mental health of students. On the train that left Kota for Nizamuddin in Delhi, a few people were discussing students’ suicide. When the train reached Delhi, everyone got up, jostled, and hurriedly gathered their luggage. A man quipped: “Jaldi sabko hai. Jana kaha hai pata nahi.”
(This appeared in the print as 'The Kota Life')