Rising student suicides shock Kota, India’s coaching capital

Nearly two dozen students have taken their lives in Kota in the past eight months. What’s killing them?

Published : Sep 07, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Students in Kota returning after classes on August 31. The city is packed with hostels and coaching institutes.

Students in Kota returning after classes on August 31. The city is packed with hostels and coaching institutes. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

On August 27, a Sunday, Rajasthan’s Kota, the city of coaching centres, displayed a unique mix of emotions, like the goddess with a tear in one eye and a smile in the other. Amidst the festivities of the “Smiling Kota” campaign, which was organised by top students’ hostel associations and the local administration and which drew as many as 80,000 students, two young aspirants to success died by suicide.

Every dream in Kota carries a hushed sigh, every success a tinge of sorrow. Avishkar Shambaji Kasle and Adarsh Raj were among the several students who stayed away from the celebrations because of some routine class tests. Minutes after taking the test in the afternoon session at his coaching centre, Kasle, 17, of Maharashtra, took his life. A little later, in a separate incident, Adarsh Raj, 18, a resident of Bihar, took his life in the rented apartment where he lived.

This brings the number of students who have died by suicide in Kota in August to five. As many as 23 students have reportedly died by suicide in Kota this year; 15 took the extreme step in 2022, one in 2021, four in 2020, eight in 2019, 12 in 2018, and 10 in 2017. In most cases, either police investigations are pending or the reason for suicide is stated as stress over low test scores.

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A police helpline has reportedly received distress calls from about 50 troubled students in the past two months alone. On August 22, a student said to be depressed over poor scores in his tests was found unconscious in his room but was luckily saved in time.

“Whenever a student suicide is reported, we inform the parents, keep the scene intact, and wait for their arrival. We register a case as per their wishes and start inquest proceedings. The final report is then submitted to the Sub Divisional Magistrate concerned,” Sharad Choudhary, Kota Superintendent of Police, told Frontline. “We help the aggrieved families in every way possible and arrange for the transportation of the bodies back to their homes.”

‘The new Kashi’ of education

The “gold rush” to Kota began in the early 1990s. It earned the sobriquet “the new Kashi” of education after Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the city. Currently, as many as 1.77 lakh students from all over India are enrolled in nine major institutes, including Allen Career Institute, Motion Education, Resonance, Bansal, Aakash, Career Point, Physics Wallah, and Unacademy. The coaching institutes are the city’s economic lifeline, and it has at least 4,000 students’ hostels and over 40,000 paying guest facilities.

The city’s landscape is dotted with advertisements of test-prep centres and hostel facilities. Huge banners showing pictures of NEET and JEE toppers cover the walls of coaching institutes and hostels. Every year, the coaching institutes hold roadshows with garlanded students perched atop jeeps. Aspiring students look at the achievers as celebrities.

Advertisements of coaching centres at the entrance of Kota railway station.

Advertisements of coaching centres at the entrance of Kota railway station. | Photo Credit: R. V. Moorthy

The recent episodes have raised questions about the Kota model of education. A general impression among former aspirants is that coaching institutes and teachers are only concerned about business growth or career advancement. In such an approach, the students become mere pawns. Besides, the student-teacher ratio in Kota’s coaching factories seems to be abysmally low. There are various other factors as well that contribute to low self-esteem and mental fatigue among students.

A study by Lissun, a mental wellness platform, in May this year claimed that four out of 10 students in Kota were struggling with depression and eight out of 10 were anxious or stressed. A significant number of students come from low-income families, with the burden of parental expectations that they will become doctors or engineers weighing heavily on them.

“There is a pressing need to formulate SOPs for all stakeholders,” said Nitin Vijay, a teacher and CEO at Motion Education. “Students also need to understand that success doesn’t lie in being selected. Success is defined by the process, which involves routine study at Kota or elsewhere and learning the discipline for hard work in life.” He did not mention whether coaches at the many tuition centres were giving students this advice.

Institutions do provide counselling, but many students find it hard to keep up with the daily study cycle of 12-14 hours. “One has to follow the routine every day. No one likes to wake up at 5 am, study, attend classes, revise classwork, and eat the same hostel food each day,” said Vikas Kumar, a student. He said he listened to music to refresh his mind or talked to his parents and friends over the phone.

While parents are reportedly rushing to Kota to be with their wards, both Avishkar Shambaji Kasle and Adarsh Raj, who took their lives in August, already lived with family members. Manish Prajapat, a JEE aspirant, was reported dead immediately after a visit from his father. The source of student stress needs more investigation.

  • Rajasthan’s Kota, India’s coaching capital, is grappling with a surge in student suicides, driven by the immense pressure to excel in professional entrance exams.
  • The combination of rigorous test preparation, long study hours, and parental expectations exert great pressure on the mental well-being of students.
  • Despite recent measures taken by the authorities and coaching institutes, there is a growing need for comprehensive mental health support and guidance to address the crisis.

Blame game

Following the reports, there has been a growing demand for regulating the coaching sector. Terming the owners of the institutions “mafia”, Rajasthan Cabinet Minister Pratap Singh Khachariyawas said: “They are not interested in students’ welfare but only in minting money.” Another Minister, Mahesh Joshi, urged the Central government to ban private coaching and take effective steps to provide quality education in government schools. Minister of Higher Education Rajendra Singh Yadav slammed the coaching institutes for becoming “completely commercial”.

The political blame game has begun, with Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the BJP’s Lok Sabha member from Jaipur, accusing the Congress State government of putting the youth in a vulnerable situation. “Instead of taking positive steps, the Ashok Gehlot government has been issuing irresponsible statements,” he said. Coaching institutes should not be banned, he said.

On the basis of a petition, the Rajasthan High Court issued an order on September 12, 2022, directing the State government to issue guidelines for coaching institutes and provide psychological support and security for students. Following this, on November 11, 2022, the State government issued guidelines for “effective control” of coaching institutes. The government also informed the court that it would of its intention to enact the Rajasthan Coaching Institute (Control and Regulation) Bill.

This May, the court took suo motu cognisance of the rising number of incidents and asked Attorney General Nyaya Mitra and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to give suggestions to address the issue.

The State government has already invited suggestions from the public to address the situation and set up a committee to study the living conditions of students. Meanwhile, rented apartments and hostels have been advised to install spring-loaded ceiling fans. But, in the case of Abhishek Yadav, 17, a NEET aspirant, even this did not prove a deterrent. This is an indication that superficial responses that address secondary issues instead of the root cause are bound to fail.

“The number of suicides in Rajasthan is 633, which is less than in other States, but the government is serious and sensitive towards the issue,” Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said in a statement after he ordered officials to set up a committee that will submit a report in 15 days. “It is time for corrective measures.”

According to Shiju Joseph, a Kerala-based teacher and counsellor, parents need to abandon conventional thinking. “NEET and JEE aspirants are teenagers. It is a stage when they are learning to think rationally and broadly. They need mental grooming and proper career counselling at this point,” he said.

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Uma Joshi, a psychologist and former director of Amity Institute of Behavioural and Allied Sciences, Rajasthan, stressed on “urgent measures to check the rise in copycat suicides” in Kota. “Students pay more than Rs.5 lakh as coaching fee. When they realise they won’t be able to clear the entrance exam, there should be a provision to refund the fee. Otherwise, students are left with a nagging feeling of guilt about wasting their parents’ money,” she said. Students need to be told that their lives matter more to their families than the money.

On August 28, Kota District Collector Om Prakash Bunkar held a meeting with the representatives of coaching institutes and hostel associations for a detailed discussion on measures to check suicides. “Steps are being taken to provide psychological support and security to students,” he said. “Besides Sunday, we have now decided that the coaching institutes will hold ‘half-day study, half-day fun’ every Wednesday. They will not conduct routine tests for the next two months.”

Many see this as band-aid solutions to a complex issue. “We only have a little time to clear our backlog. We have to compete nationally. Students in the rest of the country are preparing as usual. We are afraid that after two months our burden will increase manifold,” said Ankita Shree, a NEET aspirant. Nobody we spoke to seemed to have an answer to that. More important, nobody is speaking of providing counselling to ambitious parents.

Please seek expert help to overcome depressive or suicidal thoughts. KIRAN 1800-599-0019 OR Aasra 9820466726 are 24/7 helplines.

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