Trigger warning: The following article has references to suicide. Please avoid reading if you feel distressed by the subject.
To reach the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, (IIT-H) from a village close to Odisha’s Mahanadi river, in Subarnapur district, D. Subarna (name changed to protect identity), 23, travelled by bus, train, and a cab. When she finally arrived on July 26, at the 576-acre campus, where she was enrolled in IIT-H for the M.Tech programme, the weather was not very different from what she had left behind: it was warm and cloudy.
The landscape though, would have been a stark contrast, from the green fields that her parents cultivated as farmers, to IIT-H’s multi-storeyed angular grey building, a testimony to the institution’s focus on “inventions and innovations”. The 60-metre-tall residential towers of IIT-H come into view from 6 kilometres away, on the Sangareddy Highway.
Bhignaraj Meher, who is from a neighbouring village in Odisha and was Subarna’s local guardian, says, “I showed her around the campus. She seemed happy and said that she would love to study here.” But on August 8, Subarna took her life, leaving behind a note in Odiya in the Roman script. “I never thought it would end like this,” says Meher, an associate director at an IT company. He accompanied Subarna’s body back to her village, traversing the same journey she had taken just a few days earlier.
This is the second alleged suicide within a month at IIT-H. The first was S. Kumar (name changed), 20, a second year B.Tech student who went missing from the college hostel. His body was found on a Visakhapatnam beach, with police believing that he too had taken his life.
On July 9, an IIT Delhi student died by suicide in his hostel room. And in Kota, Rajasthan, the crucible of coaching for the IITs, 20 students desperate to crack entrance exams to the country’s top education institutions, have killed themselves this year alone. Last night a 17-year-old ended his life on the campus of a coaching institute in Madhapur, on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
Data tabled in the Rajya Sabha on July 26 shows that 8,139 students belonging to other backward classes (OBCs) and minority communities have dropped out of IITs over the past five years. In the years between 2018 and 2023, 35 of them died, as per data furnished in the Lok Sabha by the Union Minister of Education Dharmendra Pradhan on April 3 this year.
To another query in the Rajya Sabha on July 26, Subhas Sarkar, Minister of State for Education, said, that in 2018, there were 21 suicides in institutions of higher learning; in 2019, the number dropped to 19; in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, suicides dropped to seven; and in 2021 it remained at seven. But when colleges reopened fully last year, the number shot up to 24. This year, there have been 20 suicides already.
While the reasons for young adults taking their lives are complex, with many contributing factors, students are vulnerable, with 8% (13,089 victims) of the suicides in India from this group, as per 2021 data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Within the female population, students formed the second highest number, after housewives. Along with sometimes difficult personal histories, academic rigour and social hierarchies contribute to the challenges.
Shock in Odisha
Subarna, who had three brothers, had graduated with a B.Tech degree from Veer Surendra Sai University of Technology (VSSUT) in Burla, Odisha. Her family has not been able to come to terms with her death. They feel it was foul play — that either she was killed or forced to take the step, and say they will file a complaint with the local Birmaharajpur police station seeking a fair probe into her death.
“Her life’s motto was ‘never say die’. She could not have taken this extreme step,” says one of her father’s brothers. “She had struggled hard to reach a metropolitan city like Hyderabad from our small village, and she had just got there,” he adds. “It is difficult to believe she would have come under academic pressure in just a fortnight.” He says she would have got a stipend of ₹12,000 since she had passed the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE).
Subarna’s parents, originally from a Scheduled Caste (SC) fisherfolk community, cultivate rice. Her father’s three brothers though, own 10 trucks, and claim that finances are pooled into a single bank account for the extended family, so that all the children can study and prosper.
“She had studied hard during her school days and scored above 75% in Class XII,” an uncle says. Then she appeared for the joint entrance exam, and on her second attempt was eligible for admission into the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela. The family opted for the institute at Burla instead, where she graduated with a degree in B.Tech, civil engineering.
Her uncle adds that she had been independent, taking part in counselling (where a stream of study is allocated) and arranging for hostel accommodation on her own.
Grief in Telangana
About 150 km from Hyderabad is Water Tank Thanda, a tribal hamlet of about 1,500 people, in Telangana’s Nalgonda district. Sushila (name changed) points to the mango tree under which her son was buried. Much like Subarna’s village, this one too, is a sea of emerald paddy fields.
It was from this remote hamlet reached by a mud track hugging the railway line between Vijayawada and Hyderabad that Kumar began his life on October 17, 2003 at 5.30 p.m. The journey ended at 5.30 p.m. on another Friday in 2023, when his mother identified the body of her son on the basis of his footwear in a morgue at the King George Hospital in Visakhapatnam.
Kumar was in the fifth semester of Mathematics and Computing. In IIT parlance, he had three ‘backlogs’; he had to repeat three subjects.
Sitting on a plastic chair, hands on his lap, Kumar’s father tries to make sense of the loss. An education counsellor at a university, with M.A. and B.Ed degrees, he and his wife, a teacher, prepped Kumar for the elite IIT course from the time he was 12. While his sister was a day scholar, he stayed in a hostel.
His family speaks the Lambadi or Labanki language of the once nomadic tribe he was a part of, but Kumar was fluent only in Telugu, Hindi, and English. “He didn’t even know my language,” wails his mother, crying every time she thinks about him.
It begins to rain. Kumar’s father talks about their lost hopes and aspirations for their son, who had secured a free seat at a local coaching institute. “But I wanted him to be a topper, so I enrolled him at another that showed better results,” he says. The coaching institute he went to currently has 6 lakh students on its rolls. In the first year he aced his exams, entering the 0 section, where only those who fare well are assigned to.
In 2020, COVID-19 hit, and Kumar’s classes went online. “But he never shirked hard work,” says his father. Among the books in his room is A Modern Approach to Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning, a 1,568-page tome. A cousin his age, who remembers dragging Kumar to a wedding, remembers that it was around then that he began to withdraw. “He remained immersed in Manga (Japanese graphic novels) which he devoured online,” he says. His mother too noticed that he would push away his favourite foods: chicken fry, chocolate biscuits, payasam.
The word Telugu speakers use for getting a rank is kotesadu, which can be roughly translated as ‘score’. “He was the first person from our thanda (hamlet) to get a rank in IIT. He was at 212 [in the ST category, much lower down in the general category],” says a relative.
Seven students in the country from the SC/ST/OBC category have ended their lives in an IIT over the last five years, according to data tabled in the Rajya Sabha. Subarna and Kumar are two more.
A world apart
The IIT-H campus is well guarded. No one other than a student or staff member can come and go, entry and exit are logged, and there are cameras tracking movements.
“We have a psychological counselling team called Sunshine,” says one of Kumar’s branch- and pod-mates. The phone numbers of the student support group and psychologists are shared online. “They can also be found on boards in office buildings and other locations accessed by students,” says Phani Bhushan, a counsellor with the Sunshine team, hesitant to speak further.
“He didn’t reach out to the counsellors, as far as I know, but having a backlog plays on the mind. You have to repeat the same course with your junior students. That can be embarrassing,” adds the friend. He remembers the panic with which he and several others frantically tried to call Kumar when they realised he was not answering the phone on July 17.
“The students are at the mercy of the professors if they have a backlog. They can insist on a percentage of attendance, sometimes difficult. It affects the CGPA. In a batch of 20 there were 3 to 4 students whose CGPA was under 6.5,” says another student, on the life of students at IIT.
This academic grind begins much before students come to IIT. “We have to reach the classroom by 6 in the morning. Between 7 and 7.30 [a.m.] is breakfast. From 8 [a.m.] to noon we have classes. Lunch is till 1.30 [p.m.] and then classes till 4.30 [p.m.]. After a half-hour snack break, classes continue till 8 in the evening, supervised by junior lecturers. We go back to the room to sleep only at 10 [p.m],” details Sai Suresh (name changed), who was in the same coaching centre as Kumar.
Students may not see sunlight for days on end. In fact, they may not feel the rain on their skin, or grab an impromptu pani-puri from off the street. Hostels are what an IITian in the Netflix series Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream, likened to a jail. Success is a name and photograph in the newspaper declaring an IIT entry. In 2023, 17,385 enrolled at the 23 IITs across India, according to the Joint Seat Allocation Authority.
“For the coaching centres it is business. Students are enrolled in Class VII. The parents pay a fee between ₹80,000 and ₹2 lakh. There are about 5 lakh students studying in various institutions. You can calculate the money that is running this system,” says Eluri Prasad, who taught at the coaching centre that Kumar went to for 15 years, and is an author of physics textbooks for competitive exams. He has now stepped away from this brutally competitive world.
Within the campus, students face different kinds of discrimination, based on ranks (since those from SC/ST/OBC communities come in through reservations), class performance, even language. Isolation, marginalisation, and alienation are all a part of the journey for many.
The IIT-H website says college can “at times tend to get a bit overwhelming and stressful”, and lists everything from “homesickness” and “language issues” to “academic pressure” and “unexplainable laziness” as some of the problems. The institution did not respond to questions around the suicides.
On the IIT-H social media pages, students post messages asking peers to come and have a chat rather than taking an extreme step. There are counter posts too. One says, “Everyone says if any hv depression or anxiety. They can talk us. But if u go to them none wl listen becoz thy want to raise their image posting on social media or pretending to be nice. u r worse than animals.”
Established in 2008, IIT-H is one among the eight new IITs in the country, with approximately 4,200 students on the rolls. With a budgeted layout of ₹300 crore for 2023-24, the aim is to build up the institution’s strength to 20,000 students. It is not clear what the path to student support systems are, besides notice board and online information, as this expansion happens.
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With inputs from Satyasundar Barik