A cry for help, a call for reflection and action

The unyielding quest for scholastic distinction often causes many an Indian student to go into a spiral, with tragic outcomes

Updated - March 27, 2024 03:00 am IST

Published - March 27, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘It is crucial to create an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance’

‘It is crucial to create an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The current socio-academic climate in India raises significant concerns in the context of the nurturing of students. The transformation of socio-economic dynamics is not only instilling a sense of despondency among youth but is also becoming a cause for stress in their academic endeavours. This often causes students to go into a spiral, manifesting itself tragically in a spate of suicides.

Take for example, reports of a note that a teenager from Bihar wrote before fading away in Kota, Rajasthan (the hub of tuition/coaching). The stress that the child was facing was evident in the reference to the ‘Joint Entrance Examination’ (JEE) that the child was preparing for. In 2023, there were reports of youngsters preparing for various competitive exams in Kota ending their lives. Based on police records, 15 students faded away in 2022; 18 in 2019 and 20 in 2018. There was negligible data during the COVID-19 pandemic years of 2020-21 when traditional coaching centres were either closed or operated virtually.

Coaching and student welfare in Kota

Every year, over 2,00,000 aspirants from every corner of India flock to Kota in pursuit of ‘academic excellence’, to prepare rigorously for ‘coveted’ entrance examinations such as the JEE and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), the gateways to engineering and medical education in India, respectively. Enrolling in its residential coaching institutes, they ensure that Kota’s economy thrives — an impressive annual revenue of “approximately ₹10,000 crore” due to these educational pursuits.

While the children pursue their goals, the management of these institutes have taken several significant, yet sombre, measures. Hostels have now been equipped with ‘anti-suicide features’ that include devices fixed to ceiling fans to prevent children from harming themselves and iron grills across balconies and passage ways. However, it is difficult to maintain uniformity in the approximately 25,000 paying guest accommodations in Kota.

In another preventive measure, the local government has stopped all routine testing in coaching institutes for over two months as a temporary measure. Hostel staff are also being trained and prepared to deal with the welfare of their wards. In the push towards professional development there is specialised training in mess administration, psychological support, behavioural counselling and an emphasis on overall student welfare. The Kota police have pushed hostel wardens to become more proactive by endorsing campaigns such as “darwaze pe dastak (knock on door),” while kitchen workers and meal service providers have been encouraged to alert authorities immediately if they notice students missing their meals or leaving their food untouched.

In 2022, according to data in the “Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2022” report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), over 13,044 Indian students ended their lives — 7.6% of the total suicide fatalities in that year. Another grim statistic was that the number of suicides (students) rose from 10,335 in 2019, to 12,526 in 2020, to 13,089 in 2021. As in NCRB data (2018), nearly 95,000 students faded away between 2007-18.

There is also another grim fact. Over half of India’s populace, specifically 53.7%, is made up of individuals under the age of 25. However, a significant barrier to their entry into the labour force is widespread deficiency in essential skills. The last decade has seen a distressing rise in student suicides, which is also connected to a lack of viable job opportunities.

The education system

In contemporary India, the lack of (suitable) job opportunities, a limited number of seats in government institutions and the high fees charged in private institutions have all created a climate where there is intense competition. This is deeply troubling and an issue that requires urgent attention. The relentless strain of competition plays on the young student, which is made worse by the pressures imposed on the child by parents without understanding their child’s wishes. While some are coerced, often relentlessly, into achieving the ‘pinnacle’ of academic excellence, others are urged to aspire for admission in a ‘desired institution’. Many others face harsh criticism for failing to ‘meet expectations’. When the weight of these demands proves unbearable, or their aspirations seem impossible to satisfy, some choose to escape all of this in a tragic way.

An All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report (2019-20), showed that only 21.4% of colleges are under governmental administration, with 78.6% under private entities (as reported by the Union Education Ministry). A study in 2008 in The Lancet revealed that nearly 61% of global suicide fatalities were concentrated in Asia. Numerous families in India (especially in the middle and lower-income brackets), face financial constraints that prevent them from providing their children with supplementary educational resources such as coaching and tuition. This lack of support in turn places immense and intense pressure on students to succeed in examinations of various kinds. A lack of success then leads to tragedy. Additionally, there are numerous instances of faculty members in institutions often chastising students for their subpar academic performance, when they should be offering encouragement and assistance instead.

Society and family expectations

In contemporary Indian society, there is a noticeable shift in family structures with a weakening of crucial connections between children and their families. This in turn impacts a child’s ability to engage with their relatives. Various factors influence a child’s development within the Indian context, in turn affecting social relationships. The lack of establishing strong bonds between parents and children becomes clear when parents impose their academic preferences on their child. Parental control, emotional detachment, and societal expectations contribute to the sidelining of a student’s individual interests. As a result, students grapple with the hurdle of meeting parental standards, especially when they have no innate interest in the subject or course forced upon them. A feature in Indian society is the emphasis on expectations, performance, and personal interests in family interactions. These dynamics can either propel students forward through positive reinforcement or negatively affect them due to socio-economic circumstances.

The inability to satisfy parental expectations can leave young individuals feeling humiliated, dejected, desperate, and harassed. It is crucial to create an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance to cancel out any potential negative consequences for our younger generation.

The unyielding quest for scholastic distinction often overshadows the social facets of a student’s existence, driving them to sacrifice interpersonal bonds and pursuits that are essential for a well-rounded persona. It is disconcerting to find young students voicing their inner turmoil on social media, signalling distress. Educational purveyors themselves fail to provide the requisite emotional scaffolding that these young minds require. Moreover, pupils from socioeconomically underserved communities are confronted with the stark actualities of endemic discrimination, thereby intensifying their hardships.

So, it becomes clear that there is an urgent need for our social infrastructure to grow more supportive and accommodative and support these young lives.

Those in distress are encouraged to seek professional help, visit counsellors or call helplines

Sumant Kumar is Assistant Professor in the Alliance School of Liberal Arts, Alliance University

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