What has gone wrong with IIT-Madras?

October 23, 2015 07:09 pm | Updated July 12, 2016 10:46 pm IST

Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

IIT-Madras > has lost two students in the past month. Yet, a disturbing silence prevails on campus.

I don’t intend to investigate the particular reasons that led these students to take such an extreme step. At this moment, investigating their relationship status or academic records are not relevant, but merely superficial to find a reason to close the case. In the past five years, at least five students I know have chosen to end their lives (we do not how many failed in their attempts). What has gone wrong in an institution that claims to provide professional counselling services as well as peer-to-peer counselling services, where the Guidance and Counselling Unit (GCU) was renamed ‘Mitr’(friend)?

IIT-Madras, probably like other IIT campuses in the country, is a highly competitive one. One of the terms we familiarise ourselves with in our sophomore year is “RG”. RG is a short form for relative grading, and in IIT-M parlance, it refers to anyone who tries to hinder another person from studying so that he gets a better grade. One’s victory only depends on the bad performance of another. Such an academic training only alienates one classmate from another, each living in their own cocoons. The ones who clear the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and enter the much-coveted IITs are the ones who started their JEE coaching as young adolescents. Who worries about the intensive coaching and pressure young minds go through when the result is a degree from the most prestigious institute in the country? Thanks to reservation, IIT Madras now has student representation from backward castes. But, the academic structure in the campus is not revised to suit the needs of everyone equally. The ‘privilege’ acquired through reservation ends with admission; the students are forced to compete in an environment where their worth is measured only by their academic achievements, often subjecting themselves to insults for not performing well. The class/caste backgrounds and its influence on the performance of students are never a serious concern when it comes to academic evaluation. In a way, the entire academic system on campus is exclusive to the set of students hailing from upper caste-upper class backgrounds, who had access to top-notch schooling, good coaching and excellence in English language.

Nevertheless, the hyper-competitive atmosphere in the campus affects everyone in different ways.

It comes as a shock to the ones outside this campus, but inside the campus it is a widely accepted fact that a majority of students are depressed. But, how many of us avail the services provided by the campus? In the latest news report by The Indian Express , the Director has refuted allegations on inefficiencies of Mitr, even after these many suicides on campus. Mitr is a centrally-funded organisation to prevent student suicides. One of the main allegations by the student community against Mitr is the highly moralistic attitude of its coordinators who often spy on students to know if they smoke, drink or are in a relationship. The aura of suspicion around Mitr is also because of the cemented belief that the things shared with Mitr will be held against the students, because the heads of the organisation are professors. Many ask, “if I’m depressed because of this particular professor, and the professor in Mitr is his friend, how can I talk to him about this?” Mitr claims to have provided its student counsellors with professional training on counselling, but we often hear complaints that the student counsellors fail to keep in confidence the things shared with them by students who availed of their services. The administration has also started paying these student coordinators for their service. However, if these services fail to earn the trust of student community, shouldn’t there be a change in thinking about the way in which Mitr functions? I am not talking about taking away counselling, but an urgent re-visioning is required to help students in need.

One of the stringent rules in IIT Madras is of maintaining 100 per cent attendance with an exemption of 15 per cent for medical reasons. Most of the professors are not strict about enforcing it, but if a student goes below the minimum required, he/she is dependent on the professor’s mercy. Additionally, if a student gets two or more “W” grades (a grade allotted for not maintaining 85 per cent attendance), he/she will be expelled from hostel. For the creators of this rule, what diseases did you have in mind when you decided that it will be cured within this 15 per cent you offer? In my own personal experience, after a grievous illness, when I had about 84-85 per cent attendance, my professor advised me, “If it’s a disease like Jaundice, you can go beyond 85. But this...” The poor quality of mess food (which is again compulsory, leaves students with no option but to avail mess food and nothing else) often result in students ending up in hospital due to diarrhoea, or they suffer from weight loss, fever, and low immunity, because they skip meals. The insensitivity of professors towards students is manifested when they trivialise the issues students face or attribute a bad performance in class to laziness. By throwing out the students from hostel for lack of attendance, the administration hopes the students will be corrected under parental care (Yes, they do expect parents to come over and stay with students outside campus). For many students who are sent here, burdened with the hopes of getting placed in a high paying company, bursting their parents’ hopes is unthinkable. Their dissatisfaction with themselves, amplified by such an apathetic situation, cannot be cured unless a serious rethinking happens.

In 2014, there was a discussion on mental health organised by an institute body called the Colloquium. Until the last minute, organisers were unsure if the debate would happen because the higher authorities did not want Colloquium to discuss an issue that is “clearly under the purview of Mitr”. One question was about the sexual frustration that students of age group 18-25 go through while on campus. The psychiatrist present said students do approach him on the said issue. Even though some IIT-M men’s hostels are open to women (only for academic purposes and not for “undesirable, anti-social, anti-national activities”), sex is a taboo on campus. Several times, entry to hostels has been kept under restriction citing that the authorities are answerable to parents. Relationships are seen as unhealthy and an obstruction to academic performance. Hushed moral policing in the campus is active, manifested through different ways by different people.

After the latest suicide on campus, close friends of the victim were interrogated by the police in the absence of anyone from the institution. The very next day, classes happened as usual and IIT-M worked as if nothing had gone wrong. An acknowledgment of the death came two days later. How long should we go along with this apathetic attitude? There needs to be a radical change in how this premier institution views students and their issues. This can be done only by letting go of moral prejudices and reaching out to students in a way that it will be reciprocated. Only a radical rethinking of the existing structure can prevent the campus from more unfortunate incidents.

The writer is studying Integrated MA in English Studies, Department of Humanities and Social Studies, IIT Madras

In deference to the request by IIT Director, we are removing his quote.

Read the response to this article by a former IIT-Madras student and a founding member of The Colloquium, Pravimal Abhishek - >Getting things right about suicides in IITs

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