Over the course of this month, five students have taken their lives in Rajasthan’s Kota town, linked no doubt to the crushing pressure wrought on young people during the competitive exam season. On Saturday, a 16-year-old girl preparing for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate), or NEET-UG, for admission to a medical college was found dead at her uncle’s house with a purported suicide note. Three days earlier, another 16-year-old student preparing for NEET-UG was found dead in the city. On May 12 and May 11, a 17-year-old student from Patna and a 15-year-old student from Uttar Pradesh, respectively, allegedly died by suicide. And the week before, a 22-year-old student from Bengaluru allegedly took their life.
These losses are tragic and avoidable. The reasons are also not difficult to fathom. With 200,000 students, many from the hinterland, pouring into its coaching classes every year, Kota produces a slew of toppers across fields and competitive examinations, but often at a terrible cost – paid by those who find it impossible to cope with the breakneck pressure, the spartan non-scholastic existence and the rigorous classroom routine that can barely be called pedagogy. These risks are well known, and have even been documented in a 2018 report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences that found students in India’s coaching capital depressed, ill and anxious.
Yet, little seems to move despite the mounting need for urgent interventions to help students deal with mental health problems. The government brought a bill last year to regulate coaching institutes, but it is yet to be tabled. That might provide some succour. But the real problem lies in India’s broken higher-education model and deep inequity, where a moonshot at some of the toughest examinations represents the only real chance for a young person to pull their families out of poverty. Unless parents, societies and governments work in tandem, young people will continue to suffer for goals that may be too improbable to achieve.
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