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‘It’s OK to Fail’: Meet the Crusaders Dedicated to Preventing Suicides In Kota

With 25 students dying by suicide in the past 10 months in Kota, alarm bells have once again been set off in the country over the students' mental health while preparing for entrance exams. Stakeholders across the state are taking steps to prevent suicides. We spoke to a few of them.

‘It’s OK to Fail’: Meet the Crusaders Dedicated to Preventing Suicides In Kota

Rohan (16) begins his day at 5:30 am. Based in Kota, he wakes up, has his chai and revises the previous day’s notes for half an hour, before heading down for breakfast at his mess. Post that, he gets ready for his classes, which are from 7 am to 2 pm, with a 15-minute break in between.  

After lunch again at the mess, Rohan rests till 3:30pm. From then on, he starts studying in three-hour stretches. He takes a tea break at 6:30pm, followed by some revision, and then has his dinner at 8:30pm. From 9pm to midnight, he studies again before going to bed.

Out of 24 hours, Rohan, who is preparing for the NEET-UG entrance to get into a medical college, spends 7 hours in class, 7.5 hours in self-study, and merely 5.5 hours sleeping. The remaining four hours are spent travelling, bathing and eating. He hardly has any time for himself. 

This is the routine followed by most students in Kota. They come to this town in Rajasthan for NEET and JEE coaching, an entrance exam to get into the top engineering colleges in India. Police officials of the city state that almost 60 percent students are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, with the rest being from Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Maharashtra. 

Most of these parents go to great lengths to send their children here, which also lays heavily on the minds of these 15-18-year-olds. 

“I come from an agricultural background. I always wanted to be a doctor, but seeing the other students here, who are equally good, many even better, I’m not sure if I’ll even crack the exam. My parents can’t afford a paid seat. I might give the exam next year again if I don’t clear it this time,” says Rohan. 

Does he have any career plan if medicine doesn’t work out? No, he emphasises. 

The reality is that only a few of the roughly 2 lakh students who flock to Kota each year (figures as per Kota police officials), would be able to get into these few top institutes. What happens to the rest of them? Do they have Plan Bs? Do our education systems, parents, teachers equip students to handle failure and teach them that there is a life beyond these courses and colleges. The answer, which today’s statistics show, is a big NO. 

Kota has seen a rising number of suicides in this year alone with more than 25 students having taken their lives. Student suicides have increased across the country too. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data states that 13,089 students died by suicide in 2021. This alarming increase in deaths by suicides has forced the administration in Kota and the Rajasthan government to take action. 

The Better India spoke to a few crusaders who are working towards identifying depression in students and telling them that life is much bigger than just one exam.

‘Have a Plan B’

ASP Chandrasheel Thakur speaking to students in Kota
ASP Chandrasheel Thakur speaking to students in Kota.

Every morning, a police team of the special student cell led by Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Kota, Chandrasheel Thakur, who was specially called back to the city from Udaipur to handle this team, sets out to visit hostels and PG (paying guest) accommodations in Kota in plain clothes. Thakur was previously in Kota for 8 years, where he worked on many youth outreach programmes. 

With more than two decades of experience, and having kids of the same age or older at home, these male and female officers speak to students daily in an informal setting. They are part of the special student cell established in Kota on 24 June 2023, which has a 24×7 helpline with three numbers. 

From questions like is anything bothering them, do they really want to become an engineer or a doctor or if they able to understand what is being taught in class to other basic questions like do they like the food being served in the mess, these officers establish a rapport with the students to identify if they are at risk or if they are doing okay.

“Our team is working with students, identifying mental health issues, and just offering a listening ear to them. We look for red flags or symptoms of depression when we interact with students. We speak to hostel wardens, mess staff, dabbawalas to understand which students are not eating properly, who is returning their tiffins without finishing. Food is a very important factor for these children. Once we identify these children, we speak one on one and guide them to counsellors in certain cases,” says Thakur.

The cell also has a control room where police personnel are assigned to speak to callers. The ASP states that they receive almost 7 calls everyday from students facing mental health issues. They’ve received over 500 serious calls in less than four months, highlighting how dire the situation is in Kota.

Shashi Prakash Singh, a NEET coaching teacher, is on a sabbatical now to solely focus on counselling students. According to him, these suicides are an indicator of a larger mental health issue amongst students. He adds that the issues he has noticed are born broadly out of a language barrier, financial burden and/or a lack of career counselling.

“I met a girl from rural Bihar who didn’t want to come here but was sent as some relative of hers had cracked the NEET after coaching in Kota. She was bogged down by the financial and familial pressure of it all. Coming from a Hindi-medium school, she didn’t understand anything. She felt awkward in the hostels as most people spoke in English,” says Singh.

When she confided in her parents about her inability to understand what was being taught and expressed her desire to come back, her parents heard none of it. Singh says that her parents told her, “Either clear the NEET or we will marry you off next year.”

The mental burden on girls is much more than boys, according to Singh, who was deeply disturbed by the rising student suicides.

“Boys will be asked to look after the family business, be it a small shop or a farm. Girls are not even given that option. They are asked to clear the entrance or threatened with the punishment of marriage,” adds Singh.

According to him, parents must tell their children that it’s okay to fail, and to let them choose other career options. Telling a barely 15-year-old child that one exam is the do-all of their life leads to catastrophic consequences.

“A child will try and reach out for help about a hundred times before they take that step. We must address this problem as a society and help children battle depression. Everyone from parents, teachers, government bodies must preach that mental health is as important as physical health,” says Singh. 

“When a child tells a parent or teacher that they are not okay, one must address it immediately and talk to them. Just like you take your child to a doctor when they have a fever, take them to a psychologist too when they are low or depressed,” he adds.

‘It’s okay to fail’

A student spends 15 hours a day studying in Kota
A student spends 15 hours a day studying in Kota.

The major problems faced by students can be split into three categories — parental expectations, the market of coaching classes and the education system. 

Competitive exams are, at its core, established to find the best candidate. They should not be treated like board exams. Only a few get selected. But what happens to the other children? Do we speak to them about what else they can do? Do we tell them it’s okay to fail?

“The students at Kota are all school toppers, some of the brightest young minds of the country. They are not used to failure. The coaching system here divides them into ranks and offers handsome rewards to the toppers. They use children as a commodity and their parents put all their hopes and pressures on their children. But, what can a child do in this?” asks Thakur.

Without having a capacity or the facility to handle stress, children get flustered. Even adults struggle with managing stress, how will the young kids fare then? Everyone is a competitor and the parents go to great lengths to send their wards to Kota, where the coaching institutes have very high fees. Different reports suggest that the Kota coaching market generates more than Rs 6,000 crores per year. 

Ravi (name changed) came to Kota in June 2023. The 16-year-old’s family owns a small grocery store in Kanpur and his father wanted him to become an engineer as he couldn’t become one. He was raised with the expectations of studying in an IIT and being the harbinger of hope for his family.

He doesn’t have many friends, he says, and finds it difficult to adjust to this 24×7 study environment where relaxation is hard to come by.

“This is my first time away from home, and I’m an introvert. I was a topper in my school, but so is everyone else here. The pressure is a lot. My parents have borrowed money to send me here and I know that they are doing all this to get me into an IIT. But I’m not sure if I’ll get in,” says Ravi.

A still from the documentary 'An Engineered Dream'.
A still from the documentary ‘An Engineered Dream’.

In the race to the top, mental health is often ignored. That’s why the work of the police student’s cell, counsellors and teachers like Singh is crucial. In fact, it may be life saving.

The student’s cell has reached out to over 80,000 students so far, according to Thakur. They interact with teachers, hostel wardens, PG owners, mess staff and Thakur himself spends many evenings at different hostels.

“We are trying to bring a positive change. Now, students know that they can reach out to us. Hostel wardens and mess staff are the most important link for us. They can observe any small change in a child, and we ask them to report it to us immediately. Even what seems like a small problem, say of food, is resolved immediately. We also ask coaching classes to take extra lessons if a child tells us that he or she is unable to understand a concept,” says Thakur. 

‘Life is bigger than one exam’

Shashi Prakash Singh with students
Shashi Prakash Singh with his students.

Harsh Rajput came to Kota as he wants to get into an IIT. He is one of the ‘droppers’, who make up a huge chunk of students in the city. They drop a year out of college to just focus on clearing the entrance exam. Many students like Harsh attempt the entrance exam, be it NEET or JEE, and if they don’t clear, they come here the next year.

They have classes for even longer hours, and their days stretch for 15 hours of self-study and classes, as they don’t have board exams to concentrate on as well. This crushing routine and pressure to perform leads to a lot of anxiety. 

The most common problems Thakur and his team hear on the ground include, “I’m unable to sleep” or “Main pareshaan hun” (I’m worried or troubled), “I can’t understand anything” and “I don’t feel like studying”. 

“The competition is ruthless, especially in NEET, where there are few seats in government medical colleges. Parents tell their children that we just can’t afford a paid seat, adding to the pressure,” adds Thakur. 

Dr Neena Vijayvargiya, a psychiatrist in Kota, says that parents need to support their children and understand the importance of mental health. “Brain is also a part of the body. Parents have to understand this fact and give issues of the mind that much importance. Parents keep telling their children about the sacrifices they’ve made and the financial burden to send them to Kota, adding to a teenager’s woes,” she says.

Aside from parents, the major issue is with the education system. These stakeholders say that the government must work on modifying the format of competitive exams, making it less rejective.

As for students, they must have a Plan B, urges Thakur.  

“All of us can’t become doctors and engineers. Some of us will be successful, some not. Keep a Plan B ready. It’s better than Plan A in most cases. You’ll flourish, don’t worry. Becoming a doctor or engineer is the means to the goal; it can’t be the goal itself. So make friends, have some hobbies and enjoy your student life,” says Thakur. 

Vijayvargiya says students must learn that failures are common.

“We have to accept that competition is inevitable. Teach your children that it’s okay to fail. Put in your best, work hard, but don’t lose heart if you don’t get what you want,” she says. 

Many great Indians have achieved success after failing to get into the career they wanted. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, an aerospace scientist and India’s former President, wanted to become a fighter pilot, but failed to get through the Indian Air Force by a whisker. He did not give up, and instead, India got a missile man.

Singh concurs, and says that we all went through failures at one point in our lives and that we’ve all overcome them.

“Life is very big. You will feel bad for that moment if you don’t make it into an IIT or medical college. There are 100 more avenues. Explore them. One day, you’ll look back at this and laugh,” he says hopefully.

Edited by Padmashree Pande

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