In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa hates going to work, yet he feels responsible for his family’s well-being as his father’s business has collapsed and he is the only earning member of the family. The story begins with Samsa wondering how he has turned into a ‘insect’ overnight. Though the character Samsa never explains how and why he transforms into a bug overnight, the absurdity of life and following something one doesn’t like is a latent unwritten cause in this 1915 classic. If Kafka was alive today, he would have found perhaps no place more suitable than Kota in Rajasthan for his surreal, dark and pessimist story settings that so languidly flowed with his trademark nonchalance.
Whether it is the story of middle-class struggles, the pressure of family and boss (here teachers) to perform, the absurd measures suggested by authorities to curb untimely deaths, or the metamorphosis of a young hopeful into a walking-dead—what’s happening in Kota today so dramatically reflects Kafka’s writings, Metamorphosis in particular.
Metamorphosis’ setting was the Eastern European society in the middle of World War I; Kota’s setting is an aspirational society launched into a cut-throat competition where thousands compete for prizes too few in number, where winners take it all and the losers stare at the cul-de-sac of their careers, and in some cases, of their lives.
The Kota Model
In Kota, 25 students have died by suicide this year alone until the mid of September. In the latest incident, a 16-year-old student who was taking coaching classes for the medical entrance exam, NEET, died by sucide.
Situated on the banks of Chambal river, Kota is the third most populous city of Rajasthan after Jaipur and Jodhpur. Since the last 15 years, the city has made a name for itself as an educational hub that specialises in providing coaching for engineering and medical entrance tests. It’s known as the ‘coaching factory’ of India. More recently, it was in news for becoming the only city outside Mizoram to become completely traffic signal free.
The city of 1.2 million is regularly visited by around two lakhs students every year, who come to prepare for JEE and NEET exams. The coaching industry in Kota is valued at ₹6,000 crore. The institutes have long-term study programs running into two to three years alongside short-term four to six months crash courses that make brusque attempts at unraveling the unfathomable depths of JEE and NEET exams. These competitions are very tough and going by the demand and supply gap, most students are bound to fail as not more than 2,000 to 3,000 students crack these entrance tests. Of the 1,98,000 or so students who are bound to return home empty-handed after two or three years of rigorous studies, a few break down and take the extreme step. Their numbers have been far too large this year forcing the administration to swing into action.
Of knocks on the doors to collapsible fans
Kota today, is abuzz with ‘anti-suicide’ measures. It is bad press for city authorities and bad business for the hostel owners and coaching centers. On August 12, drowned in the news of heavy rainfall across North India, an important meeting took place in Kota. Led by the Deputy Commissioner of Police, the meeting was attended by other stakeholders like coaching institutes, teachers, hostel owners, NGOs etc. The meeting concluded with the decision to have ‘spring-loaded’ fans installed in each hostel room. The spring device in the fans works like this—whenever any object of more than 20 kilograms is attached to the fan, the spring expands and lowers the object to the ground level and a siren also goes off at the same time. This ‘anti-suicide’ measure’ became the talk of the town and found space in the national media too.
A few other methods adopted include covering the windows and balconies with iron or steel nets. Authorities feel these measures will dissuade students from taking the drastic step, and even if they attempt suicide, they won’t succeed.
But does this really solve the problem or is it an attempt to treat the mere symptoms of a deep-rooted social issue? A person dies a thousand times in their own mind before putting life at stake. It is clear from the anti-sucide measures that are being put in place in Kota, nobody wants to address the elephant in the room—the deep psychological scars that young minds suffer in the coaching factories that dot the town.
Dr Dinesh Sharma is a Kota-based psychiatrist, who did his PhD research on 400 students in which he tried to find out why incidence of suicide among students were so high in the city. According to him, measures like collapsible fans are not enough to prevent suicide. He says, “Maybe these measures are only then useful when the student has already decided to take the step for suicide. This step is at this stage when the student has already developed the bhavana, or feeling, to die by suicide. If not this way, the person will look for alternate ways. We have to prevent this bhavana from building through proper counselling of the stakeholders. Right now, these are just preventive measures, maybe good, but they won’t be effective.”
The Warning Signs
Sharma’s words carry some weight. His research for his PhD dissertation delved into phenomenon of suicide in Kota, its warning signs, and steps needed to manage the problem. He says that there are three main ways by which the warning signs can be deciphered: verbal, non-verbal or written, and behavioural.
Verbal signs are communicated when the a youngster starts to say things like ‘I am not important to my family, so I should leave the house’ or ‘I am not important to you so it’s better I die’, or ‘Only the other children are important to the parents’ etc. Parents and coaching institutes should look for these verbal cues that indicate the severe negative state of mind of these youngsters.
The second kind of signs were non-verbal and mostly in written forms. Such examples could be found in social media posts on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp messages sent to other people. He found that students who were dealing with high stress situations would air their feelings in social media posts. He also found that many children maintain personal diary and these are full of written signs of distress. These students would mostly write negative things in their diaries. Whether one should access these personal diaries to prevent suicides is an ethical question, but the point is that they certainly have warning signs, explains Sharma.
The third kind of signs were behavioural signals. Sudden changes in behaviour were noticeable in suicidal minds. For example, a student who used to go out every day to play started staying at home or started miss classes for four to five days at a stretch. Sometimes they stop eating or going to the mess for food. These sudden behavioural changes that stretch over a few days provide enough information that something is not right with the mind of the student.
To address a part of behavioural changes, Kota Police launched a scheme called ‘Darwaze pe Dastak’ or knock on the door. It involves the hostel warden knocking on the doors of the students at 11 pm to enquire about their wellbeing. The mess staff is roped in if any student is observed not eating food or a tiffin box has been returned without consuming the food in it. Yet, again such preventive measures don’t address the trigger factors that slow walks a student into suicide.
Six Cs to manage this problem
According to Sharma, a holistic approach is required that address this serious issue at various levels: students, parents, and the coaching institutes. He says that the first focus should be on the children and suggests the ‘Six C’ approach that one needs to employ with the students. “The 6 C approach comprises working in the areas of confidence, competence, communication, contribution, care and character,” says Sharma.
He says it is important to boost the confidence of the students and let them know that failure at this entrance level doesn’t reflect on their overall potential and that despite these failures they can achieve a lot of success. Competence implies determining whether a student has the ability and aptitude to learn certain subjects or pursue a particular career. If not, then the student should be encouraged to choose a more suitable subject or career.
Dr Bishnu Mohan Dash Professor, Department of Social Work, Bhimrao Ambedkar College, Delhi University says, “Parents need to interact with their children regularly to know their interests as well as their capacity to qualify for a particular exam. If not, the child is not competent to qualify for the exam, then she or he should be motivated to choose other career options—engineering and medicine are not the only career options. There are other career options that are equally lucrative and prestigious. So, parents should identify those areas according to the child’s competencies.”
The third C is about proper communication. In Kota, most of the students live in a single room. Some are accompanied by a single parent as they are too young in the average age bracket of 14-18 years. Dr Sharma says the single-room culture prevents the students from making friends or interacting with other children in the same age group. Such students are constantly forced to study and in some cases the parent went on to impose a time restriction on conversation a child could have with them.
This is very dangerous as it prevents proper communication between the child and the parent. The child neither has the social world nor parents to talk to. This turns into a fertile situation for a child to develop suicidal thoughts. Parents should have proper communication with children, and they should be allowed to make friends and have some social time too.
The fourth aspect is contribution to the family. Many of these students suffer from low self-esteem and they need to be reminded that their contribution means a lot to the family. They should be told that they are very important to the family—and not only as doctors or engineers but as valued family members. This will make them appreciate their value in the family and won’t think of themselves as good for nothing.
The fifth C, says Sharma, is about caring and showing affection. It is not only important to be caring towards the child, but equally important to show that affection. Many children are afraid that if they don’t succeed, they would let down their parents. This kind of negativity needs to be weeded out with proper care. Finally, the character is the sixth C to pay attention to. Some children may have a negative attitude towards life, social norms etc., they need to be counselled, so that they are productive in a positive sense.
Parents need to be roped in
The second level of suicide prevention deals with the family’s role. According to Dash, parents could perhaps play the most crucial role in mitigating this crisis. He says, “Parents and families need to avoid exerting pressure on their children. They need to have updated information about other career avenues from career counsellors, who can provide sufficient information to parents about other courses and job opportunities available.” India being the populous country is bound to a large number of students competing for a limited number of seats that are available every year for JEE, NEET or UPSC entrance examinations. Those, who can’t make the cut should not be treated as a failure.
“India is a highly populated country, and it is natural that in every competitive exam there will be higher competition. Though the government is adding many medical colleges each year, the problem lies with the parents and society as they force children to opt for careers in medicine or engineering, which are traditionally considered lucrative professional courses. In recent times there has been the emergence of other professional courses in different fields having great career opportunities but awareness about those courses is still lacking among parents. Parents need to consult career counsellors to have information on other good career options for their children,” says Dash.
Sharma adds that when parents realise that their child is depressed or is nursing suicidal thoughts, the first instinct is to call them back home. Instead, they should engage with the child with a lot of empathy and compassion. They should communicate with their child openly and gently. The society should work towards the well-being of young students, instead of piling on relentless pressure to perform in competitive exams.
Finally, at the third level, the coaching institutes need to recalibrate their approach. Usually, the batches are limited to 150 students. So, each batch should have a mentor and every 4-5 batches should be attached to a counsellor and there could be a lead counsellor as a supervisor, says Sharma. They should also work with data analysts, who can detect a consistent and sharp dip in performance of students in the last three tests. They should be identified and properly counselled. “It is important to understand that the depressed student will never approach the teacher, instead, the teacher or the some other person who is in charge of student welfare should approach the student and approach their parents. And it’s important that all this done with a friendly approach,” says Sharma.
Demand supply gap
However, the fact remains that no matter what steps are taken, the pressure created by the demand-supply gap in availability of the number of seats in professional courses vis-à-viz the number of aspirants has led to a situation where there are more students who fail to make the cut than successful ones. This is one of the fundamental flaws of the Indian education system that has created a large pool of unemployable youngsters.
Sociologists have long been critical the Indian middle-class mindset that yearns for their children to top all competitions. From putting a 4-year-old child into singing, dancing, and other reality competitions to seasoning them day in, day out, for a place in the top medical and engineering institutes that ensures lucrative salary packages right from the start of their professional lives have created a learning environment that tends to reduce the self-esteem of youngsters.
Dash is particularly worried about the single-room culture of Kota that accentuates the social alienation disorder. “In Indian society, children usually stay with their parents where they have opportunities to share their achievements, and challenges with them. It leads to satisfaction, positive emotional attachment, and good bonding. However, allowing children to stay in a single room accommodation, mostly alone, creates a feeling of social, psychological, and emotional isolation combined with the pressure to qualify for the examination, children often become victims of mental trauma. Sometimes it also causes abnormal behavioural patterns. Parents should refrain from forcing children to qualify for the tough competitive examination,” says Dash.
The onus to address the problem cannot be put on the parents and families. This problem is a direct outcome of the far deeper malaise in the educational system. The mushrooming of coaching institutes that promise success in these tough entrance exams to virtually any student who is willing to pay lead to unrealistic aspirations in students. Later, failure pushes them into the depths of depression.
The other fallacy in the education system is the gap between the top colleges like the IITs and others is too big. In Western European countries and the US, there may be top-ranking colleges, but the others also offer highly competent education, and they don’t lag behind so much that they appear second or third class.
India needs to look at this problem and this should be led by the central government. With a meagre 0.7 % budgetary allocation for higher education, this trend of huge gap between colleges is unlikely to be reversed. India aims to be a Vishwaguru or world leader in education and research. It will remain a mere rhetoric if the government spend on education continues to be meagre. What Kota represents is just a microcosm of the rot in our educational system that is in an urgent need of meaningful restructuring and revamp. Meanwhile, the rote learning system will continue to churn out vast number of unemployable youngsters with poor skillsets, which in turn will strain the social fabric.