'Note' seller at a busy chowk in Karnalganj area, Katra | Jyoti Yadav
'Note' seller at a busy chowk in Karnalganj area, Katra | Jyoti Yadav
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There’s a mini-Kota inside Prayagraj’s Katra. For years, lakhs of students have come to the coaching centres here to prepare for exams for jobs such as sub-inspectors in UP Police, UPPSC, banking, railways, SSC and school teachers. Unlike Rajasthan’s Kota factory, Prayagraj caters to aspirants from mostly poorer, rural and semi-rural areas of Uttar Pradesh.

In fact, ‘aspirant’ is the first-name identifier that students here freely use to refer to themselves.

“Aspirant hain, sarkari naukri ki taiyari kar rahe hain (I am an aspirant, preparing for a government job),” says 26-year-old Abhishek Shukla from Mirzapur while introducing himself. Sipping tea at a stall in front of the science faculty gate of Allahabad University, Shukla says he has been preparing for the Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission (UPPSC) exam for the last four years. He lives in a neighbourhood called ‘Coaching Hub’.

Situated in Katra of Prayagraj city, formerly Allahabad, the area covers more than 7 square kilometres, supposedly accommodating 10 to 15 lakh aspirants like Shukla. But something has changed in the Covid pandemic. There is now an extra dose of desperation among student-aspirants here. It’s a double burden. With job losses and economic distress, families are pushing them even more to score in the exams.

Naukri kathin hai. Lekin pressure double ho gaya hai family se (There are no jobs but the pressure from the family has doubled),” Shukla says while sipping tea from a plastic cup.

Coaching centres near Allahabad University | Jyoti Yadav
Coaching centres near Allahabad University | Jyoti Yadav

For women aspirants, it’s a different kind of pressure. After a wasted pandemic year, families have sent back their daughters to Prayagraj’s coaching centres. But this time, with an ultimatum. It’s now or marriage.

“Time diya hai — ek saal mein nikal kar dikhao. Mere saath ki kai ladkiyon ki shaadiyan tay kar di gayi hain (I have been given a year to clear the exam. My marriage has been fixed, as well as of many girls like me),” 26-year-old Akriti Srivastava tells ThePrint.

Srivastava hails from Maharajganj district near the Nepal border. She had two plans for her career.

“Plan A was to prepare for UPSC and Plan B was to join the rat race of SSC, railways and other grade 2-3 exams,” she says, standing outside her coaching centre. “My plan was to stay focused on UPSC and not try for other odd exams, but since there is pressure from family, my focus has shifted. It is now to be independent by securing any job.”


 Also read: Kota business owners say city will become ‘suicide hub’ as education industry is hit by lockdown


Students back in Katra

Owners of local PGs, coaching centres and the station in-charge at Karnalganj police station all say that almost 70 per cent of students are back in Katra after the lockdowns and Covid waves. They are back to cramming into tiny 10×10 feet rooms like sardines in a tin, with roommates who are also preparing for the same exams. Most of them get around Rs 4,000-7,000 pocket money monthly.

Ajeet Sonkar, president of Pratiyogita Chhatra Sanghatan, told ThePrint, “It is an unorganised industry. There are no regulations or case studies on this. But being a representative of students here, I can say that around 10 to 15 lakh students were residing here before the pandemic hit.”

Shukla and other aspirants at the tea stall | Jyoti Yadav

Pratiyogita Chhatra Sanghatan was founded in 2017 to raise the issue of Staff Selection Commission (SSC) exam and result delay pan-India. Later, the group became popular among the coaching hubs across the country.

The congested lanes of Katra, which were deserted ever since the announcement of first lockdown in 2020, are now catching up. Big posters with toppers’ photos are back too, promising ‘guaranteed’ exam results. New cheap food joints have opened while some old ones such as Yadav Tea Stall and ‘Bhabiji Ki Rasoi’ have disappeared in the Covid-induced slowdown. The bookstalls see students turning up to buy second- and third-hand books.


 Also read: A JEE hopeful’s exam day amid pandemic — fear, anxiety, nausea and lots of sanitiser


UP elections and exam worries

The upcoming assembly election is also on students’ minds.

Suresh, one of the tea sellers in the area, says, “Now we enjoy the conversations around elections. The students are burdened but they are also hopeful that the government will announce some results ahead of the assembly polls.”

The Uttar Pradesh assembly election will be held in early 2022. Aspirants in Katra are optimistic that in order to woo young voters, the Yogi Adityanath government may push back some exams, announce results and new recruitments.

Agar koi student 10 din tak lagatar chai baahar pee lega toh form bharne ke paise nahin bachenge (Any student that drinks tea outside for ten days at a stretch won’t have money left for the form),” says Sonkar. “We want exam delay to become a poll issue. Now we are throwing darts in the dark because we don’t know when the exam dates will be announced.”

Results from as far back as 2018 are pending. The mandi parishad inspector exam was held in 2018 but the scores were never announced. The village development officer exam, held in 2018, was cancelled due to a cheating scandal.

A coaching centre in Katra | Jyoti Yadav

 Also read: Do young Indian women work? Gujarat tops single working women, among lowest in married


Money, marriage and suicides

Most students in Katra have a deadline, fund crunch, and extraordinary pressure to land a job.

Akriti Srivastava says that though she comes from a middle-class home, her family business will take some time to come out of the economic distress caused by the pandemic. “Till then we have to adjust with whatever amount the family can manage,” she says.

Narrow streets in Katra | Jyoti Yadav

Saumya Dwivedi, who is accompanying Srivastava, is from Prayagraj city. Though she does not share the same problems of rent as Srivastava, she and other women in the group have a common worry.

Chalo! Shadi ko kuch din taal dete hain lekin uncertainty khatam nahin ho rahi. Every fortnight, there will be a photograph of a suicide from the aspirant community on our WhatsApp groups. There is nothing more demoralising than that,” she says.

“The suicides push thousands like me who are trying to get over the grief from the second Covid wave when we lost someone in the family.”

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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