Chennai: Two student deaths by apparent suicide on campus in the span of a month has put the spotlight on the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-Madras).
V Vaipu Pushpak Sree Sai, 20, a third-year B.Tech student, died in his hostel room Tuesday. He belonged to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, and was a resident of the Alaknanda hostel. On 13 February, Stephen Sunny, a research scholar and native of Maharashtra, was found dead in his hostel room. The same day, another student had attempted suicide, but was saved.
According to reports, in the last 10 years, 14 students have died by alleged suicide on the IIT-Madras campus.
Sai’s death has again brought focus back on IIT-Madras students’ complaints of “deep-rooted structural issues“ — including academic stress, ostracisation and alienation based on social issues like caste class and gender — at IITs.
According to preliminary investigations, on Tuesday, Sai had not left his room since morning, missing his morning classes. No suicide note was found in his room.
Speaking to ThePrint, a Kotturpuram police officer on condition of anonymity said Sai had multiple backlogs to clear. “Three students shared a room. When the other two were leaving for the morning class, they woke Sai up, but he did not turn up for the class. Later, around 11-11.30 am, when the two boys returned, Sai did not open the door,” he added.
The students then broke the door open and found Sai unconscious. They informed the hostel authorities, who rushed Sai to the campus hospital where he was declared brought dead.
Kotturpuram police have registered a case and the body has been sent for postmortem to Government Royapettah Hospital.
Meanwhile, IIT-Madras released a statement in which it said that the post-Covid era has been challenging. “The institute has been endeavouring to improve and sustain the well-being of the students/scholars, faculty and staff on campus, while constantly evaluating the various support systems in place. A standing Institute Internal Inquiry Committee, including elected student representatives, which has been recently constituted, will look into such incidents,” it added.
According to students, some things have changed on ground but a lot remains to be done. “Last month we protested to show our anger on how the management had addressed Sunny’s death. No statement was issued, student representatives were not informed and only after questions were raised did the management issue a statement. But in Sai’s death that has changed,” an IIT-Madras student told ThePrint, not wanting to be named.
Another said that in 2019, the institute’s student legislative council had passed a resolution for a mental health study to be conducted by an external committee with experts from various fields, but the administration is yet to initiate this.
On Tuesday evening, a condolence meeting was organised by Zindabad, an independent student body, on campus. Students who participated claimed that many did not know that Sai’s death was an apparent suicide as no cause of death was mentioned to them, but when they did get to know, it was very distressing.
A student said, “In the Town Hall, the director had said that the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences was contacted in 2019 to conduct a study, but it couldn’t take off because of the Covid situation.”
The student added that with three and a half years having passed since the resolution, to give the pandemic as a reason is unacceptable.
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‘Students under pressure’
IIT-Madras is not the only IIT where cases of apparent suicide have been reported of late.
On 12 February, IIT-Mumbai student Darshan Solanki had died after allegedly jumping off the seventh floor of a hostel on the Powai campus. Darshan’s family, who is from a backward community, had alleged that he was ostracised because of his caste.
Examining the probable reasons behind such incidents, K.R. Maalathi, an educationist, said that students are subjected to a lot of pressure, including academic, parental and from peers.
She further said that post Covid, students have been experiencing a lot of mental wellness issues, which “needs immediate attention in a country where a large number of the population is young”.
“Entrance exams like NEET and JEE are not everybody’s cup of tea. The students might be able to crack the exam, but once inside the institution, many are not able to cope with the pressures,” Maalathi explained.
“A student needs a natural attitude and aptitude to excel in a subject, but when someone is forced to opt for a subject, they won’t be able to excel and that leads to these kinds of extreme decisions or drop out,” she added.
Meanwhile, IIT-Madras students’ fight for a comprehensive mental health study on campus is still ongoing. ChintaBAR, an independent student body at IIT-Madras in a statement Wednesday demanded that the administration set up a committee and initiate the study under the 2019 resolution as soon as possible.
“We further reiterate the demands to strengthen the scope of grievance redressal mechanisms at departments to include cases of harassment, discrimination etc., and creation of standard operating procedures to be followed for investigation and dissemination of information regarding the deaths happening on campus,” the statement said.
On the night Stephen Sunny died, students held an overnight protest and took out a rally from Yamuna hostel to the Gajendra Circle. The protest was called off only the following morning after IIT Madras director Kamakoti Veezhinathan met the students and convinced them that a Town Hall will be called to address their concerns.
While the management, which had held a Town Hall to hear the students’ demands around 10 days ago, has constituted an inquiry committee, the students still insist that a mental health study needs to be done on the campus to understand the root cause of the issue.
This is an updated version of the report.
(Edited by Richa Mishra)
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