It was a rainy Tuesday, just past noon, when the phone rang to say that Vikram had just hanged himself in his study. Few frantic calls later, the dreaded news was confirmed that by the time he was taken to the hospital, he had died. My 18-year-old cousin had committed suicide. A daytime nightmare that was the culmination of a common Indian dream – the IIT dream.
Vikram was a delightful, cheerful, beautiful boy who brought much joy to his family. A promising young man who could not bear the pressure of an upcoming engineering college entrance exam — the JEE or Joint Entrance Exam.
This year there was a demand to further postpone the exams due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Supreme Court rejected the plea for postponement and the final date of the exam was announced for September.
This news reached Vikram on 17 August and he was dismayed. Scores of students like him were hoping that the NEET/JEE exams would be further postponed. The prolonged lockdown had heightened their anxiety and online tutorials were getting on their nerves.
But Vikram’s death by suicide is not a standalone case. And the pandemic year and postponed exams have only made it worse.
He would have, perhaps, not taken the extreme step that day if the exam date was not confirmed. However, he was worried about disappointing his parents; he was afraid of the exam.
One sole aim
The pressure on students builds early on. Middle-class Indian families seek security in a stable future for their children via professional courses – especially engineering and medicine degrees – those that necessitate tough entrance exams. Parents work hard to provide for tuitions and coaching classes. They also spend all their time to help make a conducive environment at home for children to study unobstructed. They forego holidays, parties, and entertainment activities for this sole aim.
Vikram’s parents did all this and more and ensured that he had all the amenities to pay attention to what was most important – prepare for the JEE.
The case for JEE
In 2020, the JEE exams were to be held twice — in January and then in April, and students could appear for either one or both the sessions, and only their best score would be considered final. When the pandemic made the world upside down, many students had not even finished giving their class 12 board exams. JEE, due to be held in April, was postponed.
Often called the mother of all exams, the JEE exams are perhaps one of the toughest in the world. Over 10 lakh students were to sit for the JEE Mains, out of whom 2.2 lakh would qualify for the JEE Advanced, and only around 10,000 students would make it to the IITs.
The question papers, said to be unpredictable, cover Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics with an enormous syllabus that sometimes takes at least four years of preparation, and there is negative marking.
Exam year 2020 – one million to appear
Vikram was one amongst the nearly 10 lakh candidates registered for the September JEE main exam this year. The sheer scale of the competition and the burden of expectations was weighing him down. He got an anxiety attack the evening before he died. His head was hurting and he threw up. His parents tried to do what they could – assured him that the results won’t matter. It was important to now appear for the exam, which would be the culmination of his relentless preparation of the last several years. His mock exams were going well, only Chemistry was proving to be a bit tricky. He told his best friend a few days ago that he was forgetting formulas. Everyone counselled him to just take the exam and see what happens.
He didn’t want to. Next morning he got up as usual and told his mother that he was going to attend an online preparatory session by the coaching institute he was enrolled in. He went to his room and locked it. After an hour, Vikram’s mother just went to check on him on a hunch. When she opened the door with a spare key, she found him hanging.
Death of a dream
There is no greater tragedy for parents than to see their child die. This was worse than that. There is no closure, no redemption.
The burden lies on the collective conscience of the nation. Vikram is not a stand-alone case. There are news of students suicide from around the country. His own friend had died in a similar way just a month ago. Many students had died by suicide after being unable to clear the first round of JEE in January. Many other do the same in coaching centres or even in the engineering colleges. This is a well-known fact in India.
The exam is designed to eliminate people or reject candidates, not select them. It is so competitive that every year the exam is made tougher. The difference of one or two marks can make the rank go down by thousands.
There have been suggestions about how the test format can be changed so that it becomes less about merit lists where higher ranks are only achieved by rote learning.
Increasing the number of engineering colleges in the country is also important. Despite the lure of the private colleges, students prefer the national institutes because they are more reputed, get better placements and have relatively lesser fees.
The coaching industry
The clamour for admission to these colleges has led to the spawning of a huge coaching industry in India—especially in Rajasthan’s Kota.
The coaching classes are perhaps the most subversive part of the story of the IIT dream. While engineering may not be as desirable a career option anymore as it was in the 1970s and ’80s, the admission to these institutes of higher education seems to be a marker of academic excellence. A notion that the coaching institutes routinely sell in the expensive front-page newspaper ads they publish after each result with photographs of the so-called ‘toppers’.
‘IIT coaching’ begins quite early, often up to four years before the actual JEE exam. School education is either inappropriate or the competition makes it inadequate, and that is when parents make a beeline for the coaching centres. These centres not only charge hefty fees, but they are also completely unregulated. Shaming, scolding, creating faux competition within students often can add to the feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness.
There is extreme pressure on not just the students but also on the parents. While a government committee had recommended a regulator for coaching institutes, it has not happened.
The 2020 fight continues
The Covid-19 year is a dreadful one on many accounts, leading to cases of severe mental stress and anxiety. The death of Sushant Singh Rajput and the subsequent eulogising of that incident has had an impact on many. Vikram was also deeply affected by that news. Suicide has not just become common parlance, but prime time TV in India also play havoc with the minds of people who are already on the edge.
Vikram’s act shook his family and his friends, and perhaps some parents who are paying close attention to the mental state of their children. But his death was a small news item in the local newspaper. The larger fight to get into the IITs continues.
There is a clamour to get JEE postponed and it is gathering support from state chief ministers. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has also joined in.
Burden of expectation
From the beginning, there is pressure to make it. And in trying to make it, Vikram had to select study time over everything else. Hanging out with friends, going for holidays, fooling around, having the time to do absolutely nothing had probably not existed in his life for the past few years.
The horrors of the IIT dream do not end in the coaching class nor do they see a break at home. To quote the cult Netflix show — Dark — of which Vikram seems to have been a fan of, “the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning”.
The author is a former BBC Journalist and currently a Business Communication faculty at Bhavan’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR). Views are personal.