Friday, April 29, 2016

Vishnupriya Bhandaram - When a 17-year-old worries enough to kill herself over JEE, we must question our own education

On Thursday, a day after the results of JEE were announced, a 17-year-old in Jaipur killed herself — the police said that she wanted to pursue a BSc degree in astrophysics. What’s worrying is that the police said that it was “strange” that she killed herself over that because it seemed to him that "one can also become an astrophysicist after graduating from an IIT.” What Harshit Bharati (who is investigating the case) and perhaps countless parents and peers who have heard or read about the girl’s demise are unable to understand is the mental anguish of a child who probably does not want to go to IIT at all.

In a six-month study conducted on undergraduate students from cities such as Chennai and Delhi, researcher Arti Sarma found that a total of 14.5 percent endorsed suicidal ideation and 12.3 percent had admitted to having deliberately hurt/kill themselves.

These figures are grim, yet quite telling in light of the burgeoning suicide rate among students. In Kota, the engineering prep Mecca, the NCRB 2014 report marks an unprecedented 61 percent rise in suicides related to failure in competitive examinations. Out of the 100 suicide deaths in Kota in 2014, 45 such suicides were committed by students owing to failure in examinations.

Parental pressure is social pressure and quite simply put, stress. Where does this stem from? An individual perceives certain expectations of oneself from the environment. When an individual feels unable to deliver on those expectations — whether perceived or real, the result is stress.

Coaching centres in Kota enroll close to 1.5 lakh students every year, despite the rise in the number of suicides. Sarma explains through her research that the culture of education in India is "fiercely competitive" because of the "density of India's population set against limited availability of resources including jobs, seats at prestigious colleges, and opportunities to work abroad".

 Ravi Kumar makes a pertinent observation in Neoliberalism, Education and the Politics of Capital: Searching Possibilities of Resistance, that “competition has been made guiding ethics of everyday life” — so it becomes imperative that the Indian kid should get into the best colleges, best jobs and make the best money.

Former IITian and now photographer-documentary filmmaker, Amrit Vatsa says that most people go to IIT not to join it on the noble pursuit of knowledge, but because the MBBS and engineering programmes are the easiest ways to make big bucks — perhaps the final dagger of neoliberalism, causing an individual with interests to become an individual with capital. “We Indians want to start making more money as quickly as possible. So, we want to do engineering. And because IITs are known as the best colleges, we all want to go there. It is not linked to ‘learning engineering’, it is all about making money,” he adds.

 "You are making me sad," says Vatsa in the middle of our conversation. I ask him why. "It's all about the parents really, there are parents who have seen the world better and there are parents who have not. If only more parents could be educated about the various things their children could do, and become great in life, there would a broader set of talents in India. I went to IIT because I could, that feeling of 'not everyone can get into it' is a good enough egoistic reason. But also, I could never muster the courage to tell my dad I wanted to learn English literature. It sounds silly, but well, I never spoke to my family about what I wanted to learn. And my family did not want to give up on my talent of getting high marks in written exams. It took me so much time to finally give up on that 'talent' of mine," he tells me...

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