In the narrow lanes of Delhi’s Old Rajendra Place, sulky looking students move here and there. Some stand outside the coaching institutes waiting for the next class, or having just finished.

Others are going towards the library, where they can sit silently for hours and study. It is a gloomy feeling as a mixture of stress and fear is amalgamated on the faces of thousands of students who reside here.

Old Rajinder Nagar in West Delhi is a hub of Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) aspirants. The neighbourhood offers an array of top coaching institutes, 24x7 libraries, study materials of every subject.

All around, people can be seen with books or heavy bags running around or discussing something at a tea shop with papers in hand. Chaotic and crowded, the place, unlike other narrow mohallas of Delhi, is not vibrant with children playing around or families gossiping outside their gates. One can sense the vulnerability and the stress of these students from far away.

Shops are full of people scanning through endless racks of books , trying to find a second-hand ‘preparation book’ so they won’t have to spend much on it.

The rooms they live in are shabby and filled with papers with maps of India and the world pasted on every wall. Old Rajendra Place started having coaching institutes after which a whole ecosystem developed providing facilities that many people and students found affordable.

At one corner of the room will be a to-do list on the other goals and aspirations. But one thing is common, the dream to crack the civil services exam.

The Civil Services Examination is a national competitive examination in India conducted by the Union Public Service Commission for recruitment to higher Civil Services of the Government of India, including the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Foreign Service, and Indian Police Service.

Thousands of students come to Delhi from different parts of the country, and prepare for these examinations. Here, they live in isolation and deal with many stressful situations.

Vibhuti Sinha hails from Haryana’s Sonipat and has been preparing for the Civil Service Exams for the past two years. “I finished my graduation from Delhi University in Politics Honours, after which I decided to just prepare for these examinations. I have always aspired to be a civil servant,” said Sinha.

However, after living away from home and studying continuously alone without hardly any interaction with friends, mental health has started taking a toll. “I have failed twice but my parents have asked me to still try so I am going for it,” said Sinha.

She wakes up at 7 a.m., gets ready, eats breakfast and goes to the library at 8 a.m. “From then it is just about studying or attending coaching classes. I step out to eat something twice, but these days I have lost my appetite”.

Like Sinha, lakhs of people apply for UPSC examinations. Generally, the UPSC pass percentage, or the chances of an applicant becoming a Civil Services officer, is around 0.2%. In 2022, out of 11.52 lakhs candidates who applied for UPSC 2022, only 13090 cleared the Prelims exam.

The pressure this creates on students is immense and leaves them in distress. The mental health due to this leaves many in shambles and some take the extreme step of dying by suicide.

On August 27, a girl, preparing for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examination in Rajasthan's Hanumangarh allegedly died by suicide on Saturday, officials said.

According to Vedpal Singh, Circle Inspector, Hanumangarh, the dead has been identified as Priyanka. “A girl died by suicide yesterday. She had been living in a girls' hostel along with other girls since June and was taking online classes for IAS preparation...

“We have found a note and we are examining it. We have sent the body for post-mortem and have registered a morgue based on a report given by her father... Further investigating the case is underway," Singh, told the media.

The police said that the deceased had been living in a girl's hostel since June and was taking online classes for the preparation of UPSC. Notably, suicide cases among students are rising in Rajasthan, the state government has been alerted and come on a war footing to avert these types of incidents.

Recently, amid the rising suicide cases among students in Rajasthan's Kota, state Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot formed a committee that would submit a report on students' suicide.

As many as 24 students have died by suicide in Rajasthan’s Kota this year, the highest since the city emerged on the country’s education landscape three decades ago. The prime reason is believed to be academic pressure.

The competition is fierce: in 2023, only a little over 22 per cent of the 1.95 lakh students who registered for JEE Advanced qualified. Only those who have cleared JEE Main are eligible to take JEE Advanced.

Mahesh Joshi, a Minister in the Rajasthan government, attributes financial distress as a cause. “The students fear the burden on their families if they do not succeed as their parents have taken huge loans to educate them,” he told reporters in Jaipur recently.

Earlier, referring to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on student suicides, Ashok Gehlot said, "According to NCRB, around 13,000 students died by suicide in 2021. Maharashtra recorded the maximum number of suicides with 1,834 deaths, followed by Madhya Pradesh (1,308), Tamil Nadu (1,246), Karnataka (855) and Odisha (834). The problem can be solved with a collective effort."

The number of such suicides in Rajasthan was 633, which is less than in other states, but the state government is 'serious and sensitive' towards the issue, an official statement said.

Kota, which is said to be a hub of coaching institutes for Joint Entrance Exam for engineering courses in India, witnesses thousands of students dropping off years to prepare for the prestigious universities.

However, most of the students compete for admission in Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), which offer brilliant courses in the field of science.

The JEE exam is a highly competitive exam, and the qualification rate is very low, between 0.5 to 2.5%. Only the top 10% of students who appear for the exam are qualified to participate in the Joint Entrance Examination-Advanced (JEE-Advanced).

A total number of 18,0372 candidates appeared in both papers 1 and 2 in JEE (Advanced) 2023. Out of this, a total of 43773 candidates cleared for the exam.

While Rajasthan Police is taking initiatives by talking about suicide preventions number with the students, the government has started counselling session and “fun days” so that students can feel at ease.

However, in Delhi students said they have nowhere to go for help or counselling if they are stressed. Fatima has been preparing for UPSC since this year. A masters student at Delhi University, she said that it is visible that the education system needs a restructure in the country.

“Given the high population and lower number of seats and low success rate this is like a downward spiral and disastrous for any middle-class student trying to crack these competitive exams,” Fatima said.

She added that exams like UPSC take up a major chunk of a student’s productive years.

At Rajendra Place, many people preparing for civil services exams have left their cushy corporate jobs to try to secure an elite government job. Despite such a low success rate, the expectations of parents and the thrill to work at a ‘powerful’ position, and give society something in return gives hope to students, only to be crushed by endless competition, especially for minority students or those from economically weaker backgrounds.

The UPSC candidates study all year in order to step into some of the country's most desired positions in the public sector. “All this leaves us miserable with a lot of mental issues,” Fatima added.

Living in Delhi, the stress and mental health issues she faces are so intense that she has to take medications for the same. “Even the toppers struggle here, forget mediocre students. It is undeniable that life for students in countries with higher populations like India is really dark and uncertain.

“It is just harder for even a brighter student in India (with no connections or social capital) to make a decent living and get a well-paying job as compared to the first world countries,” Fatima added.

According to an analysis paper called “Competitive exams and its impact on student’s mental health: An analytical study in India” most UPSC applicants are between the ages of 21 and 28, the time people usually start working towards making a financially stable career.

“Many people find that preparing for UPSC while working a job or operating a company is too stressful to be effective. This might place a financial strain on the family at times. This load appears to be particularly high for middle- and lower-middle-class households.

“Poor families face financial challenges on a regular basis, and applicants from such backgrounds must work especially hard to gain a position in the public service commission. All of these issues combine, resulting in poor grades, low self-confidence, and, in many situations, a failed effort. There are some aspirants who remain unable in handling this extreme pressure or failure and decide to end their lives,” the paper read.

Fatima, meanwhile, said that even the toppers, given the high competition, take many drops to get into these government institutes. “Many years of our lives are just wasted trying to secure a decent, and not even luxurious, life,” she said.

Sudha Krishna, is a 25-year-old from Andhra Pradesh who finished his Masters and came to Delhi to prepare for UPSC. “Sometimes, I do wonder whether this was a sane choice,” he said. Krishna is yet to make his first attempt, and is nervous. He said that the stress of the exams has gotten to him and he gets panic attacks but he can not let his family know about this.

A teacher at a government school in Delhi, on the condition of anonymity, blamed the business of coaching centres. “These institutes are thriving at the cost of people’s money. It is business and the pressure they create on these kids is traumatic. I warn my students to think twice before going for competitive examinations,” the teacher said.

Apart from the many coaching institutes that have been here for years, educational giants such as Byju’s and Vedantu are also setting up branches in Rajendra Nagar to cash in on the volumes of students. This gives the students wider choices and broader exposure. While for students it might be another way to find better classes, others said this was an added pressure.

“Imagine, it's so bad that students prefer death to going through the gruelling process of years of preparation only to fail to secure that seat. There are no consolations for losing it even by one mark. If you didn't make it, you didn't make it,” Fatima added.

Places like Rajendra Place are a hub for coaching centres and see students from all over the country come. Many people who had prepared for such exams share their resentment.

Abhilasha hails from Punjab. She stayed at Rajendra Place for two years and prepared for UPSC exams. “I regret every second of it,” she said, “I don’t want to bring anyone down but this is a reality that one must understand as well. I wasted those precious two years of my life. I wish I could go back and undo it,” she added.

Abhilasha said that she was constantly depressed and she got sick a lot due to mental health when she was preparing for the examinations. “Places like Rajendra Place, which has students from everywhere, are so depressing on top of that. I still shudder thinking about those times,” she said.

Experts said that many students feel loneliness during these times.

The analysis paper, meanwhile, pointed out how pressure from parents and them constantly telling the kids to start preparing for IIT or a medical school also has a severe impact.

“Indian parents put pressure on their children to achieve goals that were not available to them while they were growing up. The IIT degree is a passport to the United States, and medicine is a secure, well-paying profession, hence both are in high demand.

“No parent is concerned about their child's ability. The child is obligated to fulfil his or her family's obsession. Exam pressures are wreaking havoc on our children's mental health. They must remember by rote and seem to be terrified of forgetting even a single word of the teacher's prepared responses,” the paper reads.

Megh Tiwari, who hails from Jharkhand said that preparing for such exams is depressing and lonely. “We will know the most random economic equation because we had to study for it, but we still would not clear the exam. If we did clear the exam, we might not be able to clear the interview stage. It is a vicious cycle,” he said.

With a goal to become an IAS officer to make his parents feel proud, Tiwari said he is faltering at each step. “I wish there was someone who could tell me that this is not the only option. I wish there were more government jobs so that more than a handful people could be selected,” he said.

For Fatima, lack of job prosperity and long hours of work at corporations are off putting, making many people switch their professions or aspire for better jobs. “A mechanical engineer or civil engineer from IIT who failed to get into his choice of degree because of lower rank, makes less than his counterparts, would sit for these government exams because of lack of corporate jobs.

“Someone from the arts field (like myself) despite being from a good college and good scores would end up with lower salaries and prospects in the private sector that again pushes them to write the UPSC exam,” Fatima said. Although Fatima did not face any parental pressure, the need to find a better paying job has brought her to this position.