The recent death of Anil Kumar, a 21-year-old student studying at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D), who recently died by suicide has once again sparked a conversation on the institution’s mode of education.

A resident of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, Anil Kumar belonged to the Dalit community. A student of BTech in Mathematics and Computing at the institute, his death on September 1, comes after a series of suicides in India's prestigious colleges, including that of Ayush Ashna, a fourth-year Dalit student of the same department in IIT-D as Anil's.

Speaking to The Citizen, many students who are part of the institution called the professors and space inside the IIT campus casteist and sexist. Joel Suni Sakhi, who got admission in IIT Guwahati but left it due to the disturbing environment within six months, said that the professors in the campuses were casteist and that students from minority communities face a harsh environment.

Sakhi took admission in a humanities course, which was introduced in IIT then. “The professors use casteist comments right inside the class, which my friends have told me. I left IIT because in one month I heard about two suicides and almost saw one. It left such a traumatic impact on me that it took me six years to come back to another university,” he said.

Another PhD student from IIT Delhi who did not want to be named said that that SC students face a lot of discrimination and that such suicides are nothing new.

“For B Tech [students] caste becomes very obvious once they ask what is your rank, and they look down upon their colleagues who had a worse rank than them but got in due to reservations,” they said. However, most of them receive coaching from expensive institutes and have access to study materia, many students said.

Sakhi said that the institution’s way of coping with this is to make sure that the campus is up and running the next day. “If someone commits suicide the university is up and running the next day. There is no accountability, except in IIT Bombay and Chennai because the student politics is very strong there. If I talk about IIT Guwahati where I studied there were 3 to 4 councillors for 12,000 to 15,000 students,” he added.

While the death of students has left many in shock, others are not surprised as the staunch competition makes the students stressed and isolated.

Another PhD student, on the condition of anonymity, said that at IIT even though she did not face direct casteism, as she belonged to a Scheduled Tribe community, staunch sexism was something she faced predominantly. She also said that the professors can not be blamed for the suicides od the students.

“I won’t say that it is just the faculty or the professors who are at fault here. I personally never faced any difficulty with the professors on the basis of caste. But I did face discrimination on the basis of gender and there were many such instances,” she said.

The student further said that more than the professors it is their own peers who make them feel demotivated. “If there is a simple discussion going on and there is a topic on SC or ST, they start talking badly about it. I was in my lab recently. There were some girls who had come for a PhD interview, a senior came in, and said there are some seats reserved for these SC, ST and asked those girls whether they belonged to that community. He made such a bad face too,” she added.

She added that their peers make them feel belittled for their Dalit or Tribal identity. It becomes toxic because at the end of the day they have to coexist together. “You have to live with your fellow students day in and night and they make you feel like nothing or as if we snatched their rights,” she added.

While the administration has said nothing on the issue of casteism, if data is to be believed the science stream in India remains dominated by privileged caste (General Category) groups, according to an article by journalist Ankur Paliwal in Nature, a leading science journal, published in January 2023.

In December 2022, the education ministry told Parliament that only around 30% of faculty vacancies under the reserved category were filled at the Indian Institutes of Technology and Central Universities despite a year-long recruitment to fill these posts.

According to reports, the data was revealed against the backdrop of the year-long ‘recruitment drive’, which began in September 2021, to hire faculty belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes in elite universities.

The data was revealed after S. Venkatesan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) asked this question in the Lok Sabha, when the minister of state for education, Annapurna Devi, was presenting data on this ‘recruitment drive’.

The Union government had directed 23 IITs and 45 Central Universities across the country to fill up vacancies in teaching positions under these reserved categories.

However, after more than a year, only 10 IITs were able to identify 342 vacancies in these categories for the positions of professors, associate professors and assistant professors. A total of 237 positions in these categories were filled at 19 IITs.

The reports further revealed a data analysis done by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) of IIT Bombay, which said that 13 IITs were unable to identify vacancies to be filled in this recruitment drive because they follow a “flexible cadre structure for faculty positions”.

The analysis further showed that 358 vacancies remained at 14 IITs at the end of this recruitment exercise. The APPSC also found that no ST candidates were recruited at IIT Kharagpur, IIT Roorkee, IIT ISM Dhanbad, IIT Tirupati, IIT Goa and IIT Dharwad, during the one-year period.

No SC candidate was recruited in IIT Roorkee. It also found that most IITs did not recruit SC/ST/OBC candidates at the professor and associate professor levels.

However, for students who tried to crack IIT, the competitive market and stress aligned is the reason why students take the extreme step.

Speaking to The Citizen, Arvind Garg, a Delhi based software engineer said that beyond the institution it is the parents who start pressuring a student. “The pressure for a child to crack IIT starts from class 9 or even 8 by the family,” he added, “A lot of expectations are set and when as science students we start thinking about how we want to crack for IIT.”

Garg did not join coaching classes like other students, which is why he was burdened with more pressure to keep at pace with the other students. “Science itself is tough in 11th and 12th, on top of that we have to prepare for these competitive exams. I remember that I did not want to waste even a minute of my day. If I sat for five minutes without doing anything, I started getting stressed and went to study,” he added.

He said that the society as a whole needs to reflect on the pressure they burden a child with by egging them about universities like IIT and creating an expectation that crushes a child in the end.

“We also have to understand how expensive these coaching centres are. The entry forms are in itself expensive and not every child is able to afford it,” he added.

On the recent suicides in IIT, Garg said he was not surprised. Having gone through the pressure of cracking IIT, he further said that it is difficult to understand the pressure a student inside the campus feels.

“There are a lot of things that I know a student feels. From the money spent on education to expectations of family to discrimination – a student is crushed by such mounting pressure and there is no help for them,” he added.

For a lot of students, it also becomes isolating to be away from your family and prepare for these competitive examinations. The pressure of exams, family expectations and financial constraints pushes a student to a brim.

Rajasthan's 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, the mental health crisis that students go through because of it is so intense that many die by suicide. In August, an 18-year-old student in Kota who was preparing for the Indian Institutes of Technology Joint Entrance Examination died by suicide.

According to reports, the student who died by suicide on Tuesday was Valmiki Jangid from Gaya, Bihar. He had been in Kota since last year studying for the JEE. This was reportedly the 22nd such suicide in Kota in 2023 – and the fourth just in the month of August.

While several people have been pointing out the acute mental health crisis among students, the district administration adopted a controversial approach to dealing with the problem – installing spring-loaded fans in all rooms “to provide students mental support and security”.

Announcing the decisions around fans, Kota district collector Om Prakash Bunkar said in an order, according to Hindustan Times, “To provide mental support and security to the students studying/living in them and to prevent suicides from increasing among coaching students in Kota city, all hostel/PG operators in the state are directed to install a security spring device in the fans at every room, as discussed in Saturday’s meeting.”

“Springs in these ceiling fans are designed to uncoil the moment it detects a load, effectively detaching the fan from the ceiling, and preventing hangings. The fans will also have installed sensors that sound an alarm in the event of an attempted suicide,” the newspaper reported.

In December 2022, the local administration had ordered all coaching institutes, hostels and paying-guest accommodations in Kota to have a weekly off for students, a maximum class strength of 80, and mandatory psychological evaluations for students and teachers.

Speaking to The Citizen, Akshit Jain, a marketing consultant based in Chandigarh, said that he spent two years in Kota and the environment is horrible and depressing for a student.

“We used to have classes back-to-back, without a break. This whole environment where we are studying for at least four hours, without food and water shows the kind of environment the students have to deal with. There is also an expectation of a student preparing for these exams,” he said.

Remembering his experience, Jain said that there were many students like him who were all the time stressed, while one of his friends disappeared. “We still do not know what happened to him, because he had a breakdown when he was preparing there and then he vanished,” Jain added.

He also said that parents need to take more responsibility and said for many it is the reputation and degree of these institutes that matter more than the mental health.

Meanwhile, on Monday, a high-level empowered committee recommended coaching institutes here to reduce study hours and create a friendly environment for students by adding fun activities to their routine, officials said.

This recommendation came after a marathon meeting of the state-level committee with experts and representatives of social welfare organisations, and spiritual and yoga communities to seek their suggestions on checking suicides by coaching students here, Kota District Collector OP Bunker told media after the meeting.

The empowered committee was formed by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in August amid the rise in suicides by NEET and JEE aspirants taking coaching classes here.

Based on the recommendations received from the stakeholders, the state-level committee will prepare a report and submit it to the state government, Bunker said.

Regarding the reduction of fees being charged by coaching institutes, the collector said the government could not intervene as it was directly between students and institutes.

Meanwhile, a state-level team is conducting health surveys at all coaching institutes across the city. Around 80 per cent of students have filled up a health form provided by them, based on which students with doubtful tendencies are being identified and sent for counselling, Bunker said.

Special focus is being laid on critical cases of doubtful symptoms or signs and parents of such students are being asked to come to Kota to support their wards, he said.

In critical cases where students are found unfit in the second round of counselling, they will be sent home with their parents, he added.

On the ongoing suspension of regular tests at coaching institutes for two months, the collector said parents have recommended that tests are necessary for the evaluation of students and authorities are mulling on remoulding the test system before resuming it.

An Act to regulate coaching institutes is also under consideration, Bunker said, adding that there is no provision so far to impose a fine on or take action against a coaching institute.

Sakhi, meanwhile added that there needs to be human sensitive training inside the campuses for both students and professors. “I think there needs to be training for not just students but teachers and faculty as well because they are not sensitive at all. Being an engineer doesn’t mean you do not have social training. That is also important. As a professor you should be sensitive around you and I think that is missing,” he added.

Cover Photograph: From The Telegraph