Rahul Satija | Feb 21, 2019 | 11 min read
Kota’s ‘high’ standards
Strap: Murky world of abuse, violence and endless nights of gaming among aspiring students as they chase assignments
Kota: For 17-year-old Shubham Goyal, roaming the streets of Kota and ‘getting high’ is part of his daily routine after dropping out of his coaching for IIT-JEE. Smoking cigarettes with friends at a roadside tea stall, he talks about having lost all hope of cracking the entrance exam. For the longest time, Shubham’s only goal was to move to Kota, the hub of coaching centers for competitive exams in India, and now plans to move back to his hometown of Bhilwara, in Rajasthan. While talking, the teen casually lights a joint (a heady concoction of tobacco and cannabis) and nobody bats an eyelid. Puff, puff, pass.
In Kota -- the education hub that attracts more than 150,000 students every academic year -- there are many a Shubham who arrive to nurture the customary desire of Indian middle-class parents -- a seat in a premier engineering or medical institutes in India. Some kids who are sent to prepare for this goal are as young as 12 years of age.
The stakes are unthinkable. Only a few beat the odds that go as high as 1:100 at competitive institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). In 2018, according to exam conducting body Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), of the nearly 12 lakh (1.2 million) students who appeared for the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) Mains, only 11,942 were able to secure a seat at the IITs. Coaching institutes in Kota prey on these dreams and feed on the cut-throat competition for limited seats. Each class accommodates around 150 students who pay more than INR 1 lakh per academic year as coaching fee.
The competitive atmosphere and burden of expectation back home leads many students towards coping mechanisms passed on by peers -- alcohol, cannabis, gaming, and at the extreme end of the spectrum, gang violence.
Up to 2009, Kota had just one de-addiction center, and now has five, still disproportionate to the large number of students who reside in the city. Prerna Sansthan, said to be one of the oldest rehabilitation centers in the city according to founder Mahesh Haritwal, receives around 20 to 30 students every month who come to cure addiction. “But, the rehabilitation process requires time and consistent effort, so I advise them to get admitted or return to their hometown. Most students don’t get treatment here,” says Haritwal, also a counsellor at the Sansthan. He adds that the numbers of students who approach the center struggling with addiction has gone up from 10 to 15 in the past three to four years.
Data provided by the Kota district administration shows the ugly side of this competitive environment. Fifty-eight students committed suicide between 2013 and 2017, but many believe the number could be much higher. Things took a turn for the worse in 2018 with 20 (14 boys and six girls) students committing suicide. December further shook the city when three students committed suicide in the span of four days.
The Rajasthan government last year, invited Tata Institute Of Social Sciences (TISS) to conduct research on the driving factors behind the increasing number of suicides in Kota. The findings showed that fear and stress related to failure in examinations was the primary reason. Importantly, the research also shed light on a rare aspect of students’ life in Kota -- students who were a part of the research admitted indulging in smoking, consumption of alcohol and use of drugs.
*TISS prof Sujatha Sriram was approached but hasn’t responded
Dr Devendra Vijayvergia, head of the government-run de-addiction centre at New Medical College Hospital, says the main reason students get involved in drug abuse, gaming and other distractions is “peer pressure and stress”. He adds that symptoms of substance abuse and addiction include anxiety, irritation, inability to sleep, and on rare occasions suicidal thoughts. “This is what makes it difficult for them to get clean on their own,” says Vijayvergia.
Kota, coaching life and habits
There is saying among students in Kota: put your right foot first when you arrive at the station -- a sign of luck they believe. On arriving at the Kota railway station, auto drivers can be heard shouting, “Resonance! Allen!”, names of popular coaching institutes in the city. The drive towards the coaching centers is splendid, with the Chambal river traveling along. The pleasant scenery is quickly replaced by several blocks of Kota’s coaching areas. Here, thousands of students carrying heavy bags and coaching study material can be spotted. Walking along, some think about daily practise problems (DPPs) -- homework given at the coaching institutes -- while others mentally calculate the number of days left for finals. The name of their respective coaching institutes blaring on their chests -- their identification for the academic year.
One way to judge the immense pressure students live through in Kota is by observing the sheer volume of books they carry. Each coaching center assigns a set of study material to students, which consists of 90 booklets, more than 100 DPPs, and assignments. All this, excluding the mandatory six to seven books students are required to own.
Soon, Poha -- an Indian snack made with beaten rice -- becomes a staple diet for students, who are unable to regularly digest the oily mess food. The 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month is celebrated like a festival, where students are temporarily relieved from the pressure of classes and exams.
A walk around where coaching centers and most paying guest (PG) accommodations are located -- at Rajeev Gandhi Nagar, Vigyan Nagar and Talwandi -- reveals how easily cannabis and alcohol is accessed. Students sneak liquor bottles into their bags at a wine store on Talwandi Road, hardly 500 meters from one of the premier coaching institutes. Most students are under 18, but they are never asked for ID proof at the liquor store.
While liquor is sold openly to underage students, cannabis is circulated in a more discrete manner. Students purchase marijuana from either their seniors or directly from local peddlers. These seniors are usually coaching institute dropouts funding their habits with an extra INR 50 they make on an INR 100 packet, which lasts them four to five joints. Local peddlers are well-versed in spotting their targets -- they station themselves barely two kilometers from the coaching institutes and zero down on students in uniforms as potential customers. The ease of access to cannabis reflects the sheer negligence of authority figures in taking necessary action.
Other stress relievers that students in Kota are turning to include gaming, streaming online content and gang violence.
‘Bihari Tigers’, a gang of students first came into light in May 2016, when more than 100 members armed with knives and sticks stabbed and killed Satya Prakash, a 19-year-old medical aspirant, in a bid to prove the gang’s supremacy. A former Bihari Tiger who wishes to stay anonymous, tells Ozy that most of these gangs are run by students who have dropped out of the course, the most prominent ones being “Bihari Tigers and Haryana Fighting Machines”.
Anshdeep Singh, an engineering student at one of the top colleges in the country, was a student in Kota between 2015 and 2017. He recalls an episode when they had to sneak in a boy into their PG, as he was being chased by a gang equipped with “hockey sticks and iron chains”.
According to data obtained from Kota police, in 2017, nine incidents of student-related violence were reported only from Jawahar Nagar, a hub of PG accommodations for students. In 2018, another 10 such incidents including attempt to murder were reported from the same area.
However, police also choose not to put on paper some cases, keeping students’ prospective careers in mind. The cases registered are usually ones which are vulnerable.
Students frequently flock to cyber cafes and gaming parlours nearby. These dimly-lit rooms are a source of respite and solace from their daily tough routines. On entering these stress-free zones, dozens of students can be spotted glued to computer screens. At gaming parlours, it’s a sight to witness students scream and abuse while playing popular games like Dota2 and PUBG. Cyber cafes meanwhile stock up on all the latest TV series and movies to ensure that students stay long hours. Owners of these gaming parlours and cyber cafes track the time every student spends in front of a screen, which easily goes up to eight hours. Some of the cafes operate illegally, allowing students to remain inside after 11pm by simply closing the shutter and locking them in until morning, a privilege they offer students at an additional INR 100.
Deepak Bhargav, Superintendent of Police, Kota, says the police are taking measures to curb incidents of suicide, gang-related violence and substance abuse. They have identified members of the Bihari Tigers and put them under scrutiny. To prevent drug abuse among students, local police are stationed at spots where students engage in buying/selling of drugs, and attempt to restrict sale, says Bhargav, adding, “Last year we registered more than 30 cases under the NDPS Act (Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act).”
To reduce the number of suicides, he says, “We are in talks with coaching institutes to prepare an exit policy for the students, which would for sure reduce some financial pressure.”
According to the current exit policy that most institutes in Kota practice, if a student withdraws from the course after later than 20 days of commencement, there is no refund of fee.
After the recent string of student suicides in Kota, coaching institutes have taken several measures to prevent suicides, says Ankit Lahoty, general manager at Motion Education. One important measure is the placement of both government and private student counselors. Moreover, attendance process has been made automated where parents receive calls if their wards are found missing classes for more than two days.
Industry that revived a city
Kota, a struggling city in the late 1990s, is now popular as ‘the’ coaching hub of India. This transformation kicked in somewhere during the mid-1980s when V K Bansal, an engineer with J.K. Synthetics, took an alternate career option as a teacher after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. By 1995, Bansal name invited students from neighbouring cities for coaching. After J.K. Synthetics shut down in 1996, the newly-jobless engineers took up teaching.
Going by a report, ‘Shadow Education: Private supplementary tutoring and its implications for policy makers in Asia’, based on a study conducted by Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2012, the thriving coaching industry of Kota would today record an annual turnover of INR 1,400- 1,500 crore (USD 230 million-250 million). The ADB report calculated the turnover of the Kota coaching industry in 2012 around INR 700-800 crore and projected that the figure would grow annually by 15-20 percent.
Coaching institutes are a high return business bet in India, with 83 percent high school students opting for private tutoring, as per the ADB report. This has also drawn in foreign funders’ curiosity.
The industry drew a INR 30 crore fund from South Korean coaching giant Etoos in 2011, say researchers Bhupendra Singh and Patanjali Mishra in a study published by European Academic Research. It also states that institutes like Resonance Eduventures has raised at least INR 160 crore funding until 2017 and Career Point has raised around INR 120 crore between 2009 and 2016 from Franklin Templeton and the Nadathur Group.
The abusive atmosphere prevalent among Kota’s coaching industry also has the city’s love for psychotropic substances to blame. In 2018, more than 115 kilograms of cannabis was seized under Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substance (NDPS) Act in Kota, according to data with the district crime branch.
Unlike Shubham, who gave up hope, Abhishek (last name withheld) was determined to set things right. After a month in Kota, a casual experiment with cannabis led to a habit that lasted three months straight, until Abhishek decided to quit.
“Everyone does not have such supportive parents as I had. For a 17-year old, dealing with such a stressful environment becomes very tough. And there are many people in the city who would prey upon you to make money, but a very few who would come to your rescue,” says Abhishek, who opened up to his mother and received treatment in his hometown for a month before returning to Kota to attempt his Class 12 exams.
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