Kalu Sarai is not Kota. Or so people would like you to believe. This New Delhi neighbourhood has some obvious differences with the Rajasthan town that made its reputation as the country’s coaching hub for IIT and has recently been in news for a spate of student suicides.
For one, even though Kalu Sarai attracts IIT aspirants from the city and indeed from all over the country, it is just one neighbourhood in the sprawling national capital. Unlike Kota, where even auto drivers mark you as an IIT hopeful, or the parent of one, as soon as you alight at the station, in Delhi, cabbies don’t make that obvious connect the minute you give a Kalu Sarai address. Institutes here also claim that they ensure that students don’t feel unduly stressed about the competition that lies ahead.
A beginning is made
When the first India Institute of Technology (IIT) was set up in Kharagpur, West Bengal, in 1950, the aim was to create an institution for higher technical learning to boost post-war industrial development in India. Over the years as the number of IITs went up, the focus seems to have shifted to creating good employment opportunities for its students. It is so at least in the minds of the country’s vast middle class populace. “For years engineering, medical and the administrative services have been the professions of choice for the middle class,” explains sociologist Dipankar Gupta. “Engineering is the most preferred since there are more colleges offering engineering. Other professions have come up in recent years, but one often needs to be well connected to get those jobs. For most people, the chances of getting a job with an engineering degree are far better than with a simple bachelor of science or arts degree.”
Once that decision has been taken, the IIT is the next obvious choice. “On an average, an IIT degree helps one start at a 50% higher salary than a degree from a less pedigreed engineering college,” says Chiranjit Banerjee, managing director of People Plus, a Bangalore-based recruiting agency. Every year, placement season sees some IITian hit newspaper headlines by bagging that dream Google or Microsoft job with a salary varying between Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 crore, thus inspiring a fresh batch of aspirants to make an IIT degree the mission of their young lives.
“The number of students appearing for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering has increased from 12 lakh to 14 lakh in the past five years. The IITs have a total of only 10,000 seats” says R Subramanyam, additional secretary (technical education), ministry of human resource development.
Living on hope
Thus are born hubs like Kota, or Kalu Sarai in Delhi, that sell the hope of realising the big Indian IIT dream . Other cities too have their trusted institutes. “There are about 25 coaching centres for engineering in Kalu Sarai. The demand for tuition ensures that about two-three new centres open up every year,” says the manager of an institute.
To enter the area is like entering into an institute campus. FIITJEE, Bansal, TIME, Guidance, Narayana – the row of institutes is seemingly never ending. Employees of each institute hang around the lane, trying to solicit new students. Overhead fliers carry photographs of JEE toppers and the names of institutes that have trained them. Book shops too sport advertisements of the latest JEE result or books that can help crack the test. Other fliers inform of rooms available for rent for students. Shops selling fruit juice, tea or momos are thronged with students taking a quick break on their way in or out of classes. The conversation is all about engineering. Just to have made it so far is like half the battle won. The failure of his first attempt at getting a good enough ranking at JEE pushed Rishah Chauhan to a Kalu Sarai coaching centre. “I have got admission to an engineering college, but I want to try again for IIT,” he says.
It is this hope that made Sanjay Kumar Sharma, a shopkeeper in Bihar’s Motihari town, send his two sons to study at a coaching institute in Kalu Sarai as soon as they appeared for their class 10 board examinations. “When I was young there was no one to motivate me. But when I saw the children of many of my family members studying engineering, I encouraged my sons to do the same,” says Sharma, who paid Rs 1,68,000 to get his elder son admitted last year for a two-year coaching programme. “The younger one, Sarvajit, got a scholarship and so I had to pay only Rs 58,000 for him this year,” says the proud father, who pays an additional Rs 20,000 as hostel fees for both his sons. He is willing to sell off the family-owned land in Bihar or take a loan to fund the boys’ education once they get into engineering college.
But sitting in his coaching centre classroom, 16-year-old Sarvajit is already bored of the subject. “I wanted to be in the Army. If I tell my father that I’m not enjoying this, I think he will let me quit. But I don’t have the heart to tell him,” he says.
Classes are held for approximately six hours a day, during day time for those who have completed school and during afternoons and evenings for school-going aspirants. But most out-station aspirants, like Sarvajit and his brother, prefer to enrol at some school in their hometown in the distance education mode and keep the focus on the IIT preparation. “School fees in Delhi are beyond my means,” adds their father.
Students are alloted classes on the basis on grades and regular tests are done to upgrade or downgrade the students. Sixteen-year-old Rishabh has just started a two-year coaching programme after appearing for his class X board examinations this year. His smile is wistful when asked if he misses playing or hanging out with friends, watching movies or just sleeping during the holidays, but is quick to add that it is worth it. The IIT dream is his own, he insists. While his mother, Nidhi, says they never put any pressure on him, she admits that she worries about pressure from friends and extended family. “They are always saying that Rishabh is brilliant and is sure to get into IIT. That is a kind of pressure,” she says.
Pressure to perform
Often the pressure to perform is linked to the awareness of the financial burden parents must bear for their education. Like Sharman Joshi’s character in the film 3 Idiots, based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone, whose every visit home is a reminder that his unmarried sister, ailing father and struggling mother need him to get his degree and a job.
It’s an awareness that also haunts 21-year-old Massouwir, who is preparing for the JEE for the second time. “My father is a mason. He has already paid Rs 65,000 tuition fees for a year of coaching. He does ask me what guarantee is there that I will be able to clear the test,” says Massouwir, sitting in a small dingy room in Kalu Sarai that he shares with another student. Though his family lives in Ghaziabad, he prefers to stay as a paying guest here, paying Rs 3,500 a month and an additional Rs 2,500 for his meals. “It saves travel time if I stay close to the coaching centres,” he explains. The room has two narrow beds for the two occupants and a single table piled high with books.
Even success at times fails to alleviate the stress. Counselling psychologist Geetanjali Kumar talks of a recent case where a student broke down after clearing the JEE Mains. “Though she was good in science, engineering was not something that interested her and she was worried that since she had cleared JEE, her parents’ expectations from her would go up,” says Kumar, adding that she gets about 15-20 such cases every month, where parents try to pressurise their children to study engineering because they think it is a more stable career choice.
Need to listen
In her five-page suicide note, Kriti Tripathi, who jumped to her death on April 28 in Kota, accused her mother of manipulating her as a child into liking science. She warned her against doing the same with her sister. Moved by the suicides and the letters left behind by the students, Kota collector Dr Ravi Kumar Surpur recently wrote an open letter to parents advising them against putting such pressure on their children.
Meanwhile, at a coaching centre in Delhi, a group of 50 students stare uncomprehendingly when asked whether the IIT dream was theirs or their parents. “Most of those studying for engineering take it up because they have been advised by their parents that it is a safe career option or because they see others around them pursuing the same,” says IITian Gaurav Tiwari, who is faculty at a coaching centre in New Delhi. “But we can’t really expect a 16-17-year-old in India to know what he wants to do in life. If we have to empower children to make their choices, we have to change the very pattern of our education, so that a child can make an informed choice.”
In its absence, parents too spare little time to understand a child’s aptitude. “Most parents don’t try to understand their children. They lose the capacity to listen. Often they live in denial and assure themselves that the child will not really come to any harm. They prefer to believe that once they clear the tests everything will fall in place,” says Kumar. Kriti understood this. In her suicide note, she wrote, “Some might even say that she was so strong that we would never have imagined that she would do something like this… This is because I helped many come out of their depression and make a comeback. Funny, I couldn’t do that to myself”.
The single-minded focus on getting into an engineering college means that often students are not even exposed to what is happening in the world around them. “Such learning by rote may not prepare them to be an engineer in the true sense — someone with problem solving and coping ability,” says Kumar.
And India is not alone in this. In South Korea, parents send their children to institutes giving private tuitions, popularly known as crammers, to make sure they get into good universities. Unsurprisingly, Korean institutes like Etoos have opened in Kota.
Back in India, despite the rat race, some, like Rancho, Amir Khan’s character in 3 Idiots, manage to keep their inner quest alive. Very few like Rajiv Bagchi (name changed on request) actually manage to break out of the system without worrying about whether it’s too late to change track. After completing his BTech from IIT, the 28-year-old is now doing a PhD in Philosophy. The son of an engineer father, he finally realised where his interests lay.