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Exam pressure leads to wave of student suicides

india Updated: May 20, 2008 11:30 IST

AFP
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It's exam season in India and it's also suicide season when students buckle under parental pressure to get high marks and into a top university for the golden chance of a high-paying job.

Newspapers carry tragic daily reports of youngsters who have killed themselves or taken what Indians euphemistically call "the extreme step" because they fear the shame of a bad report card. On a single day last month, it was reported that two teenage boys in New Delhi hanged themselves at their homes.

One was falling behind in his studies and the other was afraid of an English exam. A final year Bachelor of Commerce student hanged herself in the commercial capital Mumbai apparently because she was not prepared for her economics paper and did not want her family to feel ashamed.

A grade 12 student from Surat in western India hanged herself and another threw herself before a moving train in Allahabad in northern India, the paper reported, adding there were other suicides that day too. "Teenage suicide (over exams) is a national disaster," said Samir Parikh, psychiatrist at Max Healthcare, a leading New Delhi private hospital chain.

In 2006, the most recent year for which official figures are available, some 5,857 students -- or 16 a day -- killed themselves due to exam stress. Police say thousands more suicides go unreported because parents want to keep the cause of death a secret.

Competition to get into higher education in the country of more than 1.1 billion people is fierce with stratospheric averages needed to obtain the few places available in India's "Ivy League" colleges. For instance, the cut-off average mark to pursue an undergraduate economics degree at Delhi University's top commerce college last year was 97.8 percent.

"Unsurprisingly only a small fraction of the 500,000 school leavers each year will make it," said Sunil Sethi, columnist for financial daily Business Standard. India has just a couple of dozen top-notch "branded" colleges, seven Indian institutes of technology and six of management.

Together they take only 16,000 undergraduates each year. In the last few weeks since the start of exam season, there have been a string of suicides in India's capital by students as young as 12.

"Over the years the kind of marks students need to get into 'good universities' has really started touching the roof -- they need 90, 95 percent averages," psychiatrist Parikh said. Also "parents have big expectations and give undue importance to exams and for children the marks are benchmarks of their self-esteem. The combination can be fatal."

Many hang themselves from ceiling fans -- ubiquitous in India's hot climate -- but others set themselves alight, consume pesticides or drown themselves. One 17-year-old left a suicide note saying he was ending his "life because the pressure has started to get to me and I cannot take it any longer," concluding poignantly: "I love my family and I hope they will understand."

While the global teen suicide rate is 14.5 per 100,000, a 2004 study by the Christian Medical College in the southern city of Vellore reported 148 for girls and 58 for boys in India. The girls' rate is higher because many fear being married off if they flunk, experts say. Educators criticise the exams for stressing memory work over reasoning.

"We must make exams in such a way it does not bank on memory but emphasises thinking capability," said scientist Yash Pal, who headed India's recent curricular reform steering committee. Tutors are called in and parents take time off to coach their children through exams.

"Memory pills" are devoured, nutritionists are consulted for the best "brain food" and newspapers devote sections to tackling exams. "You can't imagine the pressure," said student Renu Chanda, 17, who has just done her finals. On top of the finals, there are the university tests.

Some students take half a dozen or more exams to try to get into big-name institutions. A 2006 study of 231 teenagers by Anuradha Sovani, a clinical psychologist at the University of Mumbai, showed that the students were more frightened of exams than accidents, earthquakes or bomb attacks.

"Somehow we think high marks are the only way our children are going to succeed in life," said Anita Gupta, a mother of two sons and a daughter. Poorer parents make huge sacrifices to afford tuition so children feel an extra burden to succeed. The ones who don't make it into top schools end up going to under-funded second-rate colleges or the booming number of private universities.

But the disadvantage of private institutes is that standards vary so wildly many are not recognised by the government. Families that can afford it send their children abroad with an estimated 160,000 Indians studying overseas each year.
And even when students get into good Indian colleges, the pressure does not end -- with university suicides also regularly reported. "We have to give youngsters -- and their parents -- the life skills to know marks are not everything in life," said psychiatrist Parikh.