Two years ago, a doctor in Thane, just outside Mumbai, left the spacious home where she had lived for two decades, and moved with her son to a smaller flat in the suburb of Andheri.
She did it because she wanted her son to be closer to a coaching centre that trains students for the Indian Institute of Technologies’ Joint Entrance Examination, or IIT-JEE — one of the world’s most competitive exams. (See box ‘Tougher and tougher’.)
The 46-year-old doctor had to give up her practice. She also now sees her husband, a doctor who still lives in Thane, only on weekends.
These are minor sacrifices compared with what she did four years ago: She moved all the way to Kota, a town in Rajasthan that has become a hub for JEE training classes, so that her elder son could be coached there. He now studies at IIT–Bombay.
“Parents need to make sacrifices for their children’s future,” said her husband, who did not want any family members to be named because he did not want to increase the pressure on his son. “He is already stressed out. God forbid, if he does not get in, then he’ll feel miserable that people have read in the newspaper how hard he prepared.”
This family is hardly unusual in the lengths to which it is willing to go to give its children a fighting chance in the JEE. (See other examples below.)
Although the number of IITs, and seats, has increased over the years, so has the number of aspirants. On average, over the past decade, the number of people taking the JEE has jumped 20 per cent each year. Next Sunday, 4.72 lakh students will take the killer exam.
The lure of IIT clearly remains as intense as it was two decades ago. But today, in an economy that generates a wider variety of jobs than ever before, which require an array of talents, how healthy is the mad rush?
Not very, say IIT insiders.
“There is no doubt that the IITs are institutes of the highest standard,” said Professor P.V. Indiresan, former director of IIT-Madras. “But the majority of students are more interested in the money that the IIT label lands them rather than the engineering itself. As for parents, the IITs guarantee their children good jobs. They are more interested in their children becoming rich.”
There’s arguably nothing wrong in wanting to become rich, but it can come at a cost, especially when students suppress their natural inclinations in other directions, such as art or writing.
“Several students’ passions lie elsewhere, but their good results and social pressure have made them choose the IITs,” said Gautam Barua, director of IIT-Guwahati. “It is a larger social problem — parents and students are unable to see the other career opportunities that a growing economy offers.”
Indeed, disappointment awaits many who actually make it to the IITs.
“For two years, these students have had no exposure other than to coaching classes, where they are taught only to crack problems,” said a professor from IIT-Bombay, who did not wish to be named. “The IIT teaching method is very different. Here, students have to think for themselves, not merely solve hundreds of problems of a particular type. Also, many are school toppers. But at IIT, that is commonplace. So when their performance is considered average, disillusionment sets in.”
Part of the problem is the JEE itself, which is far from a foolproof filter that selects only those who have an aptitude for and an interest in engineering.
The Rs 10,0000-crore JEE coaching class sector ensures that even students who don’t necessarily have the ability are able to get in through sheer drilling.
Kota in Rajasthan is the biggest puller of aspirants, but the metros are not far behind. IIT coaching classes have also found their way to smaller towns.
Coaching classes defend their role. “We use our talent, expertise and experience to enhance a student’s knowledge, which is proved in the exams,” said Praveen Tyagi of IITians Pace, a Mumbai-based coaching class. “Instead of weeding it out of the system, the government should incorporate coaching classes in to the mainstream. Why get rid of a system that helps students?”
The IITs, however, want to eradicate the coaching class culture. A committee, chaired by the director of IIT-Kharagpur, Professor Damodar Acharya, is looking into reforming the JEE, and is expected to submit a report to the IIT council, a high-level decision-making panel, later this year.
“The committee wants to reduce the burden of the entrance exam on students and cut out the coaching culture,” said Professor M.S. Ananth, director of IIT-Madras and a committee member. “The adverse consequences of coaching are well known, such as a neglect of school work and a single-minded focus on performing in the exam rather than understanding concepts.”
The committee also wants to give board exam marks more importance. A previous JEE reforms committee, which submitted its report in July 2005, had recommended that only students who score above a prescribed cut-off in the class 12 examinations be eligible for taking the JEE.
After conferring with the Council of Boards of School Education in India, the IIT Council and the HRD ministry fixed it at 60 per cent, much lower than what the committee had suggested.
“The current committee will look into this too,” said Ananth. It is even toying with the radical idea of replacing the JEE with an aptitude test.
The state of higher education also engenders the frenzy. India has few institutes in other fields that are as good as the IITs, so even students who wish to follow their interests begin looking to the IITs as an option.
So in the mind of millions, these institutions remain the ultimate formula for achieving success, a goal for which no sacrifice is too great.
Ask Mumbai’s doctor couple. What will they do if their son does not get through?
“His will attempt the JEE once again,” replies his father.
‘It’s not a sacrifice, but a duty’
Manoj Makhijani, 46, does not think of anything he does for his children as a sacrifice, including shutting down his coaching centre in one suburb of Mumbai, Chembur, and moving another suburb on the other side of the city, Andheri.
He moved because it will be far easier for his daughter, Nidhi, who is in class 11, to travel to her IIT-JEE coaching class. He now works as a teacher in other coaching centres.
“It is not a sacrifice; it is my duty,” said Makhijani. “There is no substitute for the IIT; either you are an IITian or you are not, and there is a world of difference between the two.”
His elder son has already cracked the JEE and become an IITian. So Nidhi is under considerable pressure to follow him.
“There is pressure, but it brings out the best in you,” said the 16-year-old, who now shuttles between coaching classes and college. Agrees Manoj, “My elder son is a role model who provides more motivation than pressure.”
What about the expenses?
“I look at it this way,” replied Manoj. “I am 46 and my children are my future. If they get into an IIT, all expenses will be compensated for.”
Where no one had heard of IIT
When Priyanka Bhusari told her school friends three years ago that she wanted to get into an IIT, no one in her hometown of Mehkar, a small town hundreds of kilometres east of Mumbai in Akola district had the foggiest idea what it was.
”They all thought I meant the ITI [the Industrial Training Institute, a network of vocational training centres] and wondered why I needed coaching for that,” said the 17-year-old.
Her mother Alka, a single parent, shut down her beauty parlour and moved with her to Akola town, the district headquarters to help her daughter chase her dream.
“No one in our taluka has ever gone to such a big college,” said Alka in fluent Hindi. “I could not afford to send her to the city. But I also never want Priyanka to say I didn’t allow her to follow her dream.”
So now, Priyanka lives with her mother in a rented flat and attends Safe Hands, the only IIT coaching class in Akola.
She and other students learn through videoconferencing from teachers of IITians Pace, a Mumbai-based coaching class, with which Safe Hands has a tie-up.
Son’s JEE first, mother’s Ph.D later
Ishan Pandey, 17, decided to change to the CBSE board from ICSE because former is considered better for IIT aspirants.
“My parents have always supported me, but it took a lot of convincing before they allowed me to switch schools,” said Ishan. “I visited IIT-Kharagpur when I was in class 7. Since then, I have dreamt of getting into an IIT.”
Ishan’s mother, Nirupama, who is doing her Phd at Jadavpur University on stem cell cures for cancer, has sacrificed her career to ensure he cracks JEE.
“I was supposed to submit my thesis last year, when Ishan was in class 11,” she said. “But I had to constantly help him with his studies, so I decided to defer my theses submission till he completes the JEE.”
The family has had to scale down its lifestyle. It has not gone on a holiday for more than two years.
They aren’t complaining. It will all be worth it, they hope.
Never sure he’s studying enough
During his class 12 board examinations last month, Rahul Dewan rushed home, locked his room door and started brooding.
A topper who scored 99 per cent in mathematics in his class 10 board examination, Dewan felt the world was about to collapse all because he had scored poorly in a JEE mock test.
Life for the past two years has been all about mathematics. These days, he gets up early, studies from 9 am to 12 noon, then from 2 pm to 5 pm, then 6 pm to 8 pm and then from 11 pm to 2 am.
“I find it very difficult to study and concentrate during the day with all the noise,” he said. “At times, even while I’m studying for the boards, I keep my JEE book below them. I never know if I have studied enough.”
The second time around
Anup Kumar, 17, has not visited his village Thewn in Bihar’s Aurangabad district for the past four months. He is on a mission to crack the JEE, come what may.
“I hope to clear it this time,” said the boy, who failed to get through on his first attempt. Although a good student, Kumar often thought of quitting school because his family had very little money. About three years ago, his father Ram Prasad left home, never to return.
His two brothers studied up to the intermediate level and then gave up. One of them even attempted the JEE.
“But in the absence of coaching, which the family just could not afford, he could not clear it,” said Kumar. “After that, he never tried and now gives tuitions in the village to make a living.”
Anup, however, was luckier. He landed up at Anand Kumar’s Super 30 classes in Patna, took a test and got in. As the name of his class suggests, Anand Kumar selects 30 kids every year and gives them free boarding, lodging and training by cross-subsidising this scheme from his earnings through other classes for which he charges.
”Had I not reached here, I would have given up,” said Anup. “After all, how can I spend money for costly coaching? My mother is alone at home. If I make it, she will be the happiest person.”