Lakhs of parents send their children to Kota, Rajasthan—the hub of coaching institutes that train them like racehorses to ace engineering and medical exams. Fifty five kids have died by suicide in Kota since 2019. But here’s the kicker: nearly half of them died in the first eight months of this year.
Remind me about Kota…
The origin story: It all began in the 1980s with VK Bansal—a city resident who became famous for helping kids ace their IIT entrance exams. By the mid-90s, parents were pouring into Kota begging him for admission. Around the same time, the once-thriving industrial hub began to struggle—factories shut down throwing residents out of jobs. As Bansal’s rivals began to set up shop in the city, it reinvented itself as the biggest hub of coaching classes in the country. This is how Business Standard described the city in 2015:
With five big companies and scores of smaller outfits selling the same dream, Kota is a raucous, garish free market in education with an almost hallucinogenic feel. Four brothers who own a coaching empire, their foreheads bisected by identical long red tilaks, advertise their wares from hoardings scattered across the city. Individual teachers - "PPS Sir", "VKP Sir", "Amit Sir" --- solicit custom with improbably glamorous posters of themselves strung up at street corners… Rank-holders in medical and engineering entrance exams, who are to Kota's spaces what Jayalalitha is to Chennai's, stare owlishly out of large cutouts and long banners rolled down the fronts of multi-storeyed coaching centres.
The stats: After a brief blip due to the pandemic, Kota has come roaring back. Edtech startups like Unacademy and Byju’s that were hailed as ‘Kota killers’ have also set up shop in the city. There are more than 300,000 students—spread across 3,500 registered hostels, 1,500 unregistered hostels, 5,000 PGs and over 27 coaching institutes.
Let’s be clear: Coaching in Kota is not a cottage industry:
[Allen Career Institute] has over 1.35 lakh students studying in 23 campuses across New Kota, Baran Road, Naya Nohra and the Landmark City. Outside Kota as well, its might is massive: Presence across 53 cities, over 200 classroom campuses and 350 test centers. In fact, last year, Bodhi Tree—the equally owned joint venture between James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems and former Walt Disney Asia Pacific head Uday Shankar—picked up a 36% stake in Allen for $600 million.
Key data point to note: Tuition fees range from Rs 150,000 to Rs 500,000 per year. But there is only one teacher per 125 students in a class.
Ok, what’s the data on suicides?
The number of students who died by suicides in 2015 was 18. The cases peaked in 2018—when there were 20 such cases—and then seemed to have receded. Only 15 students died by suicide last year. But Kota has witnessed a sudden spike in 2023. To date, 22 children have died by suicide in just eight months.
Four have died just in August:
- On August 3, a 17-year-old medical college aspirant from Uttar Pradesh allegedly died by suicide
- On August 4, a 17-year-old engineering aspirant from Bihar died by suicide
- On August 12, another 17-year-old prepping for engineering courses, died by suicide.
- On August 15, an 18-year-old boy studying for the IIT entrance exam died by suicide.
That’s even higher than the monthly average—of three deaths—for 2023 thus far.
Even more alarming: Two students studying for medical entrance exams died within 10 hours of each other on June 27.
Why is this happening??
Stories about depression and suicide in Kota aren’t new—nor are reasons surprising.
Financial pressure: Kota’s coaching industry boasts that it offers opportunities for children who come from smaller towns and cities—and who are often outperformed by more affluent, big city kids. But this also means that they bear severe financial pressure:
Many sell their land, while a substantial number secure loans from acquaintances, family, or financial institutions. The majority also modify their way of life, aiming to save and provide financial support for their children. However, incessant emphasis on the sacrifices made by parents can leave the child feeling confined, as this narrative gradually burdens them with moral obligations.
The price of failure for these children is far higher.
Parental expectations: Parents are most often cited as the villains of these tragedies—by the police and counselors. Psychiatrists offer up stories of clueless fathers impatient with “silly excuses” offered by their children for their breakdown. For these children, the rat race begins when they are as young as six or eight: “From their childhood they hear their parents telling everyone that their son/daughter will become an engineer or a doctor and this is where it all starts.”
In this narrative, the root cause are over-ambitious parents:
One life lesson, the doctor highlights, which every parent must teach is: It’s okay to fail. “It’s okay if you don’t win. And you won’t always win,” she says, adding that the stigma of failure and lack of awareness around mental health must be tackled on a war footing. One must not expect teachers and hostels to listen to the students, and spot early signs of stress, panic and suicidal symptoms. “They are your kids. If parents don’t listen and abandon them emotionally, then who will take care of these young ones?” she says. “All answers and solutions lie with parents,” adds [psychiatrist Neena] Vijayvargiya.
Unsurprisingly, a number of the suicide letters often include an apology to the parents for not living up to their expectations: "Sorry Papa"; "I tried but I cannot anymore"; and "I am sorry I couldn't fulfil your dreams."
Performance anxiety: Children who are at the top of their class at home often arrive in Kota to find they don’t measure up. They are in classes for 12 hours a day—“with 90-minute classes separated by 10-minute breaks — the remaining 12 hours are meant for eating, self-study and sleeping.” As one student describes it: “Soon you realise that you are skipping breakfast, lunch or dinner... all you do is study because everyone around you is doing well but somehow you are not good enough.”
The toxic culture of coaching: In Kota, only the winners matter—their images writ large on large billboards across the city. And buried in the media reports are hints of a teaching culture that has only contempt for children who struggle to keep up. For example, Sameer Bansal—the managing director of Bansal Classes, the first and the oldest coaching institute of Kota—blame them for being too fragile:
“There is too much distraction for students today,” he says. “They are also a pampered lot by the parents,” he says, adding that teachers don’t even scold students at the classes. Underlining the fact that physics, chemistry and maths haven’t changed for decades, Bansal reckons that hyper-competitive exams—IIT happens to be the toughest in India—will be gruelling. “We need to focus on the inner strength of the students,” he says. “They need to be mentally strong.”
An anonymous teacher at a leading institute reveals:
Because education is a business in Kota, every institute wants the JEE topper or the NEET topper to come from their classes. Many coaching institutes assign classes based on individual aptitudes, with the upper echelon receiving exclusive privileges. Special sessions, well-equipped libraries, and round-the-clock teacher availability cater to their needs. High-achieving students are granted fully-furnished apartments complete with culinary support, domestic assistance, and personal transportation.
That’s because the financial fortunes of these institutes rely solely on the number of toppers they produce. All of this becomes added humiliation for kids who go from being superstars to low achievers in Kota.
A new and alarming trend: According to the local police, children would more often die by suicide in the lead up to the entrance exams—when the anxiety of failure became too hard to bear. But now many are dying within months of their arrival in Kota—and no one knows why:
“It is a new pattern being found after the pandemic, particularly this year, where the students arriving in the city only for a few months died by suicide. Though the reason is yet unknown to us, the pattern was pretty different before the Covid pandemic,” said a senior police official, pointing out the span of students’ arrival in Kota.
The bottomline: We have all become accustomed to living a winner-takes-all society—where only a lucky few have the opportunity for success. It justifies everything from corruption to jugaad to running our children into an early grave. We leave you with this ghoulish fact:
The Kota district administration on Thursday ordered all hostels and paying guest (PG) accommodations to install spring-loaded fans in all rooms “to provide students mental support and security”... 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.
CNBCTV18 has the best report on the suicide crisis—while Forbes and Indian Express focuses on efforts to help the students. Indian Express offers a first person account written by a former Kota student. Also in Forbes: the ‘JOMO’ kids who have decided to secretly play hooky—rather than fulfil their parents’ expectations. Outlook magazine and MoneyControl look at the profitable business of coaching—while this older Business Standard piece traces the rise of Kota.