Smoking a heady concoction of tobacco and cannabis, 17-year-old Shubham Goyal roams the streets of Kota in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Goyal had moved to Kota — India’s biggest hub of coaching centers for competitive examinations — in 2018. He had dreams of cracking the entrance test to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the country’s premier engineering schools that count among their alumni Google’s Sundar Pichai and billionaire investor Vinod Khosla. After just a few months, though, he tells his friends at a roadside tea stall, he has lost all hope of clearing the exam and plans to move back to his hometown of Bhilwara, also in Rajasthan. A minor, he casually lights a joint, puffs and passes it to a friend. No one bats an eyelid.
Kota attracts more than 150,000 students every academic year, some as young as 12 years of age, mostly prodded by aspirations of middle-class Indian parents to see their kids enter the prestigious IITs or the country’s top medical schools for undergraduate studies. But for most, those dreams come crashing against extraordinarily difficult odds. Only 11,942 out of 1.2 million student candidates cleared the IIT entrance exam in 2018 — that’s a ratio of 1:100, which is five times tougher than Harvard’s admission rate.
That intense competition has spawned an industry of coaching institutes in Kota that, according to projections from 2012 Asian Development Bank (ADB) data, today has an annual turnover of $230 to $250 million. But coupled with parental expectations back home, the competition also is increasingly sparking the parallel rise of alcoholism, cannabis addiction, gaming and, at the extreme end of the spectrum, gang violence, as coping mechanisms among students. Where Kota had one de-addiction center in 2009, it now has five to cater to the growing demand. The police seized 115 kilograms of cannabis — which is illegal across India — in the city last year, and according to Deepak Bhargav, Kota’s superintendent of police, they registered more than 20 cases involving narcotics in 2018.
It [is] difficult for them to get clean on their own.
Devendra Vijayvergia, head of the de-addiction center at New Medical College Hospital
Police records also show nine incidents of student-related violence in 2017 from just one police precinct, and 10 more in 2018. A police precinct typically covers 1 sq mile. Students say the real numbers – of cases involving narcotics and of gang violence – are actually much higher. Enforcement – as in the rest of India – is lax. But additionally, police officers often let minors off with warnings so as to not taint their records – and thereby the careers. And at the de-addiction centers, the numbers of student visitors are rising sharply. Each month, between 20 and 30 students visit Prerna Sansthan, a rehabilitation center in the city, says its founder, Mahesh Haritwal, who is also a counselor there. That’s double the number from four years ago.
“The rehabilitation process requires time and consistent effort, so I advise them to get admitted or return to their hometown,” says Haritwal.
It’s just as hard to get into one of China’s topmost colleges — such as Peking University — as into the IITs. And only one in every 20 applicants to Harvard gains admission. The Chinese examination to enter college, called the Gaokao, is so stressful that students have been photographed taking intravenous shots of amino acids while studying. And as with the Gaokao, standardized testing has faced significant criticism in the U.S. and U.K. too. But in India, different sets of colleges each have their own entrance tests, in a bid to maintain their own identities. While that might sound like an alternative to standardized testing, for students it means cramming and battling stress for multiple, highly competitive examinations, with the exam for the IITs only the toughest among them. That means that, while in China, the U.S. or the U.K., your scores in a test determine which college you can realistically apply to, in India, each test is an elimination game. You either clear it or you don’t.
In Kota, that stress can prove fatal. Data from the Kota district administration shows that 58 students committed suicide between 2013 and 2017. Things took a turn for the worse in 2018, with 20 students (14 boys and six girls) killing themselves. In December, three students took their lives in four days, shaking the city.
But while the suicides have drawn the national spotlight to the crisis in Kota, the mostly unhealthy coping mechanisms that teenagers — a vast majority of them minors — are using to deal with the stress have remained largely unnoticed. In the long run, they’re no less worrying, say experts.
The Rajasthan government last year invited Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences to research the factors driving students to take their lives in Kota. The findings showed that fear and stress about failing in examinations were the primary reasons. But many of the students who spoke to the researchers also admitted to smoking, drinking and the use of drugs.
Dr. Devendra Vijayvergia, head of the government-run de-addiction center at New Medical College Hospital, agrees that “peer pressure and stress” are key reasons behind students choosing substance abuse. “This is what makes it difficult for them to get clean on their own,” says Vijayvergia.
There’s a saying among students in Kota: Put your right foot first when you first reach the city — it’s a way to woo luck. On arriving at the Kota railway station, auto-rickshaw drivers can be heard shouting, “Resonance! Allen!” Those are names of popular coaching institutes in the city. The drive toward the coaching centers is pretty, with the Chambal River flowing alongside the road. Soon enough, though, the pleasant scenery is replaced by several blocks of Kota’s coaching areas.
Here, thousands of students carry heavy bags and coaching study material. Some are thinking about “daily practice problems,” or DPPs — homework given at the coaching institutes — while others mentally calculate the number of days left for the final examinations. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with names of their coaching institutes — their identity in Kota. In these institutes, each class accommodates around 150 students who pay more than $1,600 per academic year as a coaching fee. The city has high schools specially tailored to the city’s primary industry: They allow students to sit for school-leaving examinations without attending school (they’re busy studying at the coaching institutes).
The number of books students carry is a pointer to the stress students face. Each coaching center assigns 90 booklets, more than 100 DPPs and homework to every student. This excludes the mandatory six to seven books students are required to own. The food at the coaching institute mess is invariably oily, so students soon turn to poha — an easy-to-make Indian snack of beaten rice — as their staple diet.
But books aren’t all you see as you walk around the neighborhoods of Rajeev Gandhi Nagar, Vigyan Nagar and Talwandi — where coaching centers and most home rental accommodations for students are based. Students sneak alcohol bottles into their bags at a liquor store on Talwandi Road, hardly 500 meters from one of the city’s premier coaching institutes. Most students are under 18, the minimum drinking age, but no one is ever asked for ID at the store.
(Mahesh Haritwal, Prerna Sansthan founder, explains that most students come to his de-addiction center with a marijuana problem. Credit: Rahul Satija)
While liquor is sold openly to underage students, cannabis is shared 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 own addiction with sales to others. Local peddlers are well-versed in spotting their targets — they station themselves barely a mile from the coaching institutes and zero in on students in uniforms as potential customers, highlighting holes in law enforcement.
Students frequently flock to cybercafés and gaming parlors. These dimly lit rooms are a source of respite and solace. Here, students scream abuse while playing popular games like Dota2 and PUBG. Cybercafés stock up on all the latest TV series and movies to ensure that students stay long hours. Owners of these gaming parlors and cybercafés track the time every student spends in front of a screen. Some of the cafés operate illegally, allowing students to remain inside after 11pm by simply shuttering the entrance and locking them in until morning, a privilege they offer students at an additional $1.50.
Then there’s the gang violence. In May 2016, more than 100 members of a student gang called the Bihari Tigers, armed with knives and sticks, stabbed and killed Satya Prakash, a 19-year-old medical college aspirant, in a bid to establish the gang’s credentials in the town. A former Bihari Tiger who wishes to stay anonymous tells us that most of these gangs are run by students who have dropped out of the coaching courses. The most prominent gangs are the Bihari Tigers and Haryana Fighting Machines.
Anshdeep Singh, an engineering student at IIT Ropar, 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 a boy into their rented accommodation as he was being chased by a gang equipped with “hockey sticks and iron chains.”
The police and coaching institutes insist they’re doing what they can to tackle this growing crisis. Bhargav, the city’s top cop, says the police have identified members of the Bihari Tigers and placed them under scrutiny. To prevent drug abuse among students, local police are stationed at spots where students engage in buying and selling of drugs and attempt to restrict their sale, says Bhargav. To reduce the number of suicides, he says, the police “are in talks with coaching institutes to prepare an ‘exit policy’ for the students, which would for sure reduce some financial pressure.” Bhargav is referring to a policy that most institutes in Kota practice, under which, if a student withdraws from the course after more than 20 days of commencement, there is no fee refund.
Ankit Lahoty, general manager at Motion Education, a coaching institute, says organizations like his are also taking steps to help students manage stress better, including through partnerships with government and private counselors. Parents of students at Motion Education are alerted if their minor kids are missing from classes for more than two days.
So far, though, there’s little evidence that either the police action or steps taken by coaching institutes are working in a city that, till the 1990s, was struggling. Its transformation as India’s coaching capital began when V. K. Bansal, an engineer, decided to switch careers as a teacher after he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. By 1995, Bansal’s classes were drawing students from neighboring cities for coaching.
Coaching institutes are a high-return business proposition in India, with 83 percent of high school students opting for private tutoring, according to the ADB. These institutes are seen as valuable investment opportunities by foreign investors too. The industry drew $5 million in investment from South Korean coaching giant Etoos in 2011, say researchers Bhupendra Singh and Patanjali Mishra in a study published by European Academic Research in 2017. Their research shows that Resonance Eduventures, a coaching school, has raised at least $2.5 million in funding and Career Point, another institute, raised around $2.4 million between 2009 and 2016 from Franklin Templeton and the Nadathur Group.
That growth, though, is coming at a cost — and slowly, the city’s reputation is taking a beating in the eyes of its biggest stakeholders: students, even those who manage to break out of a cycle of addiction.
After a month in Kota, a casual experiment with cannabis led Abhishek — who requested his last name be withheld — to a habit that lasted for three months. But he opened up to his mother, who was supportive. He received treatment in his hometown for a month before returning to Kota to attempt his school-leaving exams. “Everyone does not have such supportive parents as I had,” he says.
Kota’s stressful environment isn’t conducive to dealing with addictions, he says. Haritwal of the Prerna Sansthan also says that most students who come to the de-addiction center eventually don’t get treated there. “There are many people in the city who would prey upon you,” says Abhishek, “but very few who would come to your rescue.”
Rahul Satija is a freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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