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Wednesday, 18 May 2016
Why India's aspiring engineers are killing themselves
The town of Kota in northern Rajasthan state is known for its numerous study centres which help students pass India's extremely competitive admission exams for medical and engineering colleges. But high stress levels mean that the town also has an alarming rate of suicide among students, writes the BBC's Shilpa Kannan.
"They suck," wrote a 17 year-old-girl in her suicide note recently, talking about the study centres in Kota.
She killed herself by jumping from the fifth floor of her residential building on 28 April.
In a five-page suicide note, she urged the government of India to shut down Kota's study centres, popularly known as coaching classes, as soon as possible.
Revealing the details of her letter, senior police officer Harish Bharati said the "girl had in fact cleared the initial entrance test and was eligible for admission in an engineering college".
"But she took the extreme step because she did not want to become an engineer. She said that she was facing unbearable stress because of coaching classes.''
Saurav Kumar, 19, knows such pressures too well.
He faced a daily battle against thoughts of killing himself. Once a topper of his class in school, he grappled with acute stress and felt pushed to the brink in a study centre in Kota.
Hoping to boost his chances of getting into a top college, he travelled more than 850km (528 miles) from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh state to a study centre in Kota.
But he said he struggled to handle his parents' high expectations from him.
"My parents thought I was doing very well and getting top marks in the study centre. But I just couldn't handle the pressure. Looking at all my peers, I felt depressed. I worried about about my future and I thought ending my life was the only option," he said.
Cry for help
Mr Kumar was lucky to be rescued and received treatment at the right time when he tried to kill himself.
But many others were not.
According to police data, 73 students - including five this year - have taken their lives in Kota in the past five years.
But authorities have now taken measures to check the rising number of suicides. A 24-hour helpline called Hope has been set up for students.
Counsellors say they get more frantic calls in the night when students are unable to sleep because of stress.
ML Agarwal, a psychiatrist who manages the helpline, said "gruelling work schedules and frequent tests drive many to seek help".
"We often get panic calls from students who are at the banks of the [Chambal], wanting to jump in. Some students also call from their rooms and say they are about to kill themselves. When we get such calls, a team of counsellors rushes to the spot while someone keeps them engaged on the phone," he explained.
Town of dreams
In Dr Agarwal's psychiatric hospital, many students are receiving treatment and one one of them is a 17-year-old girl from the nearby village of Bhunas.
As her exams approached, she became withdrawn and lost appetite. Her parents found a suicide note in her notebook and brought her to Dr Agarwal's hospital.
She was diagnosed with acute depression and put on a suicide watch.
Her grandfather said he hoped that the doctor would treat her quickly and she would not miss her exams.
Dr Agarwal said that very often the parents need counselling. He said he often tells parents to back off and have more realistic expectations from their children.
Huge billboards dominate the skyline all around the town, celebrating students who have aced in their exams. Many students aspire to get their pictures on these boards.
Even the local mall has an advertisement board featuring "star" teachers who are treated as celebrities.
Coaching classes cost at least 200,000 rupees ($3,000;£2,000) for a two-year course, which is a significant amount for most Indian middle-class families.
But parents don't think before investing such an amount because they desperately want their children to get into one of the top engineering or medical colleges.
A degree from a prestigious college guarantees a plum job but chances of success are usually slim.
About 1.4 million students every year take the admission test for the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). But fewer than 10,000 are accepted.
But that doesn't deter students. Every year, more than 150,000 students come here to study.
As the competition to get into elite colleges gets fiercer, the demand for such coaching centres has grown significantly in most parts of the country. Government estimates say it's a $4bn ($5.8bn) industry now.
With no signs of the influx of students reducing in Kota, the local administration has asked study centres to introduce weekly breaks and reduce the focus on top ranks.
"It is important to de-stress the city," says Ravi Kumar Surpur, Kota's senior-most official says.