Saturday, January 7, 2006

Trapped in pursuit of success
In IITs, the pressure to excel is killing. Caught between tough academic standards and exacting goals, students even resort to taking their lives. Shahira Naim reports

Three students committed suicide while I was in IIT, Chennai. The pressure to perform academically is unbelievable. That is the reason why drug use is quite rampant. I survived thanks to my adult mentors. — IIT alumnus

Not many realise that today students are swimming in a different ocean than the one in which their parents swam. It is not marks alone that matter now; it is important to have a smart mind too. That comes from participating in extra-curricular activities and learning  social skills. 

An IIT alumna from Kanpur remembers a fellow student standing at the edge of a water tank and contemplating suicide. Recalling this spine-chilling incident on a blog site, she writes:  “There were others like me standing motionless. Finally I saw a professor standing and chatting to someone, and called out to her for help. She took over. There were security people in minutes but all stood helpless. What if she jumped? Everyone cleared the corridors and waited, just waited.

“No, finally she didn’t jump. One professor courageously called out to her from his window and asked her to move away from the tank. She heeded that call, maybe even at that point she could not think of defying a professor. I wonder what all went through her mind? Who can tell? She must not have been more than 20 years old... maybe even younger.

“Her parents refused to let her drop a semester. After all she was a success; she had no right to fail. She tried harder. Her mother stayed with her. Finally they took her back and let her drop the semester. Her friends were happy that they were not weaklings like her. I haven’t seen her around since then. This successful place (IIT Kanpur) has a remarkable capacity to block failures out. She is not missed.

“But I am still shaken. I don’t want to end up there, no matter what, whether I am successful or not. I want to slow down. And I want to get out of this ‘successful’ place. It is so lonely; it has such little tolerance for people like her, and perhaps for people like me. I feel trapped in my success.…”

This item, which appeared on a blog site some time ago, invited fellow IITians to provide an insight into the other side of these high-profile centres of excellence.

Responding to this article, another ex-IITian made a frank admission on the same site. “Not only did I have to face academic and peer pressures, but also lots of family and financial problems. There was no refuge to be found anywhere. I must confess the thought of suicide did cross my mind during those miserable days. What helped me was the realisation that life goes on and failures and successes are a part of the game. In the end your happiness or contentment in life is not entirely proportional to your GPA or how much of a “God” you were in your academic years. What matters a lot is that you find interesting work and hobbies, meaningful relationships, achieve some level of maturity and self-knowledge, and develop a calm mind.

“After some introspection and thinking, I redefined my values entirely and threw out that “ivory-tower” rat-race mentality. I made a fresh start, doing things that interested me and helping people in the same situation. I couldn’t care less if I didn’t make money or didn’t get to be a CEO or if my IIT (or other) peers didn’t respect me. I had decided that I was going to be happy.

Encouraged by such honest outpouring, another student confessed, “I too spent five years at IIT, Chennai, and while I came through with no major baggage (my wife disagrees...), three students committed suicide while I was there. One hanged himself in the bathroom at lunchtime since he had to take a test in the afternoon. He was in his third year and definitely not at the bottom of his class. The pressure to perform academically is unbelievable. There is a reason why drug use is quite rampant. I survived thanks to my adult mentors (both IIT and non-IIT) who taught me that it was more important to nurture my spirit. I graduated with 7.5 GPA but an immense capacity to face reality without being terrorised by the need to prove that my selection into the IIT was not a fluke.”

After reading these experiences of students from different IIT campuses, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the suicide rate has only increased over the years. On November 29 last year, a 21-year-old’s life was lost on the campus of IIT, Kanpur. The untimely death of Swapnil Chandrakant Dharaskar, a second-year student of mechanical engineering came hours before he was to appear for chemistry examination that morning. It could have been explained away as an isolated case of nerves had it not been the third such death on an IIT campus within the country in just two months. Lokesh Chand, a third-year student of electronics at IIT, Roorkee, committed suicide on the campus on November 10. Seven days later on the IIT campus at Powai, final-year student Vijay Nukala decided to end his life. A computer geek, he had failed in three papers due to poor attendance. This could have resulted in the loss of a year. So, Nukala decided to put an end to his life on November 17, 2005.

Swapnil’s father refuses to believe that his son could have committed suicide as he had called him at Nagpur at 6.45 a.m. The boy had spoken to his father the night before the tragedy as well. After that he continued to study till 2 am along with his room mate Krishna Kumar Khandelwal. The roommate went off to sleep and did not find him in the room when he woke up in the morning. Some time back Swapnil’s sister had written to him and asked him “not to remain in tension, all will be fine”.

While the Deputy Director, IIT, Kanpur, Kripa Shankar, admits that Swapnil’s case looks like a case of suicide, he is at a loss to explain why an above-average student like Swapnil would be “tense” and want to end his life. He had a cumulative performance index (CPI) of eight out of 10 – obviously excellent even by IIT standards. “It is perhaps the collective pressure from family members and friends that makes a student do this. Why should the faculty put any pressure when he was already so good,” asks Shankar, refusing to share the blame. Yet he agrees that this is the fifth suicide of a student on the campus since he has arrived.

A reputed educationist and counsellor, Dr Amrita Das, maintains that perhaps not many realise that today students are swimming in a different ocean than the one in which their parents swam. It is not marks alone that matter now, it is important to have a smart mind too. That comes from participating in extra-curricular activities, nurturing creative hobbies, spending time with friends and learning social skills. In other words, by letting children just be. It is not only IQ but also better EQ (emotional quotient) that counts today.

A request that a student had made at a counselling session continues to haunt Dr Das. “This young girl told me ‘please tell our parents to also remind us of our competencies and not just of competitions’.”

It is perhaps important in this context to recall Union HRD Minister Arjun Singh’s demand to initiate a national debate on the issue before setting up guidelines for educational boards and institutions to combat the problem of increasing tension and suicides amongst students.

The divided view on this controversial topic came out at a meeting organised by the HRD Ministry in New Delhi in March last year. It was attended amongst others by eminent educationists, including NCERT head Krishna Kumar, Professor Yashpal, IIT Kanpur Director S.G. Dhande, IIM Ahmedabad Director Bakul Dholakia and head of the CBSE Ashok Ganguly.

Representing the reformist group, Professor Yashpal had demanded the revolutionary ‘open book’ system and flexi-timings during examinations. The reformists had argued in favour of a comprehensive and continuous evaluation with grading. They had called for career counselling, guidance for parents and teachers and had strongly recommended restructuring of the examination system so that creativity and not the capacity to memorise was evaluated.

In contrast, the representatives of professional institutions felt that this would dilute the source of their excellence. They claimed that the high standard and tough examinations system followed by the IITs and IIMs had made these institutions world class. The solutions that they offered to deal with stress on the campus were: “engage in social work” and “proper counselling”.

The deaths that have occurred on their campuses since then clearly indicate that the help-students measures haven’t been initiated and students continue to fall from the ivory towers constructed in their minds.