Kota Sitting in a park near his daughter’s hostel in Kota, Vivek Kumar basks in a relieved smile, congratulating himself on a mission accomplished. For the last few months, the police head constable, posted in Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, has spent most evenings making phone calls to his daughter’s friends, checking about her attendance. Still suspicious, in the middle of December, he travelled 750km to the Rajasthan town unannounced, and unbeknownst to her, followed her for two days. He is now convinced; his daughter, he says, is sure to crack the NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test). “Everyone already believes she is a doctor,” Kumar, 43, said.
Kumar spends ₹12,000 a month as fee for his daughter to study at one of Kota’s prominent coaching institutes, and ₹15,000 a month for her hostel accommodation. It stretches his government salary, something that he reminds his daughter about often. He refuses to spend money on a cup of tea because she must be aware of the family’s sacrifices. But the goal is clear. Above him is one of the many advertising hoardings that dot every vacant inch of space in the city. “I want my daughter to be up there, with a photograph proclaiming she is one of the NEET toppers,” he said.
But, as has been becoming ever clearer over the past few years, the Kota narrative isn’t only about aspiration. On December 12, 2022, three students of coaching institutions killed themselves on a single day. From 2011, government data shows that as many as 121 students have died by suicide, 15 in 2022 alone. That counter has begun ticking in 2023 already. On Sunday evening, a 17-year-old JEE aspirant from Shahjahanpur was found hanging in his hostel room.
In the wake of the December deaths, HT spent a week in Kota interacting with students, parents, teachers, coaching institute owners, psychiatrists and district administration officials, to piece together the story of life (and death) in Kota, India’s coaching factory, where a heady, often poisonous mix of rigour and expectation produces IIT and NEET toppers from one end, but broken youngsters from the other.
The industry and the stress
Kota is around 250km from Rajasthan’s state capital Jaipur, and coaching centres didn’t always define it. Until the early 1980s, the town was popular for its Doria sarees, fine grained limestone called the Kota stone, and the manufacturing of yarn and fertilisers. In 1978, a mechanical engineer, VK Bansal, who then worked for a chemical firm in the town, first began teaching a bunch of local students. “In 1981, one of his students cracked the IIT exam,” said Akhilesh Jain, general manager of Bansal Classes, the first formal coaching institute to come up in Kota.
Word of success quickly spread; Bansal Classes went from strength to strength; and VK Bansal came to be known as the “Bhishma Pitamah” (elder statesman) of the coaching industry. Around the same time, the Allen Career Institute that now enrols close to half of all students in Kota and is the biggest test-prep company in town, began operations too. “Tuitions had become a necessity. We began around the same time as Bansal. They focused on IIT preparations, we were into medical,” Naveen Maheshwari of Allen Institute said.
Four-and-a-half decades later, Kranti Jain, president of the Kota Vyapar Mahasangh, says there are 250,000 students who study for various entrance examinations in Kota, serviced by at least 2,500 hostels. While there is little official data, estimates by coaching institute owners put the annual revenue from that at ₹3,000 crore a year.
Most institutes recruit students after they graduate from school, some even earlier, and prepare them for entrance examinations ranging from the medical stream, engineering, law, and chartered accountancy. A student will typically wake up at around 5.30am, rush through breakfast, and arrive at the coaching institute by 6.15am. There are three classes that span between 75 and 90 minutes, and at least an hour spent at “doubt counters” to clarify any questions. The rest of the day is spent on daily practice problem (DPP) sheets — a term used in Kota for homework — meals, and daily chores.
The students spend no time in regular schools, although admission to both engineering and medical colleges requires that they have finished school; for this, there are local schools where they are enrolled. But they do not have to attend classes; only appear for the school-leaving examinations conducted by the board. Then, there are students who have finished school elsewhere, and are in Kota on a gap year, to prepare for college.
In the frenetic survival-of-the-fittest culture that dominates Kota, a sense of inadequacy can quickly set in. “I was a board topper among 80 students in my class. Here, I was suddenly thrown amid 80,000 toppers,” said Laiba Fathima, an 18-year-old NEET aspirant from Bihar studying at the Allen Career Institute.
Experts suggest that, in an ideal word, students should be “mentally readied” for six months before they are sent to Kota. Nitin Vijay, physics teacher and founder of Motion Coaching, for instance, says he offers an “Experience Kota” option, where students can decide whether they continue after a week. “At least 10% of students leave in the middle of that week.”
A 2015-16 survey conducted by Kota’s School of Management and Commerce Studies said that 42% of teachers believed that only half of all students who come to Kota stand a chance of succeeding in competitive examinations.
This has led to suggestions that coaching centres should conduct screening tests. But Maheshwari of the Allen Institute argues, “Students in Kota that have poor board exam marks and inadequate schooling have made it to IITs because of sheer hard work. Who are we to deny them a dream based on a test?”
Institutes also say that the secret to Kota’s coaching industry is to simplify complicated concepts, and make them accessible .“Kota’s speciality is the ability to teach in the form of storytelling. The words we use in our classes are carefully chosen to be graspable and not boring. Most students can succeed by following 50% of our instructions,” said RK Verma, a mathematics teacher and founder of Resonance Coaching.
Once in, the pace is relentless. A missed class or two, or a week of illness, sets students back. Dates for the examinations — NEET examinations are held in May, JEE in January and April — do not change (except perhaps for a world-altering pandemic). The schedules are not designed individually — one batch of classes typically has anywhere between 100 and 250 students in an academic year — and the onus is on them to keep pace.
Coaching centres do have “special classes” for students to claw back, but students often fall behind regardless. “I was ill for a while, and from the front benches, I moved to the last bench because the course moved forward, and the subjects flew past me. By the end of the year, I would play ‘book cricket’ at the back of the class to pass the time,” said Gaurav, who only wanted to identify himself with his first name, an 18-year-old IIT aspirant.
Institutes are punctilious about attendance — parents are called when their ward misses classes — but there are many who find ways around these systems. Investigators who looked at the three suicides on December 12 said that two of them were getting their friends to punch in attendance cards. “A third found a way to replace his parents’ phone number with his own,” said deputy superintendent of police Amar Rathore.
Several big institutes have also created a division within their own ranks, commonly known as ‘special rankers group’ (SRG), which separates 50-70 students in an academic year. Members of SRG are those with consistently high marks in the institutes’ internal exams, and the process of handpicking them begins within a couple of months of the course commencing.
Once picked, these students have access to better hostels, personal attention from teachers, even free coaching. But for the vast majority, this segregation means a sense of desolation, and anxiety. “Teachers drink tea with SRG, but we aren’t even allowed to interact with them. For the institutes, they are rankers, we put the money in the bank,” said a distraught Abha Joshi, a NEET aspirant from Rajasthan.
Coaching institutes, however, argue that the shuffling of batches is a “necessary evil”. “Weak students cannot grasp advanced concepts, and we cannot slow down the bright ones. Everyone benefits from shuffling,” said Amit Jain, a chemistry teacher at Allen.
Pressures of life beyond classes and hostels
Beyond pressure within the classroom, Kota is also the story of young men and women, emerging out of the cocoon of living at home for the first time in their lives, and struggling with life and love. With its reputation as a launchpad for competitive success, Kota draws its 250,000 student population from all over the country; from metros, from tier 2 and 3 towns; even from India’s villages. For most, this is the first time they live outside the sanctuary that is home.
Over the years, Kota has evolved into a city that caters to its young core, fuelled by the money they bring in. Its streets are manicured, peppered with coffee shops, malls, and bars. Akhilesh Jain, general manager of Bansal Classes, said: “Students come here to study, but they are young. There are distractions from the opposite gender, phones, and social media.”
Kesar Singh Shekhawat, superintendent of police, Kota, said, “It is natural, but it is also true that several student suicides have their roots in relationships that have gone wrong.”
Investigations into one of the 15 student suicides that occurred in Kota last year revealed that a 17-year-old girl jumped to her death from her hostel room, even as her parents waited downstairs, luggage in hand. “Her parents found out about her relationship because her phone was constantly busy. So, they arrived to take her away,” said Omprakash Bunkar, Kota’s district magistrate.
Dr Chandrashekhar Sushil, senior professor of psychiatry and former superintendent of Kota’s Medical College and Hospital said that most students complain both of academic pressure and reasons such as these. “There are many students who enter relationships, or find themselves in bad company. This can result in poor academic performance and the subsequent fear of pressure from home.”
The institutional response to these cases is often predictably restrictive. Mamta Pandey, who operates a 36-room boys’ hostel, says that students are made to remove social media applications, their interactions with girls from the neighbouring hostel are barred, and parents are informed if their ward is out after 9pm. “What I consider carefully is whether to call parents if the student is not studying seriously. Mostly I don’t because it can drive a student to depression and fear,” she said.
The path forward
Coaching institute owners and teachers argue that Kota’s student suicides receive disproportionate attention. They point to 2021 NCRB data which shows that “failure in examination” was a cause for 29 deaths in Dhanbad, 13 in Nashik, 14 in Patna, and 18 in Vadodara. “There is an attempt to malign Kota and bring down the coaching eco-system here,” Maheshwari said.
To be sure, several top coaching institutes such as Allen and Resonance have teams of psychiatrists on campus, as well an active students’ welfare association in the town. “Only a few suicides are purely academics-related. There are children that find it difficult to leave their comfort homes, exacerbated by parents telling their children not to return home without succeeding,” said Dr. Harish Sharma, Allen’s principal psychologist.
But both the district administration and the state government view student suicides as a problem. On December 15, the Kota district administration issued guidelines which asked institutes to find ways to gauge interest and aptitude in students, portray a correct sense of their success rate, and ensure a refund of money if students quit midterm.
The Rajasthan government is also expected to introduce a bill in the budget session of the Assembly, starting on January 23, proposing an aptitude test for students before admission, a ban on the display of pictures of toppers of different entrance examinations to prevent their glorification, and a mandate to all coaching institutes to set up career counselling cells.
Most in Kota, however, believe that the atmosphere of a cauldron of relentless competition will persist. “Our industry delivers what it promises — nothing more and nothing less. Competition will always cause stress,” said Sameer Bansal, director of Bansal Casses.
In his small hostel room in Kota’s Mahaveer Nagar, Nitin Nayan has a framed photograph of his parents, who live in Bihar, on his crowded desk. The photograph is double-edged; eliciting both inspiration and fear. “Whenever I imagine failure, I look at their picture,” he said. “Failure is simply not an option.”