26 student suicides in 3 years at premier institutes

October 2, 2011

Between 2008 and 2011, IITs, IIMs and National Institutes of Technology (NITs) together reported 26 student suicides; 16 of these at IITs alone and seven at NITs. This Friday, IIT Kanpur saw the fifth suicide in the last three years; the 10th in its entire history. After scribbling a telling note – “I am tired of IIT” — across his hostel room wall, 18-year-old Mahtab Ahmad ended his life by hanging from a ceiling fan.

Venkatesh, who studied at IIT-K and now heads its faculty association, mourns the terrible reality of students succumbing to academic pressure, but attributes much of this stress to rising expectations of parents and JEE’s mechanical coaching. The coaching trains students to crack entrance exams, but fails them when it comes to the real challenge of being an IITian which involves thinking and innovating.

“I trace much of this to parents who torment their wards for not scoring the top 9 grade. Even during the counseling sessions with JEE crackers, parents ask us what their child’s starting salary would be were he to consider a particular branch. They behave like customers, asking us to show their child’s worth. Naturally, students too no longer come to us for the love of learning. They basically come to make money. It’s time parents start telling children to do as well as they can, not as well as they must,” says Venkatesh.

He also warns of growing depression among M Tech students who stay on for research instead of jumping into jobs after four years of graduation.

Eighty per cent IIT suicides in the last three years have involved undergraduates UGs. Causes of stress vary as an IIT Delhi student explains, “The first year is tough as you are getting to absorb the system where professors naturally demand performance from you. That’s the nature of IITs. The stress of scoring is the highest in the first two years. In the final year, peer pressure is at its worst as you face the fiercely competitive campus placements. Here top scorers are major gainers; hence the pressure on low scorers.”

On May 2, an M Tech student from IIT Madras, Nitin Reddy, committed suicide after being asked to repeat a course in the final year. This meant losing the job he had landed. IIT Madras later concluded that Nitin was depressed, but his father approached the National Human Rights Commission for justice.

UB Desai, Director of IIT Hyderabad, say the systems – such as counselling units – are in place, though more psychologists are needed. The institutes also appoint faculty advisers for freshers to help them understand the new place. But all this has not always helped. In IIT Bombay, for example, the counselling unit failed to identify regular visitor Srikant Malapulla (21) as a depressive. He later committed suicide.

Alarmed by the surging cases, IIT Council recently decided to set up a taskforce of directors to study the problem which Prof Sanjay Dhande, Director, IIT Kanpur, describes as a “social scourge”. He wants the media to stop glorifying the IITs and NITs as the only quality institutes. “Turn the arc lights to other unsung institutes; ease the stress on IITians,” he appeals, asking parents to tame their expectations.

“Students must also realise they now have more freedoms without responsibilities. There are distractions like cell phones and the internet. These issues require introspection considering changing moral values and lifestyles,” he says.

An IIT-K panel constituted to look into the spate of suicides had earlier suggested an end to single-room hostel occupancy system and suggested that students share the rooms. They also said ceiling fans should be replaced with pedestal fans and internet speed should be reduced to prevent unhindered web access in the institutes. The logic given was constant internet use left students too tired to concentrate on lessons.

The new taskforce, directors say, will give fresh suggestions. Meanwhile, the IIT faculty admits they have been unable to attend to students the way they used to. Since 2007, the intake at all central educational institutes increased manifold following the 27 per cent mandatory OBC reservation. “At IIT-K, the student teacher ratio used to be 8:1. It is now 16:1,” Venkatesh explains.

In a lighter vein, he even suggests that ragging must be allowed in small, decent measures to ensure that seniors talk to juniors and inter-personal ties build. “Look at our students today. Each one is an island, each one a loner,” he says.

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