Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve

A police squad, a psychiatrist and an educator are proactively reaching out to students, sniffing for signs of distress, and trying to defuse the ticking 'suicide' bomb. To their horror, the grenade pin lies with the parents

Rajiv Singh
Published: Jul 24, 2023 11:08:12 AM IST
Updated: Jul 25, 2023 12:54:51 PM IST

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valveStudents enter the Shri Das Hanuman Mandir in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, Kota to offer prayers. Image: Kapil Kashyap
Jawahar Nagar, Kota. “Tum theek toh ho na, beta [Are you okay, son]?” Chandrasheel Thakur starts his Monday morning briefing by underlining why one must start a conversation by striking an emotional chord. “Tumhe kisi cheez ka stress hai kya [Are you under any kind of stress?]… bas, pareshan mat raho [don’t worry at all],” the additional superintendent of police (ASP) of Kota exhorts a bunch of hand-picked senior officers to have a stirring conversation once they step out for their daily patrolling in the morning, afternoon and late evening.

It’s a sultry July morning in Kota, some 260 km from the capital city of Rajasthan. There are no signs of rain, there is no respite from the heat, but Thakur is more concerned about the invisible dark clouds that are ominously hanging over the city. “Ye kaafi stress mein hain, aur ye aapke apne bachche hain [They are under immense stress, and they are your own kids],” the head of the recently formed students’ cell of Kota underlines his point. There are over 3 lakh students in the coaching hub of Kota. “Agar aapke bachche aapse dur reh kar padhte, toh wo bhi family miss karte [Had your kids stayed away from you and studied abroad, they too would have missed their families],” Thakur tries to make his team understand the value of having a heart-to-heart chat with the young boys and girls. “They need empathy. They don’t need sympathy,” he says. The patrol team gets ready to start from Abhay Command Centre at Jawahar Nagar Police station, which houses the Students’ Cell which was started in July.
Eight minutes and some 2.5 km away from Jawahar Nagar police station is Indra Vihar. SPS sir—Shashi Prakash Singh—is busy conducting a pep-up session at one of the engineering and medical coaching centres. “It’s okay to run for gold,” the educator underlines, “but it’s not okay to die for gold.” The teacher, who is trying hard to bring home the point why students must not entertain suicidal thoughts at any costs, continues with his passionate pitch. “All of you have come here to study, and all you can do is work hard,” says the social activist who runs his not-for-profit organisation Blossom India Foundation which supports education for orphaned kids. “It’s not a do-or-die situation. You are not stationed at the war front,” he adds.   
The students find themselves hooked. “All of you won’t win. But it’s okay. Everybody can’t win,” he says. “Even Superman can’t be dead-sure of a win in Kota,” he grins. The small auditorium, which has over 500 students seated in neatly aligned green and red chairs, bursts into a loud cheer. Singh smiles as the students continue with their wild clapping. “Keep studying, keep smiling,” he says.

Also read: Broken dreams, pressure of the IIT tag and shattered lives: 'We failed him. He didn't fail'

Meanwhile, in Talwandi, some 2 km from Rajeev Gandhi Nagar which houses some of the top coaching institutes, Neena Vijayvargiya has figured out how a young boy was robbed of his infectious smile. “I know the culprit. But would you be able to hear the name?” the consultant psychiatrist asks an exasperated father who has finally taken a medical appointment for his 15-year-old son who has been complaining of recurring headache, breathlessness, anxiety and nausea for over four months. “I know he is bluffing,” says the businessman from Lucknow, whose younger brother is a software engineer in Bengaluru. “He did pretty well in school, but I don’t know why he has started making silly excuses,” he adds.  “Maybe there is some issue with the teaching or he is into bad company,” he continues to find probable reasons for his son’s ‘weird behaviour’.

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve
The doctor is not amused a bit. “Your son has been experiencing panic attacks,” says Vijayvargiya, who was raised in Kota, did her medical coaching from one of the institutes in the city, was a topper in her MBBS batch in 2012 and has been running her clinic-, Healthy Mind, for close to a decade in Talwandi. “It’s a very serious matter, and you are solely responsible for his plight,” she shares her blunt diagnosis. “Stop blaming others. You are the culprit,” she adds. “Why do you want him to become an engineer? Let him be whatever he wants to be,” she underlines. “He is cracking,” she sounded a word of caution.
The engineer aspirant is not the first to crack under pressure. There are many, and Vijayvargiya has seen thousands over the last decade. Performance pressure, she points out, might be the easy reason to attribute for mental breakdown, stress and in some cases, suicide. But dig deeper, and you get closer to the root of the problem. In her countless and intensive counselling sessions with kids, Vijayvargiya noticed that there are a few things that play heavily on their delicate minds.

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve
First is the performance expectation. “The competition is cut-throat, and if you are not equipped, you will feel the heat,” she says. The second finding is most disturbing and damaging. The kids, she points out, are constantly thinking about what all their parents have done to send them to Kota. Many sell land, a lot of them take loans from relatives, friends and banks, and most make an adjustment in their lifestyle to ensure that they save and send money to their kids. “When parents keep harping on the ‘sacrifices’ they have made, the child feels trapped,” she says. “They slowly start to bury under the moral obligation.”

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve
Meanwhile, the police patrolling team at Indra Vihar finds a girl who is torn between expectations and reality. Sanju Sharma, assistant sub-inspector with Kota Police, and Narayan Lal Suman, a 49-year-old head constable, visited one of the hostels—there are around 3,500 ‘registered’ hostels in Kota, an estimated over 1,500 are running without registration, and over 5,000 PGs (paying guests)—and starts talking to the girl who had called the students’ cell helpline. Both the police officials easily go unnoticed by any of the locals or owners of the shops that have mushroomed along the line that has a bunch of only girls’ and boys’ hostels. Suman explains how they remain invisible. “We don’t come in police vans, and we are not in our uniforms,” he says. “The idea is not to be intimidating.”
Sharma sits with the young girl in her room, and makes her feel comfortable. From asking about the quality of food served at the hostel to the behaviour of the warden and the latest movie she watched on her mobile or a cinema hall to finding about the last item she shopped and how many friends she knew personally, Sharma has been talking and behaving like a loving mother. “I know you are staying away from your family. But I am like your mother. So don’t hesitate in talking and sharing,” she tries to make an emotional connect with the nervous child. “I don’t want to become a doctor,” the student confides towards the end of a long, warm over-two-hour conversation. “I want to do a course in bio-technology.”
A few minutes later, and some 300 metres away, head constable Suman is trying to strike a conversation with a bunch of youngsters at a café. “Aaj Suman uncle tum sabko chai aur Maggi khilayenge [Tea and Maggi on me],” he declares, introduces himself to the kids, and starts talking about the hot and humid weather.  

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve
At the café, there are no suspects… the kids are like an open book, and the ‘crime’, which is perpetrated somewhere else, is outside their jurisdiction and can never be punished. “I want to crack IIT,” says Anmol Dubey who has come from the Basti district of Uttar Pradesh. There is no pressure from my parents, he clarifies. His school friend Aditya Choudhary, who has also come from Basti, wants to become a surgeon. “My dad is a politician, and it’s my dream to become a doctor,” he says. “I know you guys sound intelligent, and you will make it,” Suman compliments the young boys, and then smartly inserts an innocuous-but-loaded question. “But what if you don’t? Is there a plan B?” he asks. The response is unanimous, and swift. “There is no plan B. If you have a plan B, you won’t succeed,” they contend.

Back at Jawahar Nagar police station, Thakur rubbishes the ‘Plan A’ theory. “In life,” the senior police official reckons, “Plan Bs are mostly—if not always—better than Plan As.” In a majority of the cases, he underlines, Plan A happens to be the one which is either foisted on kids by the parents, or by their peers. There are only a small percentage of kids who know quite early in their lives about their aspirations, and they study hard to fulfil them. “The rest are trying to live a borrowed dream,” he maintains. “Stress is natural when you borrow. Right?” he asks.

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve
Meanwhile, a seasoned teacher reckons that stress—obviously in small doses—acts like a catalyst. “A bit of stress is okay,” says Sameer Bansal, managing director of Bansal Classes, the first and the oldest coaching institute of Kota. The second-generation entrepreneur, who joined the profession as a teacher in 2001 and started taking care of the administration from 2015 onwards, underlines that studies alone can’t be held responsible for the rising stress. “There is too much distraction for students today,” he says. “They are also a pampered lot by the parents,” he says, adding that teachers don’t even scold students at the classes. Underlining the fact that physics, chemistry and maths haven’t changed for decades, Bansal reckons that hyper-competitive exams—IIT happens to be the toughest in India—will be gruelling. “We need to focus on the inner strength of the students,” he says. “They need to be mentally strong.”  

Also read: Deconstructing ancient worlds to build our own: The case of education

Ironically, the biggest weakness of a ‘strong’ Kota lies in selling unrealistic dreams to millions every year. “Let’s be honest. Not even God can make all the kids clear their exams,” says Singh of Blossom India Foundation. “Some will pass, and many will fail,” he says. “Let’s accept this cruel reality, and learn to live with it peacefully,” he adds. Suddenly, thousands of students storm out of coaching centres after the afternoon classes come to an end at 4.30. The roads are choked. There is some space, though. A small Hanuman temple—Shri Das Hanuman Mandir—at one of the busy intersections in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar is empty. Suddenly, the kids start entering the temple to offer prayers. “Heavy bags, heavy minds, and feverish prayers,” says Singh, who feels sorry for the kids.
Vijayvargiya, meanwhile, tells us why even prayers won’t help unless one thing changes: Parenting. One life lesson, the doctor highlights, which every parent must teach is: It’s okay to fail. “It’s okay if you don’t win. And you won’t always win,” she says, adding that the stigma of failure and lack of awareness around mental health must be tackled on a war footing. One must not expect teachers and hostels to listen to the students, and spot early signs of stress, panic and suicidal symptoms. “They are your kids. If parents don’t listen and abandon them emotionally, then who will take care of these young ones?” she says. “All answers and solutions lie with parents,” adds Vijayvargiya.

Inside Kota: Edgy students, caring crusaders & a missing safety valve
As I step out of her clinic, I spot two advertisements. The first is plastered on an autorickshaw. "Har haal main hogi jeet [victory at all costs],” screams a promotional commercial of PhysicsWallah. The second advertisement is on a small sign hanging outside a kirana store next to Healthy Mind Clinic. "Taiyaari jeet ki [preparation for a win]," is the message doled out by milk-based beverage brand Bournvita.    
Vijayvargiya made a valid point. Everybody wants to win. The ones, unfortunately, who are losing in this race are the kids.