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Indian Church leaders voice alarm at student suicides

Say many youngsters are falling victim to peer pressure and high expectations from parents
A member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) holds a placard and shouts slogans against the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET)-2020, the largest and one of the most competitive medical entrance exams in India, in Chennai on Sept 13, 2020

A member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) holds a placard and shouts slogans against the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET)-2020, the largest and one of the most competitive medical entrance exams in India, in Chennai on Sept 13, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 21, 2023 07:01 AM GMT
Updated: September 21, 2023 09:26 AM GMT

Church leaders have expressed concern over student suicides in an educational hub in a northern Indian state as parents are engaged in a crazy competition to place their children in a better-salaried-career.

On Sept. 18, a 16-year-old girl student ended her life in Kota, where 26 students have committed suicide so far this year, said media reports, quoting police in northern Rajasthan state.

“We deplore the loss of life of students who take the extreme step due to peer pressure and high expectations from parents,” said Father Maria Charles, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India's Commission for Education and Culture.

Pressure from parents and the pursuit to achieve bigger things in life cause mental imbalances, leading to suicides, the Salesian priest added.

Kota, nearly 500 kilometers south of the national capital New Delhi, is home to more than 40 coaching institutes, where nearly 150,000 students burn the midnight oil to pass the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), meant to get admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and pursue undergraduate medical courses.

Rigorous coaching methods and a high success rate have made Kota a hub for pre-requisite tests, conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) under the Ministry of Education.

Nitin Vijay, founder of Motion Education in Kota, said that “centers in Kota are equipped with advanced teaching methods which give students an edge.” 

According to Rajasthan police, 15 students in Kota ended their lives in 2022, while 18 committed suicide in 2019, and 20 in 2018.

There were no suicides in 2020 and 2021 as coaching institutes were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The girl student who died by taking poison on Sept. 18 was preparing for the NEET and came from neighboring Uttar Pradesh. 

“Basic arrangements are lacking in privately-run institutions to help children relax,” Father Charles said.

Many coaching centers lack the wherewithal to conduct counselling and students are not taught how to handle pressure, the priest observed.

"Counseling should start at school level so that children can grow up in a healthy and stress-free environment," he added.

The Catholic Church owns 30,000 educational institutions, including schools, universities, and colleges in the country and runs coaching centers in different parts of the country.

 “Our institutes make sure that children are taken care of properly by giving them regular counselling which helps them cope with the challenges,” Charles said.

Coaching centers are a lucrative business, many of which are owned by wealthy people and politicians who pack these institutions with highly qualified teachers and high-class facilities with the sole objective of reaping rich dividends. 

Besides the rich, lower middle class parents are attracted to them to get their children a ‘quality education’ to compete in India's cut-throat job market, where applicants are a plenty.

Mukti Prakash Tirkey, editor of a New Delhi-based weekly Dalit Adivasi Duniya (the world of Dalits and tribal people), said that besides pressure from parents, bullying and caste-related remarks often drive students to suicide.

Earlier, only students from better socio-economic backgrounds opted for the NEET and the JEE. Now, Dalits (formerly untouchables) and students from tribal communities also take them, he said.

"They [Dalits and students from tribal communities] are considered as competitors and hence targeted.”

Students are “too young” to handle the pressure, the tribal Catholic leader added.

Many people cannot afford to send their children to the costly coaching centers. So, they take out loans from banks. But not all students are lucky enough to pass the entrance test.

Over 13,000 students nationwide took their own lives in 2021, a rise of 4.5 percent compared with 12,526 deaths in 2020, said the National Crime Records Bureau.

Many of the deaths were caused by failure in exams, the state-run organization said.

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