The family members of D. Karthik, a 20-year-old IIT-H (Hyderabad) student, were distraught when he went missing from his hostel room this July 17. Their agony knew no bounds when his dead body was discovered on a beach in Vishakhapatnam two days later.
Though the police did not find any suicide note, it is suspected that he committed suicide due to depression resulting from academic challenges. Police cautiously arrived at this conclusion based on circumstantial evidence and inputs received from his friends at IIT-H who told them that Karthik was depressed after failing to clear three subjects.
IIT-H, a relatively young institution is grappling with the problem of student suicides of late but it is not alone. IIT Madras is leading the sorrowful statistics with the highest number of student suicides. To its credit, IIIT-H has incubated a counseling cell, aptly named ‘Sunshine’ to provide support to struggling students and at least, on paper appears well staffed and funded. The institute claims that Sunshine runs student mentor and buddy programs to help new students and most importantly provide emotional support. It further goes to state that Sunshine has a dedicated team headed by a faculty in charge and composed of counselors, faculty representatives, student heads, management team members, and student mentors. Going by the heated debates that erupted on social media following Karthik’s death, support for and against the success of the Sunshine program seems evenly matched. Those critical of Sunshine were not too forthright in their condemnation with some even suggesting mitigating measures. Sunshine is doing some good but not enough to prevent recurring tragedies on its campus.
This brings us to the key question of what more needs to be done to arrest the burgeoning statistics of student suicides on IIT campuses across the country. The IIT council, the governing body of all the Indian Institutes of Technology is seized of the matter. Interestingly, an exit option exists in IITs enabling students to earn a BSc degree if they opt to quit before degree completion. The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) which outlined the vision to transform India’s educational system, too recommended multiple entry-exit options which are fast gaining currency. It is a national crisis to see so many young and bright students, who possess the cerebral capacity to crack one of the world’s toughest examination selection processes, extinguish their lives unable to withstand the academic rigors of the IIT institutions. An escape clause will be of great support to students who find their helpless situations a lonely cry in the wilderness and look to suicide as the only option available. Prof. V. Ramgopal Rao, vice-chancellor, of BITS Pilani group and former Director, of IIT Delhi has proposed some valuable suggestions which among other things, recommend according to priority to mental health issues of students attending premier educational institutions of India.
Expanding on the recommendations of the NEP 2020 of multiple entry-exit options and dovetailing with existing exit options, IITs can consider other useful suggestions such as awarding an IIT certificate for those completing one year of study (two semesters), a Diploma for two years of study and BSc for three years with a provision for course completion at any time in future. Let us not forget that Azim Premji, the highly respected patriarch of IT giant WIPRO completed his Stanford University Engineering degree program 30 years after dropping out of it owing to family issues. The existence of this exit option will go a long way in assuaging anxiety among vulnerable students with the promise of a long rope and better times for tackling academic challenges under more accommodative conditions. Another suggestion pertains to the choice of branches, where a student unable to score a rank high enough to land a seat in a subject of his or her choice will face the prospect of studies not aligned with his or her interests. IITs without compromising their brand value should devise means of accommodating the interests and aspirations of the vulnerable and less endowed students who enter its hallowed precincts.
Coaching centers, especially those located in places such as Kota and Hyderabad have successfully figured out a way to unravel the secret DNA sequencing code of the IIT- JEE entrance examination. The key to success is long-term preparation where the coaching centers begin training the students right from school years and exposing them to a vast multitude of questions and solutions. Since IIT-JEE is all about tricky questions and innovative solutions, the students have trained accordingly, with one goal in mind- success in the- JEE entrance examination. Ranks and entry into IITs come as a result of strategy, long-term effort, and mindless slogging at the cost of everything else. A least for some, it is very much like the story of Abhimanyu in Mahabharat, they learn to enter the Padmavyuha of IITs with the help of coaching centers, but in the end, struggle to come out. The coaching centers are no longer there to see them through and they find themselves completely at sea. It is here that they need support, with so many IITsaround, a new business model pivoted on the experience of a galaxy of retired IIT professors joining hands to birth mentoring centers for online support to struggling students at a reasonable cost may provide a viable solution to the tragic problem.
As a society, India should evolve to accept failure as a normal outcome of life and free itself from the ill effects of taboo, ignominy, and humiliation currently associated with it. That is a sure way, if not the only way, to save its bright young people from the dark clutches of depression and suicide. After all, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg have all been college dropouts, who made it big in life without attracting ignominy or societal censure and this captures the essence and true meaning of Google CEO Sunder Pichai’s famous words ‘inSilicon Valleyyou wear your failure as a badge of honor’.