Engineering A Death Brew

A lot has been written about education in this country. Some positive, a lot negative. There are indeed plenty of valid criticisms – it promotes rote learning, prefers form over content in language, fails to deliver content in an engaging and effective manner, and so on.

This post is not about that. 

What I really want to highlight here is an attitude problem.

In an incident reminiscent of a scene from the hit movie Three Idiots, an IIT Madras student hung himself from a ceiling fan minutes after he was informed that he would not graduate that year.
This is nothing very new for the IITs or Indian colleges in general. Between November 2005 and 2010 for example, IIT Kanpur alone has recorded a whopping seven undergraduate suicides. With an undergraduate strength of 2,800 in any given year, this translates to more than 57 suicides per 100,000 every year; five and a half time the national average of 10.5.

Why is the situation so bad?

Academic stress is one reason. The IITs are prestigious, premier institutions. As a result of the ridiculously low acceptance rates, their students are the creme de la creme of the high school student crowd. Naturally then, the competition within the institutions is intense and is bound to result in some amount of stress. Failure is not considered an option in Indian society and the pressure to succeed no matter what can easily break even far more battle-hardened and experienced men and women.

But there’s a second reason too – one of attitude. The attitude of the faculty.

In July 2008, students from IIT Kanpur filed an application under the RTI Act to find out what the institute had determined as the cause for the alarming number of suicides. Their answer?

The IIT stated that modernization, social imbalance, irrational use of Internet and mobile phones are the chief reasons

IIT-Kanpur Dean Partha Chakraborty justified that cryptic response as follows

Parents can keep in touch with their sons and daughters on campus. Maybe there can be pressure from various parts of the society because you’re easily connected

But as the students pointed out, doesn’t that also mean that parents can provide much better moral and mental support? After all, communication is key to reducing suicides and mobile phones help immensely in that direction. With all due respect to the honorable Dean, is this not flawed reasoning?

I have long felt that we do not seem to value life here in India. That may or may not be a correct perception, but  this statement really took my breath away. When asked about what the Institute in general and Guidance and Counselling Unit (GCU) in particular was doing to address the situation and to improve the response against such incidents, IIT Madras dean of students Govardhan M said (emphasis mine),

Why are you always reporting negative news about IIT Madras? We also have the maximum number of patents but you didn’t report that. But you would want to report the death of 3 out of 5000 students which is statistically not important. Why don’t you go to other engineering institutes and find out how many died there. Why only IIT?

Er…what? “Statistically not important”? Since when are reporters only to report on statistically “important” events? Is it not shameful that entirely avoidable deaths of some of our best and brightest students are thought to be offset by the fact that the college has a high number of patents? Can patents be equated to human lives?

Parents aren’t entirely blameless either. Indian parents routinely push their kids too far, and too hard. Here in Delhi, I’ve seen kids from class VII already dreaming of getting into specific engineering colleges! Is a twelve year old kid really old enough to even decide what career s/he wants to pursue? It’s good to be driven and focused, but this is ridiculous! 

So what’s really killing our students?

In my view, it is a deadly combination of parental over-ambition, official insensitivity and immense academic stress that are working like a cancer in our society. These factors form a vicious circle that are wrecking the mental health of our future generations.

This must change, sooner rather than later.


11 thoughts on “Engineering A Death Brew

  1. Pingback: Engineering A Death Brew | Γονείς σε Δράση

  2. It is a shame that dean thinks three deaths are not statistically significant, how many will make a difference in his stat blind mind?

    He should be reprimanded for his insensitive remark. There has to be a public out cry. He is a workplace hazard.

    All three reasons you mentioned are valid along with the lure of globalization. The starting package of an IIT or IIM graduate is something that drives both parents and students crazy. If there were some egalitarian balance some in wealth distribution and other legitimate ways to attain similar wealth people won’t have to kiss the noose.

    Desi Girl

    • “If there were some egalitarian balance some in wealth distribution and other legitimate ways to attain similar wealth people won’t have to kiss the noose.”

      I absolutely agree.

      Besides, is wealth really everything?
      How about legitimate ways to attain similar happiness? What’s the point of being wealthy when the struggle to get that wealth kills you, or drives you into depression?

  3. PT,

    With wealth the definition of happiness changes.

    It is not just a struggle to attain wealth it is a fight to keep that wealth and prevent others from begetting it. If attaining wealth was the goal then the race would end once a handsome package has landed. But the race actually begins there after; it is a dog in the manger situation.
    Desi Girl

  4. “…modernisation, social imbalance, irrational use of Internet and mobile phones are the chief reasons” – a lot of people blame everything today on these four evils and a lot of other people completely believe them.

    • Absolutely.

      “Modernization” in particular has become a sort of bogeyman word which everyone flings around when things go wrong.

      • “Modernization” was always a bogeyman be it in 1159 or 1921 or 1972 yet 2011; Then it was kalyug and now it is west. As far as DG can recall, even in 1850 desis were decrying modernization, when they feared educated men and women will flush the great Indian culture down the drain.
        People always feared change and tried to sabotage it if not then what were did not turn out positive they blamed on the new. It will be interesting to ask this dean what did his parents and their contemporaries thought about modernization in his growing up years? 🙂
        Desi Girl

        • Depending on his age, they were probably decrying either radio or Television.

          Yep, people always fear change.

  5. Hi PT, coming to your blog for the first time today. Somehow, when you comment on my blog and I click on your name, it shows me a gravatar profile, not this blog.

    Anyways..coming back to this topic, apart from parental pressure, I think there is a lot of peer pressure on the students too. All their self-esteem is derived from their marks/percentage/grades. I am no IIT-ian, but from my own experience in a small town, I can tell that my self-esteem soared with a good academic result and flopped with a bad one. My peer group (and my teachers) would treat me differently. If I flunked, my biggest concern would be “what will people think abouty me?”. My relative standing, my power and my popularity would depend on my results. Well, not just mine, even my parents’!! The students who commit suicide take this self-esteem issue to the extreme.

    It is appalling how teachers blame the Internet and cell-phones for suicides and think it’s a trivial issue. Teachers are equally responsible for the suicides. They often use terms like, “I did not expect this from a good student like you!”. It’s not their place to categorize students as good or bad, intelligent or dumb. Their job is to teach and make the students learn. The purpose of exams is to know how good the student is in that subject and how good a job the teacher has done. The purpose of exam is not classification of students into good, bad, average, weak, poor, etc.

    I think, one way of getting over this problem is keeping results (like salaries) private. No displaying results on notice-boards, no neighbors/relatives/friends asking about it. No enjoyment of special public privileges on a good result and no shame on a bad one.

    • Actually, it is intended to be that way. This weblog is currently on “standby” due to (as usual) a massive time crunch.

      Frankly, I think the whole system is flawed. I agree that results, like financial compensation, should be private.
      It seems to me, though, that a lot of the pressure comes from parents, who would almost certainly be informed of the result.

      It’s a social problem.

      Let us make occasional failure acceptable. Let us not make failure a criminal offence. Let us not shame people for failing.

      Until educators and parents understand that failure is a part of life, I don’t think anything will really change.

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