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.