In the first semester of 2017 alone, three students committed suicide at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. According to the reply to an RTI filed by The Sunday Guardian, the total number of suicides in the past five years (2013-2017) stands at eight in this institution till April this year. In another case, an IIT BHU (Varanasi) student committed suicide by setting himself on fire before jumping off the third floor of his hostel in April. The figures of student suicides in the past five years at other IITs are: six at IIT Bombay, two at IIT Delhi and one at IIT Roorkee.
While many students at the various IITs blame it on the extensive academic pressure that triggers stress and depression, compounded by a “non-cooperative administration” and “strict professors”, other students and experts are of the view that academic stress is “highly misunderstood”, which more often than not, gives a “distorted narrative” and diverts attention from other pressing issues like drug addiction, lack of parental understanding, and failed love affairs which are also among the various reasons leading to suicides. While it’s difficult to ascertain the real reason for suicides in cases where suicide notes are absent, The Sunday Guardian tried to understand the plausible reasons behind the unsettling trend by talking to students, researchers and counsellors of the IITs.
A “non-caring” and “ineffective administration” at IIT BHU, according to a 2016 pass-out who admitted to attempting suicide himself in 2013, not only conveniently dismisses students’ concerns, but aggravates their academia-induced stress by failing them in exams. Talking on the condition of anonymity, the alumnus recounted how one of the teachers, who “favoured some students over others”, failed a student who raised a voice against him, causing the student to reappear for the paper multiple times.
“This is how stress builds up and spirals out of control. There is always a pressure on an IITian to perform well and get good grades, but by failing students on purpose, the administration only makes things worse for us. We can’t even complain against the teachers as nobody takes their case,” he said.
However, on the recent suicide case at IIT BHU that happened in April, he said that the student was involved in “malpractices like drug abuse”, which thrive at IIT BHU.
Linking an incident of 2015, where a violent clash between the law students of BHU and the students of IIT following a dispute over sharing a cricket playground, led to 10 students of IIT being severely injured, he said: “There is a lot of pressure on students here because of a hostile relationship between students of law and engineering. Also, because the administration doesn’t help or cooperate to resolve the issues, the students are left to fend for themselves. This builds a lot of pressure and students resort to alcohol and drugs. The administration brushes everything under the carpet.”
A student pursuing PhD from IIT Madras reiterated the sentiment, saying that a “strict and indifferent administration” often instils a sense of under confidence in the students by not providing adequate help with assignments and exams, which eventually amounts to stress and depression.
Calling failure to excel at academics a probable reason, and the administration’s practice to fail students or give them poor grades a major trigger for suicides, a student from IIT Roorkee, on the condition of anonymity, said, “In 2015, 73 students from IIT Roorkee were expelled because of poor grades, and about 90% of expelled students were from lower castes. They were readmitted because of court order, but the pressure didn’t cease to exist with that. The other reason is that most of the jobs are still centered towards IT, and people from core branches face double stress of managing their own courses along with the coding bit. I know many friends from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who are brilliant in their respective fields, but face serious issues while working on digital platforms. This creates a lot of burden at the time of placements because people with good communication and IT skills are highly preferred, and students who do not have these skills face problems that lead to depression, and sometimes suicides.”
Another student of IIT Guhawati, requesting anonymity, called life at IIT “exceedingly hectic”, and blamed the failure to manage multiple courses, and mid and end semester exams as catalysts for triggering suicidal tendencies among students.
“The administration and the media talk of packages worth crores, but they don’t realise that there are students who get jobs between Rs 4-5 lakh with bonds for two or three years. The society has high expectations of an IITian, who sees this as a failure.”
In order to curb the disturbing trend, directors of IITs in a council meet in April were asked to organise a compulsory induction programme and encourage students to participate in more extra-curricular activities to deal with stress. Recently, IIT Delhi has decided to redo its curriculum to shift focus from theory-based subjects to practical learning. However, a few experts and students say that the move will not make any major difference.
Pointing to the futility of the move, Professor Dheeraj Sanghi, former Dean of Academic Affairs, IIT Kanpur, said: “The point they are trying to convey is that students are only interested in getting a hands-on experience, which is certainly not the case. Chucking out theory is not advisable from the quality point of view also. The administration’s assumption is that every single suicide is related to poor academic performance. However, between 2006 and 2008, out of the seven suicide cases at IIT Kanpur, only two were of students who were academically weak. Whether they committed suicide due to academic pressure or not is still not known. The common perception is that if a student commits suicide, what else could be the reason than academic failure? Nobody really acknowledges that it may have happened because of parental pressure or a failed love affair or drug addiction.”
Dr Shikha Jain, counsellor at IIT Roorkee, is of the view that students find it difficult managing their newly-found independence with the expectations that come with being an IITian.
“Students start showing withdrawal tendencies when they see they are not living up to what the society expects of them. Zero extra-curricular activity outside of academics is another reason why students start getting depressed. Otherwise, if you look at the academic curriculum at IITs, it is pretty much the same as that in every other college. The course doesn’t burden students with too many subjects or exams.”
PROFESSIONAL COUNSELLING NEEDED
According to Dr Jain, proper counselling services at IIT Roorkee started in 2014 when she was hired on a permanent basis, but are still not adequately accessible considering the growing cases of depression among students who more often than not hesitate to share fearing privacy issues.
Professor Dheeraj Sanghi said that at IIT Kanpur, counselling services were ramped up to stem suicides and every undergraduate student was assigned a student guide to help him adjust to the new environment. Apart from that, every student goes through a psychometric test and students facing psychological issues are asked to meet the counsellor to discuss their problems.
At IIT Madras, counselling committees like Mitr and Saathi have students and professors as their members who help students deal with their problems through online and offline counselling. However, experts who have done research on the matter, say that student counselling groups are grossly inadequate because they don’t have professional training, and also because people in depression do not confide in students when it comes to their personal matters.