Thursday, April 25, 2024

Kota suicide points to a scarcity that still plagues us


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By Ajit Ranade

A suicide note in Kota shook up the nation. A young girl says sorry to her parents, for letting them down. She died of not a broken heart, but of a broken spirit. The inhuman competition, and the burden of expectations was just too much for a teenager of tender age. It does us no good to blame the parents, for all they wanted was a better future for their child. They might have mortgaged their family wealth, although that just increases the burden on the child. It does not help to blame the regimented system of Kota coaching centres, which has already snuffed out twenty-five young lives, just last year.
Kota has already switched to suicide watch mode, alarmed by an increase in suicides and attempted suicides. Hostels fitted with spring loaded fans to prevent death by self-hanging, or high-rise buildings with anti-suicide steel nets and special police cells for suicide counselling, have all been in place for some time now. Yet enrolment in Kota has doubled in the last three years. More than 200,000 aspirants clock up to 18 grueling hours of study, seven days a week. Such is the power of the lure of the lottery that are these entrance exams called JEE and NEET. Let us not forget, it is a lottery whose odds are terribly stacked against the applicants.
The Union government has proposed guidelines to regulate the coaching centres which form an industry on their own. There are an estimated 30,000 coaching institutes and they also have their own national federation and industry body. In a place like Kota which is India’s most famous coaching cluster, there is a local thriving economy of paying guest accommodation, food delivery service, dummy schools and colleges, transport and other services. It is estimated that the annual turnover of all coaching centres exceeds the annual budgets of all IIT and AIIMS taken together! So, the new regulations will affect this industry adversely. The new proposed rules prohibit the institutes from registering any student who is less than sixteen years old. It also mandates that fees should be reasonable (which means price control), and that coaching centres look after the physical and mental health of their students.
Most members of the Coaching Federation of India are upset because their catchment starts in class five or six. Many parents plan for engineering, medicine careers for their kids, or even for civil services much in advance of class eleven or twelve. So, this catchment will no longer be available to the coaching institutes. The other problem is that enforcement of the rules will be difficult given the spread of coaching classes across the country. This is not to deny that some sort of regulation is certainly needed. Whether that is best served by self-regulation of the industry or by the government appointed regulator is the question. Some of the large players in this industry have received substantial investments from private equity or venture funds. It is in their interest to bring some order in the behaviour of all players, and hence self-regulation does have a chance.
But the larger point may be lost in this discussion about regulating a wild industry or in the tragic stories of suicides by young students. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by Pratham, the innovative learning organisation created to improve the quality of education in India, is an excellent source to gauge the depth of the real problem. Their report says that parents pay upward of one lakh rupees even for coaching at the level of class nine. This points to an utter lack of quality of education received from regular schools. It also points to the huge gap between available seats in engineering and medicine which are considered to be of good quality, and the number of applicants. In 2024 around 12,31,874 students have registered for JEE Mains and the total number of seats across 23 IIT’s are 16232. That is a success ratio of 1.3 percent, among the most difficult in the entire world. And who is to say that those ten thousand students after the last rank admitted, are not as good? This story is repeated in NEET, the all India entrance exam for medical seats too. Even for the all India civil services, the applicants to seats ratio is extremely adverse. And many students appear several times, especially for civil services. This is an utter waste of the prime years of their lives.
This is a deeply structural problem, and points to a very big weakness of our education system. The 1991 economic reforms were transformational because it took the nation from one of scarcity, to one of choice and abundance. The dismantling of the licence permit raj, and the free entry of anyone into the manufacturing sector, meant that there was competition for quality and lower price. Across products such as automobiles, white goods, household items, and even food products we got used to expecting and getting world class quality products. This extended to services such as telecom, retail, banking, finance and stock markets. But the field of educational services remains shackled by regulation, licensing and rigid legacy practices. Of course, education is constitutionally in the States’ list, but higher education is influenced by Central government policies too. Much reform has been attempted to unshackle the sector. But the proliferation of what is called the “coaching culture” by the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, and the thriving economy of the coaching industry points to the widening gap between demand and aspirations on one hand, and supply of good educational institutions on the other.
India’s richer parents now send their kids abroad, not only for post graduate studies, but increasingly even for bachelors’ degrees after class twelve. The steep prices for medical and business degrees is an added factor to choosing an affordable alternative in America, Europe or Australia. India’s annual “import” of education, i.e. dollars spent on foreign education is upward of 30 billion dollars, half of our entire defence budget! Just like Bisleri and the bottled water industry prospered, the booming coaching industry is a manifestation of the scarcity of quality supply that still plagues India’s education sector. This supply has to increase vastly both from public and private sources. That is the highest priority to enhance India’s human capital, if we want sustained increase in all round wellbeing.
(Dr. Ajit Ranade is a noted Pune-based economist) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (email: [email protected])


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