New Delhi: For Ramesh Kumar (name changed) from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, 2023 was the worst year of his life. His family is still coming to terms with the loss of their elder son, who killed himself in a hostel room in Rajasthan's Kota where he had been preparing for the medical entrance exam for the past two years.
Kumar's son is among 26 coaching students who died by suicide this year in Kota, the highest-ever figure. Last year, the toll was 15.
The spate of student suicides also prompted the stakeholders to come up with desperate measures such as installing anti-hanging devices in hostel room fans and iron mesh in balconies and lobbies.
Mourning the loss of his son, Kumar has decided to bring back his younger son, who had moved to Kota earlier this year and was preparing for the engineering entrance exam JEE.
"They were living in separate hostels as they were enrolled in different coaching institutes. Our plan was that in 2024, my wife would move to Kota and rent a house so the three of them could live together and the children could prepare for the entrance exams in the comfort of home. I had never imagined that my son would not be there by then...," he told PTI.
"I wanted both my children to study at the best colleges and become doctors and engineers but not at the cost of their lives … We decided to call our younger son back to Bulandshahr and continue with his schooling here. We are not willing to take any further risk," he added.
More than two lakh students move to Kota annually to prepare for competitive exams such as the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges.
Packed schedules, cut-throat competition, constant pressure to do better, the burden of parents' expectations and homesickness are among the common struggles the students contend with in the coaching hub.
The family of Farheed Hussain from West Bengal's Birbhum district is still looking for answers about what made his son take the extreme step.
"He was a very bright student, I wanted him to be a doctor but never pressured him. He used to score well in the routine tests, barring a few … I don't know why he was compelled to end his life then," said Hussain, choking on tears.
Seeking desperate measures during a desperate time, the Kota administration and stakeholders of the coaching industry sprung into action and took various steps to prevent student suicides. The year 2024 will be reflective of how efficient these measures prove to be.
From "suicide proofing" fans in hostel rooms to installation of nets in balconies and lobbies to prevent students from ending their lives, restrictions on glorification of toppers to directives for keeping results of routine tests confidential, roping in mess workers and tiffin service providers to flag early signs of stress if a student is not consuming food properly were among the measures taken this year to prevent further deaths.
In 2017, the Kota Hostels' Association discussed installing spring coils in hostel fans. This device works on the basis that if an object weighing more than 20 kilogrammes is hung from it, the spring attached to it expands, making it impossible for someone to commit suicide. A siren also goes off simultaneously.
But it did not gain popularity with the estimated 25,000 paying guest facilities in the city. However, in August, when the number of suicides hit a record high, the district administration issued an order mandating the installation of anti-hanging devices in hostel room fans.
The routine tests conducted by coaching institutes were also suspended by the district administration for more than two months.
Wardens and staff members of hostels in Kota are being given professional training in mess management, psychological and behavioural counselling, and other aspects of students' care to equip them to battle the rising number of suicides.
Three hostel associations in Kota -- the Chambal Hostel Association, Coral Hostel Association and the Kota Hostels' Association -- signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Jai Minesh Tribal University in Kota to design special Hostel Management certificate courses for the wardens and the staff members.
While the Kota Police encouraged hostel wardens to participate actively in the "darwaze pe dastak (knock on door)" campaign, the mess workers and tiffin providers were roped in to report if a student is absent from the mess repeatedly and skips meals or anyone's tiffin is found unconsumed.
The city police set up a dedicated student cell to reach out to the competitive exam aspirants and make attempts to detect early signs of stress and depression.
According to officials, the cell comprises 11 police personnel. They were chosen as all are in their 40s and have teenage children that will help them understand the challenges faced by the students.