For the 300,000 students who flock to Kota every year, this hot, dusty city in the Indian state of Rajasthan is a pressure cooker of performance, where 18 hours of study a day is common and where your exam marks are everything. Some will become India’s next generation of doctors and engineers; but for others, it will break them.
Kota has become known in recent decades as India’s “coaching capital”, where almost a dozen specialist institutes have sprung up offering intensive courses to prepare students for the highly competitive exams, either for medicine or engineering college. With 65% of India’s population of 1.4 billion people below the age of 35 and more young people pursuing higher education than anytime in its history, the stakes – and competition – have never been higher.
This year, more than 2 million people sat the entrance exam for medical college – known by the acronym Neet – competing for just 140,000 places, while more than 1 million students sat for the engineering exam in the hope of getting one of the 10,000 coveted places at the top technology institutes, known as IITs.
For the hundreds of thousands of students studying in the city, largely between the ages of 17 and 20, keeping up with the curriculum often means an eye-watering schedule. They work seven days a week and, in order to keep up, many said they started studying at 4am before attending six hours of classes, which accommodate around 300 students. They have an exam every two weeks, and are all publicly ranked according to their marks. “I don’t have time for friends or socialising. My books are my friends,” said Rani Kumari, 22, who is studying for her medical college exam.
“This is the most stressed city in all of India,” said Shree Kumar Verma, 19, who is preparing for his Neet exam at the Allen Career Institute, the largest coaching school in Kota. “Everywhere you look, you can see the desperation of young people in this country. So many have this dream to be a doctor or an engineer and they will go to very intense hardship to get there. Being at Kota is either going to bring you success or totally break you down; it’s all or nothing here.”
Nowhere is this desire for success more visible than in the city’s Radha Krishna temple, where thousands of prayers are scribbled frantically on the walls. “Dear god give me success”, “Krishna ji, please stay with me, please keep my parents happy … please help me crack Neet 2024” and “God teach me how to work very hard” are among the messages written by students. The temple priest Pandit Radhe Shyam said he had to whitewash the walls every two weeks to make room for more.
Such is Kota’s ubiquity that it has been heralded by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, as India’s “kashi [holy city] of education”, and the coaching industry here is now worth an estimated 120bn rupees (£1.2bn). “Toppers”, those who achieve the highest marks in the country, are treated like celebrities, with their photographs plastered on vast billboards and awarded cash prizes of 100,000 rupees by their respective colleges, which compete fiercely to dominate the top rankings.
Yet a darker side has also emerged, one that has thrown a spotlight on the gruelling culture of intensive exam coaching in Kota and the heavy burdens – academic, familial and social – placed on the students.
So far this year, 27 students studying in the city’s coaching schools have killed themselves, the highest number on record. The problem has been deemed so bad that some government ministers have called for the coaching schools to be banned. The matter was also raised in parliament and this month the Rajasthan state government introduced a new set of guidelines in an effort to curb the high suicide rate. Ceiling fans, repeatedly used by students to hang themselves, have been removed from rooms. None of the institutes or their teachers would speak to the Guardian.
Yet while criticism has been directed at the coaching schools, students and psychiatrists in the city say the greatest pressure comes from families at home. Having a doctor or an engineer in the family has long been held in high esteem in India, and many parents see Kota as the route to make this happen.
“I would say most of the mental health problems I see are related to toxic pressure from parents who tell their children, ‘You have to win at any cost.’ Success is often presented almost as a life or death option for these kids,” said Dr Neena Vijayvargiya, a psychiatrist working in Kota.
“With many parents, there’s no acceptance, no room for failure, and so students connect their life, their feelings, their emotions, everything to their marks.”
In September, a 17-year-old girl from Jharkhand studying for her medical college exam hanged herself in her bedroom. According to police, her diary had been filled with pleas to leave. “We found that the girl often wrote in her notebook, ‘After I leave Kota and go back home, my troubles will come to an end. But I know that my mother will feel sad and disappointed if I leave,’” said an officer on the case.
The teenager’s father, who asked to remain unnamed to protect his daughter’s identity, acknowledged she had repeatedly asked to come home. “But in no situation did my wife want her to drop out of the Kota coaching school and return home,” he said. “She told my daughter over the phone that we had decided to spend nearly 1m rupees on her education in Kota.”
While big coaching school such as Allen emphasised they had more than 50 psychiatrists and counsellors on campus and a 24-hour student helpline, Vijayvargiya said the stigma and misinformation associated with mental health in India meant that the signs of depression were frequently being dismissed by parents.
The few students who did find their way to her private clinic often did so disguised in headscarves and sunglasses to prevent them being seen. Women are particularly fearful that if they are known to have visited a psychiatrist, it could damage their marriage prospects.
While Kota coaching schools – with fees of 150,000 rupees a year and additional monthly costs of about 30,000 rupees a month for accommodation and food – used to be the preserve of the upper middle classes, those in the lower middle classes and below are increasingly making huge personal sacrifices so their children can attend.
The bigger coaching schools have also expanded their operations to cities across India and have representatives who go into schools to encourage parents to transfer their children to their institutes, to help prepare them for the exams from as young as 11.
Kedar Korde, a farmer from a poor rural village in Hingoli, Maharashtra, last year sold off his only piece of land and moved his family to Kota, in order to send his two sons, aged 14 and 17, to Allen.
“My sons are my universe, I want to give them the best education possible, and that means Kota,” Korde said. “I felt very sad selling off my land because it was the sole source of my family’s livelihood but it was a choice I had to make. Now my sons will not have the same life of misery as small farmers like me.”
He found a job working as a hostel security guard, and his family of four lives in a single room, as his older son prepares for the medical college exam. Yet Korde’s salary is still not enough to cover the costs, and so back home his father, Ramdas, is slowly also selling off his land to contribute to fund the teenagers’ education.
“I dropped out of school in seventh grade so I sold off my farmland to fund my grandson’s education with no reluctance” said Ramdas Korde, 69. “Frankly, it would be something like a miracle or a revolution in my village for them to come back as doctors or engineers.”