Blog: ‘Sorry Papa, Forgive Me’ – Notes From Kota, And A Plea For Change

Hey Ira,

Kaise ho? Into your second semester and loving Canada! Time is flying, truly.

Back in India, the exam season looms. Stress is in the air. And the centrepiece of it all, as you know, is Kota . The city’s famous—or infamous—coaching industry, and the pressure-cooker environment in which thousands of youngsters prepare for competitive exams there, gets worse each year.

“I am sorry Papa!”

“Sorry Mamma..”

Please hume maaf kar dijiyega…” (please forgive me..)

“I (am the) worst daughter. Sorry mummy, papa. Yahi last option hai…” (This is the last option)

These are excerpts from notes left behind by students from all parts of India, enrolled at coaching centres in Kota, who chose death by suicide. Look at what is common in these letters—they all say ‘Sorry’. Not only did these students end their lives, but they also blamed themselves as they took that fatal step. Sadly, we know that is not the truth.

As many as 29 student suicides were reported in Kota in 2023 alone, the highest the city has seen since 2015. That’s more than two suicides a month. Imagine how this news, recurring every 14 days, plays on the minds of the thousands of students studying there. Each of them fully relates to such cases, because the stress that triggers every suicide is felt by them all. Each death must surely shake up every student, scarring them and scaring them about their own future.

Yet we throw them into that cauldron of stress called Kota without a parachute, and with little guidance about what stress is, how it can hit them, hurt them, and even claim their lives.

Cash-Rich Coaching Centers, Yet…

Our morning newspapers routinely carry full-page ads posted by all kinds of coaching institutes, right through the year. They flaunt the mugshots of their top-ranking students, their star lecturers, and often the ‘inspirational’ founder of the centre. Along with real estate developers, paan masala companies and the government, these coaching institutes are among the biggest advertisers these days.

While they do make a lot of money – the size of Kota’s coaching industry is pegged upwards of 5,000 crore – ​they seem to spend much of it on blowing their own trumpets, and nearly not enough on creating a security net for their students. Perhaps they feel it’s not their problem. Perhaps they feel they are there only to teach, and that the stress of preparing for competitive exams is for students and their families to handle. Not true. If schools and colleges are duty-bound to look out for the mental health of their students, then why not coaching centres? Especially when most students in Kota’s coaching centres spend not months but years there.

I often feel like putting out a full-page newspaper ad with the faces of students who chose death by suicide in Kota. It would help people understand that Kota’s coaching centres do not produce just exam toppers. There is also this other grim list of those who went to the same coaching centres but ended their lives because they were not enabled to cope with pressure. For which, in large part, these coaching centres must accept responsibility.

Mental Health Security Net, What’s That?

“…and, please will the government, will HRD do something about these coaching institutes? They suck and should be shut down as soon as possible.”

Another student, another note. Look at the clarity she had on how the system was broken, but having so little hope that it could be fixed, she punished herself instead, taking her own life.

There must be a few sensitive professors in Kota giving good advice to students, but surely it can’t be left at that. A mental health security net, with its various checks and balances, must be an ‘institutional’ organ. And there should be zero tolerance for coaching centres that do not put such measures in place.

What measures are we talking about? We are talking about a healthy student-to-lecturer ratio, about spacious, brightly lit classrooms and equally comfortable and welcoming campuses. We are talking about regular mental health counselling on-campus, which is easily accessible to students. We are talking about the sensitisation of both faculty and students towards vocabulary that may trigger anxiety and thoughts of self-harm, and of how to look for signs that a peer or a student may be facing mental health issues.

Coaching centres must be assessed for whether they have these measures in place. It is a lucrative business, so they should be made to comply. If not, there should be a heavy price to pay, including the prospect of being shut down. Coaching centres are known to pay off government inspectors to get approvals and certifications. As a result, even now in Kota, dingy, stuffy, crowded coaching centres proliferate, with a destructive ‘do or die’ ethos reigning supreme. We can only hope such centres and government inspectors stop cutting corners and feel responsible for the youngsters dying by suicide.

Living And Dying For ‘Dadaji’s Dream’

“Iss bar hum hard work kar rahe the, but phir bhi result nahi aaya… hamari himmat nahi hogi aapse nazre milane ki isliye… apni life khatam kar rahe hain”
(this year I worked hard, yet did not get a better result… I won’t be able to face you, so I’m ending my life)

Sorry Dadaji, but I am not the engineer kind… sorry for being weak.. but I (have) no strength left..”

These two excerpts from more suicide notes reveal the reality of parental and family pressure, against which many students are trying to fulfil their ‘dadaji’s dream’ (grandfather’s dream) and not their own. Families often pin their hopes on a bright child, committing all their savings to the exorbitant coaching centre fees and rent in Kota. The youngster is expected to excel, get a good rank, get a degree from a prominent college, get a well-paid job, and transform the fortunes of the entire family. No one really asks the youngster what his or her preferences are. It’s dadaji’s dream, no questions asked. Stress? That’s normal. Suck it up. Go to Kota.

And that is the pressure cooker situation the youngster finds herself in. There’s a coaching centre that says it’s there to coach and not ‘mollycoddle’ her, so she can’t turn to them as her mind begins to darken. Her family just wants her to send smiling selfies with her books and keep up the pretence that she’s enjoying fulfilling dadaji’s dream. She can’t turn to her family either. And her peers, all of them in the same rat race, mostly teens struggling with their own troubles, are rarely able to help either. And thus she gradually isolates herself, consumed by the rapidly building stress and anxiety. Until the pressure cooker explodes one day, and ‘Dadaji’s dream’ shatters.

But, Where Are The Psychiatrists And Psychologists?

Ira, you are studying psychology, and you know mental health has a lot to do with how much attention a country’s government pays to it. In India, sadly, mental health gets very little attention. Even as a people, most of us are poorly informed and simply live in denial of mental health issues. The students in Kota face this too.

But while many don’t come forward for treatment owing to the stigma attached to having a ‘mental problem’, the equally important fact is that India is glaringly short of mental health practitioners.

Let’s look beyond Kota for a bigger picture. In 2021, over 13,000 students died by suicide in India. That’s more than 35 a day. A 70% rise between 2011 and 2021. Across India, just under 1,40,000 suicides were recorded in 2019. A 2017 study in The Lancet suggested 14.3% of Indians were dealing with mental illness. That is 200 million people—more than the entire populations of Canada, Germany and France put together!

India though, despite being aware of the scale of the challenge, has a ratio of just 0.75 psychiatrists for every 1 lakh people. This is sorely below our target of three psychiatrists for 1 lakh citizens. Meanwhile, in Canada, the ratio is 13 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 people! Yes, we lag way behind.

Please, No Kota Story Sequel Needed

The problem is not really a shortage of funds. It’s misplaced priorities. In 2020, mental health got just 0.05% of the total healthcare budget of India. In developed countries, that share is usually about 5%. Also, two-thirds of India’s psychiatrists are in big cities alone. The number of psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurses in smaller cities and rural regions, is really, really low.

All of this costs us thousands of lives, every year. How can that be okay?

Ira, hopefully in the near future, you will be able to pull some precious lives back from the brink of despair. The Kota Story does not need any more ghastly sequels.