Glass ceiling, not ceiling fans, is responsible for student suicides

A group of students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi have written a letter to the administration demanding better policies for students in the wake of two fresh suicides.

EVERY year, hundreds of thousands of students, many still in their teens, go through the rigours of preparing for entrance exams to some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in India.

Goaded on by their parents, peer pressure and the public, these students believe that a seat in one of these prestigious institutions will be their ticket to a comfortable life and a satisfying career.

But the lucky few who emerge victorious in the bloodbath of the entrance exams soon realise that their ordeal has just begun.

An almost-impossible academic schedule coupled with deep-seated structural and social malaises take a toll on their mental and physical well-being. Many prefer the humiliation of being a ‘drop-out’ over continuing under what they perceive are insurmountable odds.

Some slip into a darker fate, attempting to take their lives.

On the rare occasion when the news of a student taking their life leaks out, there is the perfunctory noise in the media and among the administration and the civil society that things must change.

But they never do.

Which is why every attempt to raise this issue is the difference between life and death.

Recently, a group of students from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-D) wrote a letter to the director and core administrative deans outlining certain demands.

The demands were made in the wake of a tragedy on the campus. Two students from the department of mathematics had committed suicide.

Through the letter, the students have highlighted the dire need for a better reservation policy. The letter states that the two students who had committed suicide belonged to Schedule Caste communities.

Since there are no faculty members from their community, there was no one with whom they could share the unique experiences of marginalisation, and who could act as a mentor and a guide to them.

Even when members of marginalised communities are appointed as faculty instructors, the letter states, the representation is not proportional.

The letter also repeats the immediate need for sensitisation of faculty members on grading policy. 

The letter states that faculties assigning ‘F’ grades to students, which denotes that the student has failed a particular subject, shows not just a failure of the student but also the faculty and that such culture must not be promoted.

Much of what the students have demanded in the letter was written from the perspective of students belonging to the pandemic-affected batches.

The students have demanded a scope of flexibility in coursework and alternative ways to evaluate a student’s performance.

The students also asked for an initiative for caste equity. This would entail assigning persons to students from different backgrounds to ensure there was no discrimination based on caste, economic background, sexuality, etc.

What happened to these demands?

Probably no heed was paid to these demands. Suicides on the campus continued. Recently, the student community witnessed another suicide.

This demand for caste equity was similar to what the mothers of Payal Tadvi and Rohith Chakravati Vemula had once asked for.

Tadvi was a second-year student at Mumbai’s T.N. Topivala National Medical College. Vemula was a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Both became victims of caste-based discrimination and politics.

In 2012, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the statutory body charged with coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education in India, issued Regulations for promotion of equity in higher educational institutions.

The Regulations seek to control discrimination, unfavourable treatment and ragging in universities. The Regulations allow a student to file a complaint before a designated anti-discrimination officer.

In 2019, the mothers of Payal and Rohith filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking directions to end discriminatory practices in educational institutes. The petitioners pleaded for strict compliance with the 2012 UGC Regulations.

A Bench of Justices A.S. Bopanna and M.M. Sundresh issued notices to the ministry of education, the UGC and the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.

Four years later, no reply has been received.

The students of IIT Delhi have also outlined the need for more mental health counsellors and psychiatrists. According to the student body, with a student strength of more than 13,000 students, the institution has merely four counsellors and three psychiatrists.

The dean has promised to immediately recruit five more counsellors.

However, in their letter, the student body has asked: “Is the promise of immediately recruiting five more counsellors, thereby totalling nine counsellors for over 13,000 students truly a fair and adequate solution?”

The student body has acknowledged that the deans reintroduced faculty advisory for providing academic assistance to students.

This was described by the student body as a one-to-one interaction whereby the faculty could offer academic support to the student facing pressure and feeling overburdened.

However, the student body notes that: “Many students mentioned that they were unaware of this advisory support provided.”

Further, the student body has revealed that a single professor was assigned as a faculty advisor to a “staggering two-hundred and forty students”.

The students state that the professor raised concerns over the “hasty” reintroduction of the faculty advisory which he said was without a clear standard operating procedure.

Not a serious issue?

This brings us to how the system really understands the issue of student suicides. For instance, this year, more than 25 students have committed suicide in Kota.

The 26th suicide was by a minor girl preparing for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) exam (medicine). How did the institutes in Kota react to this issue? They removed ceiling fans so that students would be unable to hang themselves to death.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest data on suicides in India, 7.6 percent of suicides were committed by students, accounting for 13,044 of the total 170,924.

While these statistics do not show the reasons for suicides, an increasing consensus suggests that systematic caste-based discrimination is among the prominent factors that push students, especially those belonging to reserved categories, to commit suicide. This could also be reflected in the higher rates of dropouts among these students.

As per a dataset made public by the Minister of State for Education recently, a total of 13,500 students belonging to the reserved categories such as Schedule Castes, Schedule Tribes and Other Backward Classes have dropped out of IITs, Indian Institutes of Managements and other Central universities over the last five years.

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