“Look around you. Everyone in this class is your competitor. There are no friends for you here.”
In 2014, this is what Stuti (name changed on request) was allegedly told on her first day at Allen Career Institute, a coaching centre in Rajasthan's Kota – one among the over 150 similar institutes – that has 1.25 lakh students enrolled to prepare for JEE and NEET entrance exams in this academic year alone.
Now a PhD scholar in the US, Stuti still hasn’t been able to let go of the trauma of Kota in the past nine years. She tells FIT that teachers there “constantly foster a negative unhealthy competition" among students.
"They are always reminding us that none of us can actually be each other’s friends,” she adds.
Is this a thing across all coaching institutes in Kota that has seen at least 26 suicides this year alone? FIT spoke to the stakeholders to understand how systems are created and strict rules laid down – to ensure that peers don't turn into friends.
‘Time Constraints & Pressures From Elders’
For 15-year-old Abhigyan Kumar, one of the 4,000 students enrolled at Kota's Unacademy in this year's NEET preparation batch, the feeling of being ‘isolated’ in Kota is not really strange or surprising.
You move to Kota. You join a coaching institute. You go to class. You learn. You go back to the hostel. You study. This is the life in Kota, there's no one to blame for this isolation, students tell FIT.
Why so? Having friends and not having is all the same, they say.
"Dost bana bhi lo toh agar toh time kahan hai (even if you make friends, where will you find the time to hang out with them)?" asks Pawas Mohbansi (16), also a student at Unacademy.
Every single day, Pawas has 6-8 hours of classes at the coaching institute. After this, he goes to the library for self-study and to complete his homework assignments.
When he’s done with all this, he still has to revise and prepare for the weekly exams that coaching centres conduct. Any holiday he gets is to catch up on any topics that he might have missed during the ongoing lectures.
But time constraints are not the sole reason that students in Kota are often unable to make friends. Abhigyan says, “We don’t have friends because everyone views everyone else as competition.”
And it’s not just the teachers who enforce this idea among students. Vedant Rinwa, 20, who studied at Allen last year when he was preparing for NEET, says that while he was able to make friends in the hostel, the warden would pass comments every time he saw students in groups.
“If the hostel warden saw 2-3 people sitting together, he’d say, ‘You people don’t want to study, why are you sitting in groups to eat?’”Vedant Rinwa
When FIT reached out to members of the Kota Hostel Owners' Association, they denied any such allegations.
However, Vikram Singh Meena, a physics teacher at Motion Education, another coaching institute in Kota, stated that students could feel lonely, but parents need to do better.
“Students here don’t have time to make friends so they feel lonely. Parents need to understand that they should talk to their kids everyday and not let go of their responsibility.”
Fleeting Friendships Based on Ranks
For many other students, the friendships were fleeting. Because they were based on ranks.
Apoorva Sharma, a 27-year-old Noida-based consultant, lived in Kota from 2011-2013 when she was preparing for NEET. In the two years she was there, she had the toughest time making friends.
Students wouldn’t share notes with each other, they wouldn’t help each other with studies, and most days, they wouldn’t even initiate conversations with each other, she recalls
“Parents and teachers had ingrained in us that 'padhne wale bachon ke saath hi padhai hoti hai' (when you’re friends with studious kids, you also study). When I wasn’t in the top 100 in one of the weekly exams, two girls cut me off and stopped talking to me.”Apoorva Sharma
Though stressful for students, in Kota, these weekly exams hold a certain level of significance.
Based on these exams in the initial months, the coaching institutes identify and segregate the consistently top-performing students or the "cream layer" as they are called. These students are put in a separate batch that are taught by the best teachers and given accommodation in the institute's own private hostels.
FIT has reached out to Allen Career Institute, Bansal Classes, Resonance, and Unacademy over email to understand what these institutes are doing to foster a healthy environment for students, how they're encouraging interpersonal relationships and friendships between students, and what they're doing for students' mental health amid an increasing student suicide rate in the city.
Multiple calls to Motion Classes, another coaching institute in Kota, went unanswered. The article will be updated as and when they respond.
However, in the recently issued guidelines by the Rajasthan government on 27 September, the state has asked coaching institutes not to segregate students based on ranks anymore since that puts additional pressure on them.
These guidelines that the state issued after a spate of student suicides in Kota were formulated after consultation with various stakeholders of the coaching industry – institutes, hostels, media persons, police authorities, etc.
Some of the guidelines stated that:
The institutes should keep test results confidential.
There should be mandatory weekly holidays for students.
Students should not be segregated into different batches because of their scores.
Coaching institutes can't enroll students below class 9.
Coaching institutes need to hold regular counselling sessions for students, and teachers also need to be trained in dealing with them.
'They Didn't Hear Me Out': Emotional Dependency On Family
All said and done though, when students struggle to make friends in a new city, they seek emotional dependence from their parents or siblings. However, surprisingly, that is not the case with students moving to Kota.
When Apoorva first came to Kota, she felt overwhelmed during the orientation and asked her parents to take her back.
“They didn’t hear me out. They told me ‘beta, kuch kar ke hi aana hai' (you can come back after you've scored well) and then asked ‘log kya kahenge' (what will people say?)”Apoorva Sharma
Realising that her parents had invested over Rs 4 lakh in her education at Kota, Apoorva felt she couldn’t open up to them and that she couldn’t let them down either.
“I knew I couldn’t be distracted and make friends here, I was supposed to study,” she says.
Abhigyan, who is currently studying in Kota, too has spent around Rs 2.2 lakh for this year. This includes Rs 1.2 lakh coaching fee, Rs 5,000 per month hostel fee, and Rs 3,200 per month canteen/mess fee.
The financial burden that Kota's coaching centres put on parents and students alike is not new. In its recently issued guidelines, the Rajasthan government asked coaching institutes to ensure that students have an easy exit policy, in case they wish to drop out.
But when students fear that they would bring shame to their family by dropping out, the easing of the financial burden too isn't of much help.
That was the case with Anshal Thakur (35), a Mumbai-based corporate employee. His older sister journalist Ashlesha Thakur (36) tells FIT:
“I am very close to my brother. He used to share everything with me. But he never talked to me about his time in Kota. He became a bit silent after living there. He is an extrovert too but he didn’t make any friends there. He wanted to leave Kota but feared that he would be mocked and shamed if he came back home.”
A few months into moving to Kota, when Anshal’s father visited him, the latter found him weak and disturbed. He immediately decided to bring him back to Patna. This was in 2006.
In 2023, the situation in Kota has still not changed in any drastic measures.
Kids being disturbed and feeling isolated is also the reason that Akshay Sharma (28), a UPSC aspirant in Delhi, brought back his younger brother Vyom Sharma from Kota.
“After Kota, (Vyom) tends to share a lot less with us. Earlier he would tell us about exams, stress, classes, teachers, etc. But now he doesn’t talk about any of these things.”Akshay Sharma
While Vyom was enrolled at a private institute to prepare for JEE, he struggled a lot and found it “difficult to survive in Kota without friends.” A few friends he made dropped out and left Kota too.
Hostels & Teachers Deny The Blame
Amid the many stress factors already going against students in Kota, what also doesn't help is single-sharing rooms in hostels, Abhigyan points out.
"Those rooms feel so lonely," he says. Living alone, eating alone, being boxed in a 10*10 room alone most evenings is more than he can bear.
But hostels deny any part of the blame here.
Pankaj Jain, the general secretary of Kota Hostel Owners Association, says that up until a few years ago, most hostels and PGs in the city had double or triple-sharing rooms.
But over the years, the demand for single rooms went up immensely. In 2023, all double or triple-sharing rooms in hostels are left vacant, says Pankaj.
“Parents demand single rooms. They think that children don’t get disturbed and concentrate better on studies. Even we had to often settle disputes in sharing rooms – one student wants to sleep, the other wants to study so these things become an issue and students aren’t able to bond.”Pankaj Jain
He goes on to add that there are common areas anyway in most hostels where students can interact. But, he says, a lot of students don’t have “a friendly nature,” so there’s nothing hostels can do about them.
Naveen Mittal, the hostel association's president, agrees with Pankaj. He is quick to shift the blame to PGs though.
"Students do become friends in the mess or common areas of the hostels. Maybe that is the case [students feeling lonely] in PGs where students live with landlords and can’t make noise or live with a lot of rules."Naveen Mittal
He goes on to add, "And as far as competition is considered, it is necessary. When there is competition, only then will students work hard and succeed. They should look at it in a positive light."
Mohd Gufran, a physics teacher at Bansal Classes, denies there is any isolation problem. He says that students today don’t want to interact with each other because they are “always busy on their phones.”
While claiming that teachers don’t create any “competitive spirit” between students and rather encourage them to help each other, Gufran tells FIT:
“In their relaxation time or while eating meals too, (students) are watching reels or scrolling through social media. They don’t want to talk to other people. That’s why they aren’t able to make friends.”
Like Gufran, Motion Education's Vikram also goes on to say that teachers encourage kids to help others, but maintains that, “Students shouldn’t go out of their way to help or teach other kids when they’re supposed to study, because competition is all around them.”
Peer Support, If Provided, Could Works Wonders
This lack of support system for students in Kota is concerning, says Sanchita Jain, a mental health practitioner at AIIMS, Delhi. She says that the absence of emotional support can often be the trigger for young adults to edge out.
Dr Kedar Tilwe, Consultant Psychiatrist at Vashi's Fortis Mulund and Hiranandani Hospital, agrees. His advice is to form peer support groups and to convey your emotional needs to your family and friends.
What are hostels and coaching institutes doing to help students in Kota when an epidemic of mental health issues is evident? Naveen tells FIT that hostels all across Kota are:
counselling their staff members
marking attendance of all students at lunch and dinner to know where the students are
sending staff members on nightly rounds to talk to the students individually
identifying if any student is distressed
installing springs in the fans of the students' rooms
For 26-year-old Shantanu Sharma, who was a student at Vibrant Academy in 2015-16, things would have turned out vastly different for him had peer support been available.
“Everyone was going through the same thing so it never occurred to us that we should be asking for help. The kind of loneliness you feel at such a young age never leaves you behind. I’ve left Kota but Kota and the trauma still hasn’t left me.”