On 2 March, a day after 21-year-old Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar was killed in Russian shelling in Ukraine, Haveri district of Karnataka kept a vigil of sorts, awaiting news from over 20 students who are still trapped in the war-struck country.
But when Suman Krishnamurthy, who has been residing in Ukraine’s Kharkiv for the past six years called home, his father Sridhar Krishnamurthy’s heart sank. “My son told me that he has left the bunker in Kharkiv, to reach a railway station. But he was turned away,” Krishnamurthy told The Quint.
Naveen Shekharappa hailed from Haveri.
Now, it is believed that Suman does not have the shelter of the bunker at Ukraine National Medical University, Kharkiv, where he is a final year student. His family has lost contact with the 23-year-old since 6 pm on 2 March.
Most Kannadiga medical students who are yet to be evacuated from Ukraine hail from Haveri and its neighbouring districts, Bagalkote and Gadag. According to parents who are awaiting the return of their wards, over 100 students from these districts are currently stuck in Ukraine. Even as Naveen Shekharappa’s mortal remains are yet to reach India, parents of other students who haven’t been evacuated from Ukraine explained why their wards had opted for education in the foreign country.
‘They Are Not Bad Students, They are Farmers' Children’
Sridhar Krishnamurthy vouched, “Suman had secured 90 percent in Pre-University (PU) examination. He was never a poor student. He opted for education in Ukraine after we attended a 20-day-long education meet in Bengaluru organised by Ukrainian government.”
Haveri parents whom The Quint contacted shared their children’s good academic scores, in an attempt to explain that they are not bad performers. They said they were saddened by a section of media and politicians making negative remarks about their wards’ academic track record.
Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs had reportedly said that, "90 percent of students who study medicine abroad fail to clear qualifying examination in India."
Students from Haveri, who are now based in Ukraine, mostly hail from families of landed farmers. A parent, Manjunath Ajjareddy said, “Corruption has ruined the education system in India. Even if you secure more than 90 percent marks, you need to shell out money in crores to obtain a medical seat.” His son, Praveen Ajjareddy, is stranded in Ukraine.
Manjunath Ajjareddy is a farmer in Haveri, living with his wife and elder son. “I am 50 years old. And I had the financial strength to educate only my younger son. Where will I go for that kind of money (which Indian medical colleges demand)?” questioned Ajjareddy.
Haveri is largely agrarian, with most farming families earning just about Rs 2 lakh a year, if rains favour the crop. In fact, Ukraine has been one of the most sought-after destinations for medical aspirants in Haveri, simply because the entire course costs around Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh.
“So, one ends up paying a tenth the value (of medical education in India). No wonder, around eight students from Ranibennur Taluk of Haveri decided to head to Ukraine,” said Ajjareddy.
Manju Majgi, relative of Naveen Shekharappa, spoke in lucid terms, “To grab a medical seat, one has to fight like one were fighting snakes.” Incidentally, the word Haveri is derived from the two Kannada words – haavu and keri. This translates to 'a place of snakes.'
Shekharappa’s demise, meanwhile, has raised some pertinent questions about accessibility of medical education in the country, with Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Kumaraswamy deriding the country’s medical entrance test – NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test). Indian National Congress’ Siddarmaiah too picked up a Twitter spat with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National General Secretary CT Ravi over the scant number of medical seats in Karnataka.
The Loan Trap
Haveri has a population of 15.97 lakh and an average literacy rate of 77.4 percent. Though a medical college opened in the district in 2020, most aspiring medical students prefer flying to Ukraine to realise their dream of becoming doctors. Why?
“Naveen secured 97 percent, but was unable to bag a medical seat in a government college. There is a problem with the education system here,” said Majgi. The 21-year-old dreamt of studying MBBS right from the age of seven. However, the college topper’s ambition hit a sour note due to financial constraints, until he found a medical seat in Ukraine.
The slain youngster's father, Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, blamed both caste-based reservation and hefty capitation fee exacted by private medical colleges on the day his son died.
Around 25 students from Haveri had left for Ukraine in the last few months alone. The man who instilled medical education dreams among Haveri's youngsters was Suman Krishnamurthy, who left for Ukraine six years ago, his father Sridhar Krishnamurthy who runs a stationary store, said.
“I hardly manage to earn Rs 1,500 a day. How could I fund his education?” claimed Krishnamurthy. The family took an education loan of Rs 20 lakh. Come May this year, Suman would have completed his MBBS course and held the stethoscope with pride.
The family said Suman Krishnamurthy was with Naveen Shekharappa, just moments before the fatal blast that took the latter’s life. Now Shekharappa’s family will have to repay the education loan that the deceased son had taken.
“How will the family manage to pay the education loan that was borrowed for Naveen’s studies? The interest rate may be low, but it can be a huge financial burden on the family,” said Venkatesh, Suman Krishnamurthy’s relative.
Union Minister from Karnataka, Prahlad Joshi, visited Naveen Shekharappa’s family and promised to ensure that the mortal remains reach Haveri by 6 March.
Meanwhile, some of the girl students stranded in Ukraine have managed to hop on a train.
Among them, 22-year-old Prathiba who hails from Karnataka’s Tumakuru is yet to be evacuated. “She just called to update me saying that she has boarded the train. She left for Ukraine four years ago to realise her childhood dream of becoming a doctor,” said Krishna, who was her physical education teacher in college.
Now Prathiba, who wanted to save lives, is left to save herself, Krishna rued. “While doctors are meant to serve the people, several families in Haveri are distressed by the fact that politicians are serving the system,” whimpered Sridhar Krishnamurthy, Suman Krishnamurthy’s father.