Kota, Rajasthan: One hundred and fifty students sit elbow to elbow, packed into the long, stuffy hall. They’re in a whirl, trying to keep up with the complicated maths problems in which they’re immersed—and with the wheelchair-bound man before them who just might be responsible for their destiny.
The teenagers, like countless others across the country, aspire to gain admission to one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. And that’s why they have ventured to this dusty town in Southwest Rajasthan to coach with Vinod Kumar Bansal, a controversial businessman who revolutionized IIT admissions and helped rebuild a fading industrial centre by practising a profession centuries old: teaching.
Bansal begins a problem on permutations and combinations by saying, “six newly married couples are enjoying…”
The class erupts in hoots of laughter. Bansal joins in, then finishes the sentence.
“…a birthday party.”
Swiftly moving back to business, Bansal jots down a formula on a transparency projected onto a screen. More than two decades ago, Bansal was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy; today, he cannot stand without support. He zips from classroom to classroom in a motorized wheelchair.
Bansal Classes is situated in a tall office building. To the sharply dressed students trickling in and out of it, it offers rigorous courses in maths, physics and chemistry in preparation for the Joint Entrance Examination, the standard test used to determine undergraduate admissions at the seven IITs in India. More than three lakh students take the test each year; around 5,500 are successful.
To enter Bansal’s classroom, Class 10 students must graduate with more than 75% marks in physics, chemistry and mathematics. They must also sit for an entrance exam devised by Bansal. He says he has never advertised his classes, but his reputation lures in students from all over India, from urban Delhi and Mumbai to the more mofussil Jhansi and Indore.
Of the 3,000 students who took Bansal’s classes last year, 955 gained admission in an IIT. In 2005, of Bansal’s 2,400 students, some 784 got into an IIT.
Bansal’s coaching classes have spawned an imitative movement in Kota, a small town with a population of 1.5 million people, about 250km from Jaipur. The industry now trains an estimated 50,000 youths each year in standardized medical and engineering exams.
As teenagers sans parents enter the boot camp that has become Kota, they attend boarding schools, rent rooms, order food from caterers and restaurants, hang out at juice bars, watch films and frequent playstation cafes. The newcomers and their youthful pastimes have transformed Kota, a once-vibrant textile hub.
Bansal, grandson of a sweet-seller in Jhansi, came to Kota to work as a mechanical engineer for JK Synthetics Ltd, a polyester plant that shut down in the late 1990s. “Development in Kota stopped after the closure of the JK Splant,” says Vinod Bhardwaj, a scrap dealer who recently re-built his two-floor house with shining marble floors. “But now, all of Kota gets good business because of Bansal.” Bhardwaj lets out four rooms on the ground floor of his house for Rs4,000 per person.
Landlords are just one side beneficiary. The most obvious economic impact has been the growth of the coaching industry itself; an estimated 130 coaching institutes now operate out of Kota. What started out as a destination to help students get into the IITs has evolved into a sophisticated test-prep mecca for medical, engineering and state-level entrance exams.
Bansal was the pioneer; even his competitors concede as much. “The initial hard work was his. But to reach this scale, other people joined him,” says R.K. Verma, director of the 7,500-student Resonance Institute, another coaching school. Verma, a Kota native, graduated from IIT, Chennai, in 1994 and taught with Bansal for a number of years before branching out on his own.
Bansal’s classes cost Rs40,000-50,000 per student, setting the benchmark rate across Kota, even across India. His highest paid teacher earns Rs30 lakh annually—and Bansal gifted him a car last Diwali. Bansal admits the business model has been highly profitable, but says that’s not what drew him to the classroom. “I have never chased money, money has chased me,” says Bansal, who attended Banaras Hindu University.
The coaching empire represents a quantum leap for a man who began teaching one student—free of charge—when diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in 1974. A local doctor warned Bansal that death was imminent, while another more optimistic physician in London advised him to take up teaching. And so, Bansal began tutoring mostly maths to local students.
In 1983, he met G.D. Agrawal, who ran a Mumbai-based IIT coaching institute. Agrawal told Bansal he could do the same.
Three years later, a Kota teenager, Sanjeev Arora, got into an IIT. Though he had never met Arora, Bansal says he realized his students could also end up in the elite institutes. He began taking on students who wanted to ace the IIT exam.
Bansal credits his students with helping him outsmart the doctors’ prognosis. “In a classroom, energy also flows from the taught to the teacher,” he says. “Sometimes, when I am stuck over a problem, a bright student can end up teaching me. I have always kept an open mind on that.”
Coaching institutes have drawn severe criticism from their very object of desire: the IITs. M.S. Ananth, director of IIT, Chennai, estimates that IIT aspirants spend more than Rs1,000 crore annually. “Coaching is a huge disservice,” says Ananth. “We are looking for raw intelligence, not for coached students.”
Citing pressure from both parents and society, the students retort they have little choice. The number of students taking the IIT exam has increased steadily every year.
“My father told me to,” says Rahul Sheth, 16, when asked why he enrolled in Bansal’s classes. Sheth comes from Mumbai and, because of his performance in the practice exams, his peers say his entry is a given. Others say they have journeyed to Kota because they don’t want to be left behind in the growing economy.
“I want to be a successful person,” says Jaishree Chauhan, 16, from Jodhpur, who wants to study aerospace. “Technocrats are going to rule the world and I want a luxurious life.”
At 57 years, Bansal has begun handing the business’ responsibility to his children. Two daughters head offshoots of the academy in Jaipur and Ajmer, and his son helps in Kota. But Bansal says it’s too soon to retire; he’s just constructed a new campus. “If I don’t teach, I will die,” he says, setting his wheelchair in motion for the next class.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org