Super 30, the Hrithik Roshan-starrer movie based on the life of Anand Kumar, who runs an IIT entrance coaching centre in Patna, is a hit. I haven’t watched this hagiography, but the release of the film is an occasion to talk about a deep malaise that has been affecting millions of families over the past two decades and more. This is the widespread insane belief among the Indian middle class that getting into an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is a ticket to paradise on earth.
When we entered IIT in the 1980s, we studied for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for a year at most, and some super-bright kids, not at all. Many rejected an IIT seat to study pure science because that was their first love, or went to a lesser-known engineering college if they did not get a stream of their choice in an IIT.
Not so today. Nowadays, parental pressure to get into IIT starts building on the child when he (I’ll refer to the IITian as a “he", since the boy-girl ratio in the IITs is 10:1; in our time, it was 25:1) is in Class VII, maybe even earlier. These parents don’t give a damn about what the child’s real talents or interests are. This madness is typified by a query posted by an Indian parent on Quora, the public question-answer portal, in 2017: “Which coaching institute is best for my kid in 5th standard for IIT JEE preparation?"
The parent was trolled. Many rational voices suggested that he should allow his child to follow his dreams and not pressure him. The parent replied: “He is a kid and doesn’t know what is good or bad. So parents decide what is better. IIT tag is very prestigious and it will bring pride to our family." A few days ago, I mentioned this to an IIT professor. He said this sort of utterly selfish IIT-obsessed parenthood with venal disregard for the child’s well-being is common.
Before I get into the tragic details, though, I should clarify that IITs continue to produce thousands of fine young graduates. Some millennial IITians are the brightest tech minds I have ever met (and many of my friends agree). As students, they had kept track of cutting-edge research around the world, been in touch with leading scientists, and taken full advantage of the matchless facilities that the IITs offer. These men and women are some of the finest ever products of the IIT system. Yet, there is something deeply wrong out there that should worry us as a society.
The money game
The man on Quora is going to rob his son of his childhood joy, his adolescent tomfoolery, and cause him psychological damage that will possibly last a lifetime, even if he gets into an IIT. Imagine the sense of failure the son will carry all his life if he doesn’t get in. All this, because his parents read media reports every year that half a dozen IITians have been hired by Amazon/Facebook/whatever at $200,000 a year, with US postings. They instantly multiply the figure by the $- ₹ exchange rate, and go goggle-eyed, without considering purchasing power parity, or that the $200,000 includes elements that may be performance-based or could be paid out over several years. Then, there is Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google. Every such parent sees a Sundar in their little Sonu.
What the media does not report is that the median salary of a fresh IIT graduate is around ₹8-10 lakh a year, and that even in the top IITs, at least 15-20% students do not get jobs on campus. The IIT Bombay website tells us that for the academic year 2017-18, 85.21% of B.Tech students who participated in the campus placement process got jobs. The figure for IIT Madras was only 73.96%. I’ll come to the reasons for these shocking numbers later.
If he is lucky, “Sonu" goes to a JEE coaching class for only two years. The moment he joins, he is told that if he does not make it to the top 500 in the all-India rankings, he is a loser (the IIT intake is about 12,000, out of the more than one million children who sit for the JEE every year). So, right from the beginning, whether it’s from the parents or the coaching class, the child knows that there’s a 99.99% chance that he’s going to be a failure. The coaching class applies this horrendous pressure because the more high-rankers it produces, the better it is for its business.
The classes teach Sonu how to crack the multiple-choice-format JEE. “More than teaching you to work out the right answer, they teach you to reduce your chances of pressing the button on a wrong answer, since it’s nearly impossible to answer all the questions in the allotted time, and incorrect answers carry negative marks. They do not impart knowledge; they train you to crack one specific exam. So, effectively, the child learns little," says an IIT professor.
During an induction programme for freshmen in his IIT, when the professor asked a group of 90 students how many were happy with the streams and IITs they had got, only a few raised their hands. “They had entered IIT, and they already felt they were losers!" he says. “So I told them that Sundar Pichai, too, did not get the stream or IIT he wanted." (Pichai studied metallurgical engineering in IIT Kharagpur.)
Absence of learning
Over the last two decades, I have visited several IITs, and met possibly a hundred students. It is astonishing how few of them are interested in learning engineering, and how many of them are unhappy on campus. Now, it is an undeniable truth that since the first IITs were set up in the 1950s, middle-class children have been going to these institutes, not necessarily because they were passionate about engineering, but because the IITs seemed to be a passport to a better life than their parents.
But till about 25 years ago (which roughly coincides with the explosion of the Indian information technology industry), getting into IIT was not a life-or-death question, and those who got in, studied (or did not), thoroughly enjoyed their campus life, and stepped out as normal adults. Speak to any IITian who graduated in the last century, and he or she will definitely say that those were some of the best years of their lives. This is not true anymore.
Once in IIT, not only is Sonu under greater pressure to fulfil his parents’ Sundar Pichai dreams, the competition is also far more intense. “There are the guys who have it all mapped out from Day 1. They have this formula: to crack Amazon or Google, you need to have a CGPA (cumulative grade point average) above 7.5, be on some students’ committee, and do some volunteering. These are the ‘insiders’. But obviously they are taking on enormous pressure, because you have to study really hard, plus there are only so many student committee posts available," says a successful entrepreneur (class of 2011).
The entrepreneur goes on to add: “Then there are the ‘outsiders’, who want to be ‘insiders’, so they are stressed out too. And some people want to do other things in life, and just don’t fit in. They are seen by the rest as losers. So they’re miserable also. If you’re found reading a novel, people think you’re a freak. But—and I’m not joking—in their final year, guys who want to get into Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), who haven’t read a book in their lives, mug up four (P.G.) Wodehouse novels, because they know that a standard question in IIM interviews is: ‘Who’s your favourite author?’"
Too much academic pressure
In strict empirical terms, the academic pressure on an IIT student has not increased over the years. But earlier, students did not suffer massive years-long parental pressure (which also implies a closeted upbringing) and carry an overwhelming terror of failure. So they bore the stress of IIT life far more easily than many of today’s students. “And once these guys stumble," says a professor, “many of them don’t have it in them to get up. They have been strictly guided and spoon-fed all the way. They go into a downward spiral".
“There were several suicides in my time," says an investment banker who graduated in 2013, “and dozens of suicide attempts. Our coping mechanism was to totally desensitize ourselves. One of our close friends tried to kill himself—hung himself from a fan—but neither did his neck break nor did he strangulate. We rescued him. Later, we were having chai, and we were discussing: ‘The bugger is in mechanical engineering, and he couldn’t figure out the tensile strength of the rope! Couldn’t even bloody hang himself properly!’ In hindsight, of course, it was horrible. But that was how we could deal with what was happening."
About a decade ago, one IIT student took the extreme step of removing ceiling fans from all hostel rooms. Thankfully, better sense soon prevailed, and the institutes have taken wiser measures to handle the students’ depression issues. Most IITs today have counselling centres where students can seek professional help. However, the counsellors, to be truly useful, need to be particularly perceptive. Quick fixes for pre-exam anxiety are hardly solutions.
Much more effective have been student initiatives, where a senior student becomes the “mentor" for a group of juniors in his hostel. The junior is able to speak far more freely to his senior, who understands the issues much better, and can provide practical advice. He is also available close by 24X7. A hostel-mate of mine suggests another potentially powerful idea: micro-courses in yoga, meditation, mindfulness, Reiki and so on. These cannot be credit-bearing courses, because then, the typical IITian hunger for high grades will kick in, ensuring zero positive outcomes. IITs could certainly try this out.
There is also a dire need to train students in communication and other soft skills. The absence of these skills is a key reason why many IITians leave the campus, unemployed. Companies complain that they cannot meet their recruitment targets because many candidates are woefully inarticulate or lack the basic qualities needed to work in a team. This is how the loss of a normal adolescence plays out. But in earlier times, IITians also developed these skills through constant peer interaction and sports or cultural activities. Nandan Nilekani once told me: “I learnt all my people and management skills in IIT Bombay." Today, with internet in every room, there’s much less peer contact.
The good news is that the IITs are aware of the problem, and are working at it. But the elephant in the room is the parents—people who want to achieve their own failed aspirations through their children, stunting their growth and damaging them perhaps irreparably to satisfy their own greed and twisted notions of “prestige". Here is a fact straight out of Ripley’s: IIT professors—even directors—start getting calls from parents within a week of their children enrolling, asking what compensation packages they can expect at the end of their course. “The ones who need counselling are not the students, but the parents," says a professor. “You can turn off the tap, but the leakage is in the pipe."
I began this piece with the parent’s question on Quora. This is perhaps the answer he deserves (here, I’m combining actual Quora replies from two IIT students): “Sir, you are already too late. You yourself should start taking JEE classes so that your sperm cells get IIT-ready. Then, when your wife is pregnant again, make her also solve JEE problems. So, like Abhimanyu learned about Chakravyuha, your child will get IIT prep as early as possible. And yes, Abhimanyu got trapped inside it."
Sandipan Deb is former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines. He graduated in Electronics Engineering from IIT Kharagpur’s class of 1986.