Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide on January 17 hit the headlines of newspapers in almost every Indian language. Television channels descended on Hyderabad, providing live updates as the issue took centrestage on news debates in almost every regional language channel. Tamil channels were no exception to this.
Barely a week later, on January 23, three young girls – students at the SVS College of Naturopathy and Yoga in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu – jointly committed suicide by jumping into a well. On the same day, in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, a 22-year-old student hanged himself. A day later, another girl committed suicide by jumping off the terrace at Chennai’s Anna University. The next day, January 25, a 19-year-old girl hanged herself in her hostel room at the Stanley Medical College and Hospital in Chennai. The suicide toll that has made it to the news, in the wake of Rohith Vemula, has now touched six in a span of just three days, a statistic that has got experts worried.
“The media must be careful and follow guidelines while reporting suicides,” warned Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, mental health expert working with the World Health Organisation. “There is something called Werther’s Effect – this can be seen in the aftermath of a much publicised suicide like that of Rohith Vemula, when the media sensationalises it. This leads to a spate of copycat suicides in people in the same community or in the same age group,” she said.
In the late 1700s, German writer Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book was published just after dueling as a means of settling disputes was banned by many countries in Europe. In the book, Werther falls in love, loses his woman and finally commits suicide by shooting himself. A spate of similar suicides by young men followed the release of the book, forcing many countries to ban it. Subsequent research has shown that the Werther Effect does in fact exist.
“I am not saying everyone in the same age group or community will decide upon suicide,” explained Vijaykumar. “But those youngsters who are vulnerable are more likely to consider suicide as an option if there is a high profile suicide in the news,” she said.
The suicide note of the three young students at the SVS College in Villupuram district hints at this too. “We are committing suicide so that action will be taken against this college,” says the joint suicide note left behind by the three girls Saranya, Priyanka and Monisha – an eerie throwback to the Rohith Vemula case where corrective steps were taken by Hyderabad University only after his death.
Apart from the copycat aspect, the Villupuram suicides have exposed the dark underbelly of the thriving private education sector in Tamil Nadu – marked by poor quality of teaching, inadequate infrastructure and a lack of support and sensitivity in colleges towards young women and men taking their first steps toward adulthood. By all accounts, SVS College suffered from all these problems and more. But the pathology runs deeper still.
A constricting regime of rote learning in schools and colleges, say experts, contributes to the main part of the problem, with ambitious parents chipping in with more pressure on students. “The child has no say in what course he or she wants to do,” said Vijaykumar. “The parents decide what they should study and which college they should go to. The system of a single-point exam too is wrong. I know of so many bright students who fell ill before the final exam and could not perform well. Students should be graded and assessed at multiple points and on multiple factors,” she added.
Ambitious parents too play their part in not being supportive of students, despite warning signs. “My daughter had complained about the college to me a number of times,” said MK Tamilarasan, father of Monisha, one of the three girls who committed suicide in Villupuram. “There were no teachers there, no facilities and the students were threatened constantly. I had told her that I will transfer her to another college,” he said. When quizzed about whether he had confronted the college management with his daughter’s complaints, Tamilarasan said he had not done so. “I did not want her studies to get affected,” he said.
Tamil Nadu is one of the most sought after hubs in terms of tertiary education. Students from across the country flock down south to this state, home to the maximum number of engineering colleges in the country – over 500 of them, mostly private. But a 2014 National Employability report by private firm, Aspiring Minds, shows Tamil Nadu’s graduates at the bottom 25th percentile, along with Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh’s graduates – a telling take on the quality of the education imparted in the vast number of colleges in the state.
“The death of these three girls is bone-chilling because it brings out these huge pressures on these women and on parents of women to go for courses which will push them towards ‘economic fulfillment’,” said Soundarya Rajesh, founder of Avatar Career Creators. “One of the mothers has said that she wanted her daughter to be a doctor and that is why she sent her daughter to the Naturopathy college. Are we even clear about our goals? 48% of women under the age of 30 drop out of the workplace citing a multitude of reasons – it could be the lack of a sensitive supportive boss, safety at workplace. If education is not providing resilience, addressing basic attitudinal issues, what is the purpose and use of education? What is the education system really doing? We have to ask ourselves that,” she said.
The mushrooming of private institutions has meant a greater demand for teachers and this has resulted in staff who are not as qualified to teach and who are not sensitive to students’ needs, say experts. “Most suicides amongst students take place as a result of some kind of public shaming by teachers and peers,” said Vijaykumar. “Many students who come from economically weaker sections of society struggle to cope in college. Teachers often poke fun at them in front of classmates, punish them and mock their failures and this can push a vulnerable student over the edge,” she said.
Kala Vijaykumar, President of SSN College in Chennai agrees and speaks of her own experience with first generation learners and students from rural areas with no English knowledge. “25-30% of students are first generation learners who lack certain skills but have talent,” she said. “They need additional support to help them with some things like speaking English for instance. The transition from a Tamil medium of instruction in government schools to English medium in college is quite tough. They need a lot of motivation and any additional support will help. We have a special scheme where we admit 25-30 of students from government Tamil-medium schools who are toppers and we coach them in soft skills for three weeks beforehand,” she added.
A 2013 report by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) predicts that one in every four graduates in the world by 2030 will be a product of the Indian education system. FICCI also speaks of a robust global workforce of 95 crores and a teeming student population of 7 crores.
In stark contrast, Tamil Nadu vies with Maharashtra for top spot in the number of suicides in the country, accounting for 12.2% of the total suicides in the nation. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana together too are not trailing too far behind Tamil Nadu. It is perhaps time for policy makers to take a serious re-look at the rotting education system in the southern states.
Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai based journalist. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan