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India’s adolescent and youth population – people below the age of 25 – accounts for 53.7% of the population. Yet, most of these youths are not employable as they lack the requisite skills.
Another pressing concern for India’s youth population is a high number of suicides. According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), in 2020, a student took their own life every 42 minutes; that is, every day, more than 34 students died by suicide.
It is alarming that this is not being recognised as a grave crisis.
Rising number of student suicides
In India, the phenomenon of suicide is constantly individualised or personalised, allowing society to escape accountability. According to the NCRB’s Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) report, 2020, around 8.2% of students in the country die by suicide. The report also notes that 64,114 people under 30 years of age took their own lives in 2020.
Vijaykumar (2007) estimates one in 60 persons is affected by suicide in our country, including people who attempted suicide and those affected by the death of a close family member or friend by suicide. Therefore, suicide should be viewed as a multidimensional public and mental health issue, having complex interactions with the economic, social, cultural, psychological and biological realms of individual and collective existence.
Scholars have long linked farmers’ suicides to India’s agrarian crisis; it is time that civil society starts looking at students’ suicides as an indicator of a grave crisis of the country’s educational structure – including the institutional structure, curriculum, and the like.
Farmers comprise 7% of people who committed suicide in 2020 and farmers’ suicides are recognised as a problem. A host of causes are attributed to the problem, including agricultural distress, social and climatic conditions and government policy failure. But everyone turns a blind eye when it comes to students’ suicides.
A cursory glance at the graph below shows the alarming rate at which students are being pushed to take their own lives in the country.
In all probability, the actual number of suicides in the country is higher still, as there is widespread under-reporting of the phenomenon due to social stigma and the accompanying legal consequences.
The Lancet, reported that, on average, suicide rates reported by NCRB were 37% lower than the rates reported by the Global Burden of Disease. This means that for every 100 suicides in the country, only 63 are reported by the NCRB.
Societies use education as a tool to prepare the next generation to become citizens; States use it to perpetuate their ideology. Social reformers, such as Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Periyar and Narayan Guru used it to free the masses from oppression.
However, the process of education may also lead to unexpected social catastrophe, in the form of academic distress.
Education in India has been viewed as a gateway to employment and livelihood rather than to knowledge. Many students and their families dream of the coveted ‘sarkari naukri’ (government job) to escape the precarious social, caste and class predicaments they find themselves in.
Post the economic liberalisation of 1991, the rise of the private sector also paved way for the withdrawal of the state from various spheres of economic activity, which meant that the share of public sector jobs in India’s organised sector started to dwindle. Formal jobs in the private sector came to be equated with government jobs in terms of status.
The few publicly-funded educational institutions in the country, such as Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and medical colleges, see huge numbers of applications as students compete for a limited number of seats; those who can afford it either go to foreign countries to study or join private universities in India.
The failure of the Union government to improve the country’s educational infrastructure means that exam-oriented coaching had become the norm. Cashing in on the ‘hope for a better future,’ coaching centres emerged as one of the predominant industries in the education sector.
However, these centres are now being seen as prisons for the many youngsters who join them; where their bodies, souls and dreams are tamed.
What’s more, students from marginalised sections are pushed further to the margins through a number of factors, such as the lack of English-medium education; private institutions charging high fees; poor quality education in government-run schools and institutes; ever-growing economic inequality; graduates not having the adequate skills to secure jobs; and caste discrimination.
The rise of neoliberalism as an economic and social ideology has pushed the youth to blame themselves for their failure to secure their ‘dream job’ while the government continues to shirk its basic responsibility. The neo-liberal agenda keeps propagating the belief that it is not that hard to find success if one works hard enough, normalising the notion that the youth should blame themselves for their ‘failures’.
The need for the societal accountability
The myth of the Indian family being supportive also need to be called out. Family, being the primary social unit of the society, shapes the aspirations and dreams of the youth. The rising number of student suicides makes us question how supportive our family structures really are and whether or not they are one of the primary contributors to the rising number of student suicides.
Secondly, students are alienated from the educational process itself. A complete lack of practical or activity-based learning makes them unable to relate to education or apply it to their lived reality.
Contrary to what education should do, students are made to experience exploitation, gender differences, caste inequalities, unemployment, rising levels of poverty and inequality, all of which further marginalise already marginalised students.
Thirdly, instead of trying to address this crisis, market forces prey upon the dreams and aspirations of the people. Horlicks came up with an advertisement camouflaged as a social awareness campaign in its ‘Fearless Kota’ campaign, which showed mothers visiting their children (who were fighting depression and chasing socially-imbibed aspirations as their ‘dreams’) to provide ‘Emotional Nutrition‘.
In another related campaign, ‘Bottle of Love,’ Horlicks asked mothers to pack what their children love in old Horlicks bottles, to be delivered to the students at Kota. This shows how the marketing industry benefits from evoking the mother-child sentiment amidst the children in Kota dying by suicide.
Fourth, neo-liberal ‘development’ and the cost we pay has to be critically examined. Many reports suggest that India’s southern states fare better in terms of various social and economic parameters, however, while total population share of southern states is 22%, 42% of men and 40% of women committing suicide also come from southern states.
In Life, Interrupted (2022), the authors looked at data from the Million Death Survey (MDS) and confirmed the most counter-intuitive trend observed in the NCRB data for several years – that there is nearly a tenfold higher suicide rate in the southern states compared to northern states.
In our time with the University of Hyderabad (one of the premier institutes that receives students from across India) from 2008-2016, nine students died by suicide, all of whom were from South India. The connection between the rise in the GDP of a state and the aspirations of the youth there in catching up with the process of ‘development’, and the link between those and the rising suicides among students, deserves to be investigated academically.
Fifth, government policy impacts our lived reality. The proposed National Educational Policy (2020), fashioned mostly after the US education system, allows students to exit and enter education at multiple points. The rising cost of quality education and the concerns of poverty and unemployment might be a factor for students dropping out of education.
The NEP has a provision to give different degrees/diplomas to the students that choose to exit. The government will also claim that they have arrested the dropout rate of the students effectively, whereas in reality, the policy merely sanctifies the dropout. The NEP also stresses making students ‘skilled’ in the industry. Without addressing the issues of students or reforming the educational structure, this will only contribute to the academic distress the country is already grappling with.
Sixth, deeper introspection on structural aspects of the education system is the need of the hour. Instead, we take pride in coming up with Jugaad (makeshift solutions) to manage affairs peripherally, without dealing with the root of problem.
The same approach can be found while dealing with student suicides. Premier institutions and coaching centres came up with what they believe to be an ‘ingenious solution’ – installing table fans or ceiling fans that cannot hold more than 40 kg of weight – to deal with the issue of students hanging themselves in their hostels.
With this, educational institutions are essentially saying, not in so many words, that ‘We don’t mind you dying, but please don’t die at our institution’.
A way out?
At the University of Hyderabad, our friends from performing arts and activity-based disciplines were happy and enjoying their lives. We, in the social sciences, always question career prospects and how to connect our education with real-life. Though arts are not considered market-oriented subjects, students seemed to enjoy their disciplines. A possible reason for this could be that they are not alienated from their education process.
This remains a hypothesis, as we don’t have enough data to support our argument. Still, it would be a good socio-psychological study to see the correlation between subjects studied and the rate of suicides among the students. This hypothesis leads us to ponder a question many philosophers, across centuries, have tried to answer: ‘What is the purpose of life?’ While there is an infinite number of possible answers to this question, many agree on one: happiness.
How can one achieve happiness? Epicurus believed that by doing what we desire the most, we can truly be happy. Rabindranath Tagore, who was against conventional schools and the education system in his childhood, started Visva Bharati in Santiniketan, advocating teaching students in unconventional ways.
One of Visva Bharati’s most famous students, Mahasweta Devi, recollects how Santiniketan taught them that no activity is worthless, which is a testimony to Tagore’s experiment.
Even if we can’t make educational institutions like heaven for our children, at least we can try and not make them death centres. Acknowledging that students’ suicides is a crisis and taking measures to address the issue should be our collective responsibility. Failing to do so, we are building this nation on the dead bodies of students, with their memories pushed into the abyss, as Indian society and its education system failed them, and continues to do so.
Sipoy Sarveswar teaches Anthropology at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal. He tweets at @SSarveswar.
Johns Thomas is a PhD student with the Department of Sociology, South Asian University. He tweets at @johnsthomas49.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. Icall, a counselling service run by TISS, has maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You could also take them to the nearest hospital.