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Caving in to academic expectations

Text by Nandita VIJ

Latest update : 2009-07-04

Booming India's students are reeling under gruelling competition, growing stress and parental pressure to excel academically. Some fail to cope and end up depressed, or even worse, commit suicide.

Mohit Verma’s parents’ dream was to see their 18-year-old son grow into a successful software engineer. Little did the New-Delhi based parents know that their constant coercing would push Verma over the edge. In June 2009, he caved in two days after receiving his pre-university Central Board of Secondary Education exam results. He hanged himself and left an apology note for his parents for failing to meet their expectations.


“Mohit’s examination score wasn’t high enough for a good engineering school,” Indu Mehta, the student’s senior school teacher, told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview. “He probably felt the bad result would embarrass his parents,” she says.


In the same month, another 16 students from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh committed suicide, allegedly due to bad results.


Today, the pressure is on: Indian students face a multitude of social dilemmas with academic and career achievement being one of the main ones. They find themselves in a situation similar to that of students in other Asian countries like South Korea or Japan, where academic success is everything and failure is not an option.


At least 16,000 students in India have committed suicide since 2006, states a May 2008 Indian Health Ministry report . The government has promised to revamp the education system to lift off some of the pressure but the system is not the only factor responsible for the students' deaths.


Killer competition


The competition is gruelling at every level. As students vie to outshine their friends, parents and teachers raise the bar by making comparisons.


For Bittu Sandhu, a social counsellor in the northern city of Chandigarh, parents and teachers are largely to blame for the students' plight.


“Teachers are responsible indirectly,” admits school teacher Mehta. “A school’s reputation depends on the pre-university examination results so teachers are forced to push the students to score well,” she says.


As for the parents, “the child is under immense pressure from a very early age,” says counsellor Sandhu . “Many parents want their child to be perfect. Their child has to look the best and score the highest…it’s all about family pride,” she adds. “The pressure is so intense that when a mother tries to get her child to finish a meal, she tells the kid that if he eats well, he’ll come first in class,” explains Sandhu.


Mohit's parents say they “only wanted their son to do well in life.”


“I never made it too far professionally but I wanted to see my son succeed and make a good career for himself,” says Mohit’s distraught father.


Bittu Sandhu feels many suicide and depression cases come from uneducated or poorly-educated families. “Well-educated couples focus on a child’s overall development but there are many who tend to ignore this aspect and want the kid to focus solely on studies,” she explains.


Just study, forget the rest


Kartik Sood’s mother was known for pushing her son to work hard to make it to a good medical school. “She would lock her 16-year-old son in a room for hours together and forced him to study,” recounts a neighbour, who asked not to be named by FRANCE 24. “Her only dream was to see her son become a doctor."


It was a close call for Sood's parents. “One day she complained and was petrified when she found a razor blade under his mattress - she presumed and feared tendency for suicide,” recalls the neighbour. However, the looming threat didn’t change Mrs. Sood's mind. She insisted that her son take his entrance examinations for medical school but he didn't get in.


No tragic ending but the ambitious mother, says the neighbour, “left her family financially drained out [due to expensive private tutors] and the child emotionally shattered.”


Fulfilling parents' ambitious dreams spells difficult compromises for many Indian students.


Anamika Singla, a 23-year-old business management school student in New Delhi, was passionate about tennis and wanted to pursue her career in the game. “For my parents, tennis was acceptable as an extra-curricular activity but not a full-time career,” she says. “I’m working towards a profession that I’m not really going to enjoy,” says the young student.

Date created : 2009-07-04