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Test unto Death

Test unto Death

“Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it's not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won't. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.” That was Barack Obama in one of his electrifying speeches at Campus Progress Annual Conference way back in 2006 awakening the American youth. The shortage of such  ‘real test-talk’ in India  perhaps is one of the factors that contribute to the growing number of students embracing death as they fail in a test be it in schools or institutions of higher education. In most cases it’s not that they kill themselves but run into death unaware of the fact that, “success is not final,   failure  is not fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts.”

The journey of education in India hasn’t been smooth and s tudents find it hard to cope with failure in exams. They get little help from families or civil society at large. Given the cut-throat competition in a marks-based education system and in job-markets, failure in exams, inability to meet parental expectations, humiliations, disappointment, stress, and lack of moral support et al have driven many a youth to suicide – an instant escape from the harsh realities of life. As per the latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau every hour, one student commits suicide in India.

The recent suicide of a 17 -year-old medical aspirant, S Anitha in Tamil Nadu, is a reminder that entrance exams do not offer a level playing field in a nation with multiple syllabi, marking conventions, medium of instruction and a divergent test syllabus from those of the state boards. Despite scoring an impressive 1,176 out of 1,200 marks in class XII board examinations, Anitha couldn’t make through the NEET (National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test) which was made compulsory for medical admissions this year. Although the NEET was instituted with the best of intentions to curb corruption and ensure that candidates are competent enough to learn the demanding curricula in medicine, the test allegedly failed to be fair criteria for admissions.

Anitha approached the Supreme Court last month seeking stay for NEET based admissions in the state run medical colleges asserting that it would shatter the aspirations of many rural students, opposing a plea seeking admissions to undergraduate medical courses only on the basis of the NEET score. Her low economic status of being the daughter of a daily wage earner didn’t deter her from dreaming to become a doctor. Based on her class XII marks, Anitha scored 199.75 points out of 200 for engineering and 196.75 for medicine according to the state education department’s evaluation – scores which would have ensured her a seat in either stream sans the NEET. But unfortunately, as per her family, she scored only 86 out of 700 in NEET and in a recent interview to a Tamil TV channel, Anitha had described the utter helplessness she had felt while appearing for NEET with a national syllabus totally unfamiliar to her.

Anitha’s suicide has rekindled the debate on a range of issues, from the fairness of entrance exams to the stress our students undergo. Kota in Rajasthan, known as the capital of India’s shadow education system dotted with numerous commercial coaching centres that guarantee success in professional entrance exams, has been the epicentre of student-suicides in India. Around 1.50 lakh students annually arrive in Kota to prepare for medical and engineering entrance examinations. Last year 17 students had committed suicide in Kota.

It is urgent that policymakers and celebrity campaigners in India pay attention to the spiralling frequency of students’ suicides across the country. Not all schools in India have students-counsellors; Universities still lack counselling centres where trained counsellors and psychologists can assist students at the onset of emotional and mental problems. Since parents play a major role in the formative phase of their children, better parenting is needed during emotional crises. Parents ought not to burden their young children with excessive expectations. Suicides are preventable . Parents who set unrealistic expectations from their children play a significant role in the escalation of suicide in India. Therefore arresting this fatal trend calls for proper counselling for parents in schools, universities and coaching centres. It’s important to raise awareness about mental health in schools and colleges and include mental wellness in school curriculum.

It was heartening to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his March 27 Mann Ki Baat urging Indians to talk about depression and seek help if needed. However, time is overdue in India to take the topic of depression beyond discourse and place it under the armpit of public healthcare. India spends but a pittance on mental health. Currently, India spends 0.06% of its health budget on mental health, less than even Bangladesh (0.44%). Most developed nations spend above 4% of their budgets on mental-health research, infrastructure, frameworks and talent pool. As per a recent response from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in the Lok Sabha, India currently faces an 87% shortage of mental-health professionals. There are 3,800 psychiatrists, 898 clinical psychologists, 850 psychiatric social workers and 1,500 psychiatric nurses nationwide.  Accordingly India has only three psychiatrists per million people which as per the data from WHO, 95% fewer than the Commonwealth norm of 5.6 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. By this estimate, India is short of 66,200 psychiatrists. The government ought to take immediate steps to reform the inadequately staffed mental healthcare system in India.

(Published on 11th September 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 37)