Tamil Nadu is in the throes of a harrowing week following the all-India NEET exam, a week during which three promising young students from the state chose to end their lives one after the other. The students were plagued by the fear that they would not be able to ace the medical entrance exams, which has garnered nationwide notoriety, due to Tamil Nadu’s relentless efforts to scrap the centralised test.
This week, the State passed a Bill exempting TN’s students from appearing in NEET to gain entry into medical colleges. While that Bill still needs to get a presidential nod of assent, one must understand what prompts students in TN to resort to such extreme measures in the event of an academic failure.
According to stakeholders in academia, the cut-throat competition to bag medical or engineering seats in some of the most prestigious colleges in TN has in many ways precipitated a do-or-die sentiment among several students. For candidates hailing from lower-income families, the prospect of acing such exams seems even more important, as it might entail a better standard of life for the family. Also, many parents go through financial hardships to fund coaching classes for their kids to prepare for such exams. And students wracked with the guilt of under-performing, opt to end their lives rather than face the reality of failure.
The statistics pertaining to suicides in India, and more particularly Tamil Nadu paint a distressing picture. As per data released by the National Crime Records Bureau in January 2020, as many as 28 students on an average committed suicide every 24 hours during 2018 in India, which adds up to a mind-numbing 10,000 cases a year. This is the highest number recorded in a decade in which India lost nearly 82,000 students. A quarter of the student suicides in the said year were attributed to failure in exams. Tamil Nadu, with 953 such cases, trails behind Maharashtra which lost 1,448 students.
Following the deaths of the students in TN, the government launched an information helpline to cater to candidates who appeared for the NEET this year, and their parents. State Health Minister Ma Subramanian said that while the students can speak to the counsellors and unload their anxieties pertaining to the exams, parents can seek guidance on how to instill confidence in their children.
However, as seen in the aftermath of any such tragedy, the administration is caught up in offering reactionary remedies to issues that could have been nipped in the bud. Couldn’t we as a society have collectively pre-empted such measures of counselling before the exams kicked off? Young students who had been confined to homes for more than a year are being thrown into the deep end of the ocean, when such entrance exams are thrust upon them at a time when most of the learning was being done virtually.
Anticipating that the Centre would stay firm in conducting the NEET, it would have been prudent for the administration to set aside its differences of opinion and focus on building an infrastructure of counsellors and psychologists, who could have helped alleviate the stress undergone by the students to some extent. It is time to ensure that every educational institute in TN has access to a qualified, full-time mental health professional or a trained counsellor on call who can serve students in a time of need. More than lip service, the government must mobilise its resources and direct its efforts towards addressing these concerns, and ensure that such tragedies are not repeated.