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Thursday, June 16, 2011

113 - 14th May 2011 - IIT’s stressed-out geeks opt for suicide solution - Tehelka

Management and counseling cells come under fire for failing to tackle spike in deaths
Sai Manish , Chennai

By the time Nitin Reddy’s door on the third floor of the Jamuna Hostel in IIT Madras was broken open by his friend after a frantic call from his father, it was too late. The 24-year-old’s limp body was hanging from the fan.

Barely hours before he cut his life short on 4 May, Nitin had made his intentions clear to his father and friends. “I tried hard but I lost,” wrote Nitin, lovingly called ‘Swamy’ by his friends, on his Facebook wall. He emailed his father A Lakashmana Murthy who works in DRDO and told him he was going to kill himself and what should be done with his possessions after he was gone. By the time Murthy, who works in New Delhi, alerted the local guardians in Chennai, it was all over.

On 2 May, Nitin, a final-year MTech (mechanical engineering) student was ordered to do another semester, which meant he could not pass out with his batchmates and faced the prospect of losing the lucrative job that he had landed at a Bengaluru-based software company.

Like the many bright sparks who fly out of IIT every year, Nitin was an adventure-loving geek. He had hugged a tree, loved someone he shouldn’t have, attended martial arts classes, feigned sickness, slept through an entire flight, performed on stage, ridden a horse, broken a bone, enjoyed his daily dose of World of Warcraft, cheered for Lionel Messi, disapproved of IIT’s skewed sex ratio, gatecrashed a party and anonymously donated to charity

“Nitin was the core (coordinator) under whom I worked at the Centre of Innovation. He was always in the thick of action and was a person who would be up for a discussion any time during the budget meetings,” says hostel mate Sai Prasad. “Two nights before his suicide, he casually mentioned that he feared getting an extension and he could lose his job. But he did not look tense. It was just one of those pre-dinner talks about our personal lives that invariably get mingled with academics. But I didn’t really imagine that he would go this far.”

“He was just asked to serve one more semester,” says IIT director MS Ananth. “As a teacher, I have been shaken by his actions. Professors will always make performance demands and that is how students excel. We can’t run an institution where students have become so sensitive to pressure. We have to look at an individual’s personal history also to examine what made him end his life.”

The management’s attitude has not gone down too well with Nitin’s distraught father who has lodged a police complaint, moved the National Human Rights Commission and is demanding a broader inquiry.

“The management is trying to discredit my son. If he was depressed then we should have been informed by his professors or by the counseling cell,” says Murthy. “I want a probe into this. If it is my son’s fault, then I am ready to take the blame. But if it is the IIT’s fault then the professor who denied my son the opportunity to pass out with his batchmates in May should be suspended.”

It is surprising that despite having personal guides and a Guidance and Counseling Unit (GCU), the management is playing a blame game by invoking Nitin’s history of depression. It is also surprising that Nitin’s guide PV Mannivannan and the management waited until just a week before the last day of the term to tell Nitin that he would have to attend classes for one more semester.

Nitin had landed a plum job at a campus interview. Despite his low CGPA, he was looking to capitalise on the great opportunity and that’s when his professor burst his bubble. His employers were not willing to wait. And also at stake were the innumerable questions that prospective employers might ask about his extension. Moreover he was the only one in his department to have been asked to serve and that amplified his embarrassment. All this created immense psychological stress, which eventually made him take the extreme step.

The death is part of a shocking trend of a spike in suicides among final-year students across IITs. Nitin’s suicide is the third such death in IIT Madras in as many years. Other IITs are even more notorious for their unusually high rates of academically linked suicides.

IIT Kharagpur — called the “suicide hotspot” by students — saw as many three suicides between 23 April and 15 July 2009, and has since averaged one suicide a year. IIT Bombay has been rocked by almost one suicide every year with two suicides in 2007. IIT Roorkee witnessed its first suicide this year when a BTech student jumped to death from the eighth floor of his hostel.

The most notorious of the lot has been IIT Kanpur, which has seen eight suicides in the past five years. In face of these figures, the IIT managements have acted in a manner that even students term “stupid and bizarre”.

If IIT Madras has blamed Nitin for being “depressed”, a four-member committee appointed by IIT Kanpur after the death of final-year student Madhuri Sale last year made even more ridiculous suggestions to prevent suicides. After Madhuri hung herself in her hostel room, the committee comprising professors recommended removing all ceiling fans from hostel rooms and replacing them with pedestal fans. Among the other measures included reducing Internet speeds to curb “web addiction”, which was being touted as one of the main reasons for suicides. There was also a plan to limit the use of cell phones so that parents could not easily talk to their children and pressurise them and also abolish the concept of single rooms and make room sharing mandatory. The plan became the butt of all jokes among the students and invited ridicule from across the board.

Many complain that the GCUs serve no useful purpose. This flaw was bared prominently when IIT Bombay student Srikanth Malepulla, 21, hanged himself in his hostel room. Despite having a GCU that includes professors and professionals, he was not identified by the mentor system as “troubled and prone to suicide”.

“We keep an eye on students in the first year and monitor every move. When they enter the second year, most have formed their friend circle and we stop monitoring their personal lives actively. The GCU cannot be a peeping tom after that and plays a more passive role,” says Ananth.

However, psychologists believe that students and parents should be willing to shoulder the blame as well. “Parents are responsible for this too,” says psychologist Divyan Varghese. “They lower the stress threshold limit of their child due to high expectations. And many kill themselves because of the fear that their parents would not accept failure. The stress on an IITian is more than the stress outside in the real world.”

Tanuj Bansal, who passed out of IIT Delhi in 2007, has an interesting take on why an IITian is under immense duress. “The first two years are the most academically challenging in IIT. But many who come think, just by entering IIT, the battle has been won,” says Bansal. “Ironically, the first two years are the best time to have a good CGPA. Even though the third and fourth years are more relaxed, it is extremely hard to improve in the last two years if one has had low grades in the first two.

“I was in the placement cell and I saw the madness among the final-year students. Out of 1,200, we managed to place 900. But the remaining had to struggle because companies wouldn’t hire them due to low CGPAs. In Nitin’s case, he had low grades but got a good job offer. And then he was given an extension that jeopardised his employment. So it was a combination of stress and embarrassment that made him take the extreme step.”

Bansal’s point becomes even more relevant when seen in the light of Nitin’s outbursts on social networks. For instance, when he received an internship offer from a firm in Texas last year, Nitin wrote on Google Buzz, “Am going to the US for summer internship. All you 9 pointers - IN YOUR FACE”. That gives a rare insight into how Nitin felt about overachievers in a fiercely competitive environment.

“Every kid who comes here has stood first in his school. And in IIT, in a class of 50, somebody out of the No. 1s has to be No. 50. The competition is huge,” says Ananth.

Despite the blame games that ensue after every suicide, there has been no concerted effort at a scientific study of the suicide phenomena that has reached epidemic proportions across IITs. The management has been reluctant to discuss the issue with the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The ministry seems to be oblivious that every few months, stressed out IITians like Nitin are succumbing to a competitive culture that doesn’t afford them the opportunity to breathe easy.

It needs to wake up and conduct a study that transforms the culture of institutes that are producing brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs, but also mental wrecks.

Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.